CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ron Rivera isn't going to loosen the grip on his wallet at a casino table where you are not apt to find him often.
"If I lose $5," Rivera said, "I struggle."
But with his third season as the Panthers' head coach off to another poor start and his job on the line, Rivera wasn't going down without a fight. The Panthers were 1-3 when they made a Week 6 trip to Minnesota, headed the same direction they had in his first two seasons when they began 1-5 in 2011 and 1-6 in 2012.
The Panthers had blown an excruciating Week 2 game at Buffalo, falling 24-23, and dropping Rivera's record in games decided by seven points or less to 2-14. It was the 10th time the team had lost a game it led entering the fourth quarter under Rivera, including a 2012 game at Soldier Field against the Bears, who had let him go as defensive coordinator after the 2006 Super Bowl season. A poll in the Charlotte Observer showed more than 80 percent of fans were in favor of him being fired. Owner Jerry Richardson canned former general manager Marty Hurney six games into the previous season.
Rivera began the season on the coaching hot seat as new general manager Dave Gettleman, despite being handcuffed by offseason salary-cap constraints, said "now it's time to win" at the outset of training camp. How hot was Rivera's seat by the time the Panthers reached Minneapolis? NFL.com reported the team had begun initial background work on possible replacements.
Out came a different Rivera at the Metrodome. On the Panthers' first possession, Rivera chose to go for it twice on fourth-and-1. Dangerous gambles? No. The first try was at the Vikings' 32-yard line, and the second was for a touchdown from the 2, sparking a 35-10 blowout. It was a transformation. Only the Broncos' John Fox was more conservative on fourth down in the previous two seasons. The nickname "Riverboat Ron" was born.
The victory was the start of an eight-game winning streak that led to an NFC South Division title. In the process, Rivera has saved his job and become a good bet for coach of the year honors. His Panthers host the 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday at Bank of America Stadium as a three-point underdog even though they won a Nov. 10 meeting at San Francisco 10-9 when they held the 49ers to 151 total yards.
Rivera, a linebacker for the Bears from 1984-92, called out his players after the loss to the Bills, saying "it is time for playmakers to make plays." But he blamed himself for that loss as well. He elected to kick a field goal with 1 minute, 38 seconds remaining instead of going for it on fourth-and-1 at the Bills' 21 when a first down would have ended the game. The Bills scored the game-winning touchdown with six seconds remaining.
"Something had to change," Rivera said. "And the truth of the matter is I did. I had to change my outlook, change my attitude."
Rivera spent a day with John Madden last spring, and the Hall of Fame coach told him "do it your way." The message was similar to one he had received from Richardson, whom he meets with once weekly during the season.
"Mr. Richardson said, 'You do everything by the book, but Ron, is there really a book?' " he said. "What I was doing was playing conservative. I have evolved and grown. Mr. Richardson played in the league so he understands. There is no b.s.-ing Mr. Richardson. He knows the game. When I talk with him, it's very frank."
Riverboat Ron is 10-for-13 on fourth down and 8-for-9 on fourth-and-1 with four touchdowns on those plays. There are T-shirts, coffee mugs and more with his nickname on it. His attorney submitted paperwork to trademark the moniker in December. Rivera's wife, Stephanie, is working on ways to raise money for the philanthropies they support -- USO of North Carolina, Humane Society of Charlotte and the Ronald McDonald House in Charlotte.
"I like to think about it as a calculated decision," Rivera said. "People say I am going willy-nilly and just gambling. I'm really thinking about circumstances in the game."
The risk is minimized by the No. 2 defense in the league. If the Panthers give up the ball on downs, chances are the defense will get it back soon. That has instilled confidence in the offense, too, and quarterback Cam Newton has excelled at minimizing turnovers in his third season.
"There has been a lot made of him taking his chances and putting his faith in us to convert those fourth downs, and obviously it has done us a lot of good," tight end Greg Olsen said. "But for the most part since he has gotten here, his message from the first time he addressed us in 2011 and his vision really haven't changed. Through the tough times of 2011 and last year before we finished the season well, he was the same guy.
"There was no panic or differing from where he thought we were headed, and I think that is a big reason we are where we are. Nothing has changed, and in this league, (where) things can go up and down, that stabilizing force is very powerful and very positive. It's the nature of the culture we're in, and his approach is great for us."
In the Panthers' way are the battle-tested 49ers, but they don't seem fazed they're a home underdog to the defending NFC champions.
"We're feeding off Coach, and he believes we can do anything," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "The ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl."
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