After a 1-3 start, the Carolina Panthers looked dead in the water, and coach Ron Rivera appeared to be a dead man walking.
Rivera, who barely escaped the hot seat after seasons of 6-10 and 7-9, was the early favorite to be the first NFL coach fired in 2013.
But that all changed Oct. 13 in a game at Minnesota.
That's when Rotten Ron turned into Riverboat Ron.
During the first series of that game, Rivera gambled twice on fourth and 1, and each time the Panthers converted, leading to a touchdown that ignited a 35-10 win over the Vikings.
From that point forward, the Panthers went on an eight-game winning streak and won 11 of their last 12. That earned Carolina, 12-4, the No. 2 seed and first-round bye in the NFC playoffs and a home game Sunday against San Francisco for a spot in the conference championship.
Rivera, in his third season in Carolina, had been roundly criticized for not gambling in what turned out to be a 24-23 loss Sept. 15 at Buffalo.
With a three-point lead and just under 2 minutes left, Rivera elected to go for a short field goal that gave the Panthers a six-point lead.
The Bills scored a game-winning touchdown with 2 seconds left, and Rivera decided on the bus ride to the airport that he needed to be more aggressive and show more faith in his offense in those situations.
Starting with the Minnesota game, Rivera went for it on fourth down 13 times, and the Panthers converted 10, or 76.9 percent, the best percentage in the league with 10 or more attempts.
Thus, a nickname was born. Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, have trademarked the moniker "Riverboat Ron," not as a means to capitalize financially on its popularity but as a way to help charities through the sale of T-shirts and other memorabilia.
They have worked with three charities -- the Ronald McDonald House, the Humane Society of Charlotte and the USO of North Carolina -- and hope they can make a difference by using the popular moniker, according to the Charlotte Observer.
"Everyone wanted Ron Rivera fired," CBS analyst Phil Simms said. "They asked, 'Can he get it done?' Look what he did."
Rivera wasn't a gambler before this season. Only one NFL coach -- Denver's John Fox -- had gambled less on fourth down than Rivera since 2011.
"The thing I really like is the guys have said to me they appreciate me showing faith in who we are as a football team," Rivera said.
But what to call their coach?
"I don't think any player would say, 'Hey, Coach Riverboat,"' quarterback Cam Newton said. "You would be getting a letter, a memo, from (general manager) Dave Gettleman with that."
Defensive end Greg Hardy chose a safer name.
"You call your boss a name," Hardy said . . . "I want to keep my job, so no. Ron. Riveting Ron."
It's a lot easier for Rivera to go for it on fourth down with a quarterback like Newton, a strapping 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds, who was 12 of 13 this year converting third- and fourth-and-1, including two for two on fourth downs. Fullback Mike Tolbert, a 5-9, 245-pounder, was six of nine on third-and-1 and three for three on fourth downs.
"When Cam Newton walks into a room, you're impressed at how big he is," said CBS analyst Dan Dierforf, who broadcast the Panthers' 30-20 win over the Jets on Dec. 15. "What a giant man to play the quarterback position with that kind of athletic ability.
"I was extremely impressed with Cam Newton. He has grown immensely. The guy who used to go sit on the end of the bench and put when things didn't go well is gone,. He has matured."
In his third year, Newton established career bests with 24 touchdown passes, a 61.7 completion percentage and an 88.8 passer rating. But he threw for fewer than 200 yards in seven of the Panthers' 12 wins and rushed for more yards (585 with six touchdowns) than any other quarterback in the league.
"They put so much emphasis on Cam Newton," Simms said. "His numbers will never be spectacular. There are no bells and whistles to that football team. It's old fashioned. He might be in the shotgun, he may run it a little, but by NFL standards, it's a simple offense.
"They don't try to trick people . . . it's Cam Newton making physical plays. Rip the ball in there ... 20 yards down the field . . . throw it between two guys, and it fits him well. He's played 16 games this year, and in every one he was solid, under control. He knows how to play football a different way."
Especially on fourth down.
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