Fowler: Bad coaching a big factor in Panthers’ loss to Bears

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comOctober 29, 2012 

— They couldn’t lose this one too – could they?

Ahead by 12 points entering the fourth quarter, the Carolina Panthers were smacking Chicago around so thoroughly that Bears fans had booed the team off the field at halftime.

But these are the Panthers coached by Ron Rivera, and so of course they could lose. And they did. Chicago edged the Panthers 23-22, scoring 16 fourth-quarter points at Soldier Field to ruin three quarters of very good work by Carolina.

Under Rivera, the Panthers are now 1-10 in games decided by seven points or fewer (including 0-5 this year). It’s a damning statistic, and it’s not a coincidence.

“I don’t know what to say,” Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said. “We just get our hearts ripped out every week.”

And there’s the problem. To continue Norman’s brutal analogy, by the NFL’s nature you are going to get your heart ripped out a couple of times a year. But you also should be ripping out the other teams’ hearts a couple of times.

The Panthers aren’t winning their fair share of these coin-flip games. And that failure has to start with the head coach, who knows he is coaching for his job and didn’t do himself any favors Sunday.

Rivera and his staff entered this game with an exceptionally good game plan. The Panthers came in 1-5. The Bears came in 5-1 and playing at home. And yet Carolina outplayed Chicago most of the afternoon, outgaining them in yardage 416-210.

But then Rivera and the Panthers undid themselves when things got hairy. With nothing much to lose, the Panthers played and coached like they were afraid to win.

I didn’t mind Carolina sacrificing field position by not kicking to Devin Hester. It was ugly. It didn’t always work. But after last year, the Panthers didn’t want Hester to beat them again. I understand that.

What I did mind, though, were two decisions that Rivera and his staff made – one at the end of the first half and one at the end of the game. They were both awful calls, and they contributed as mightily to this loss as did Steve Smith slipping on that Cam Newton pass that turned into a Bears touchdown.

Decision 1: With Carolina ahead 13-7 and 0:03 to go before halftime, the Panthers had the ball at the Chicago 33. Justin Medlock – who already had made two field goals and won the summer camp field-goal competition primarily because he has such a strong leg – had a chance at a 50- or 51-yard field goal. The wind was swirling, neither at Medlock’s back nor in his face.

Rivera skipped the field goal and decided to try a desperation heave into the end zone. Newton then threw the ball almost through the goalposts. No points for Carolina – in a game decided by one point.

What was the downside of going for the field goal? Practically zero. If Medlock misses, so what? The half’s over.

Only a block and a return for a touchdown could have hurt Carolina. Rivera’s reasoning on why not to go for the field goal, taken from the transcript of his postgame press conference: “Well, because of the cross wind and stuff like that, that ball comes out at that point. It’s getting pushed. That was one of the concerns. We thought our best bet was to throw it into the end zone and see what happens. In hindsight, you can say that maybe we should have gone ahead and tried it. … It’s easy to second-guess at this point.”

Decision 2: With the Panthers ahead 22-20 following Medlock’s fifth field goal and Chicago needing three to win, the Bears started at their own 22 with 2:20 on the clock.

Then Carolina went into a soft zone defense, keeping all the Bears’ receivers in front of them. The problem: There was way too much time left for this strategy.

The Bears basically ran the same play all the way down the field – a 10- to 12-yard slant pass to Jay Cutler’s left, usually to Brandon Marshall – and finished the game with a 41-yard field goal at the final gun.

Cutler’s completed passes went for 4, 8, 12, 7, 11 and 10 yards. The Panthers weren’t close to touching any of them because they had been instructed to make sure they didn’t get beat deep (the way Atlanta beat Pantherssafety Haruki Nakamura in a similar situation earlier this year).

Panthers players were careful not to criticize their coaches after the game. But several did point out the Bears kept running the almost identical play.

As safety Charles Godfrey said: “They threw the same pass play I think all the way down the field. … That was a great play for that coverage and they just ran that play all the way down the field. And the coverage we were in, we just stayed in that coverage.”

Rivera’s reasoning: “We were trying to keep the ball in front of us. It’s one of those things where if you jump it and they double-move you, now all of a sudden it’s a touchdown or the ball is in field goal range. We were trying to make them systematically beat us. They got in field-goal position, and you take your chances at that point.”

The part that sticks out to me in that Rivera quote? “We were trying to make them systematically beat us.”

Well, if that was the goal, the Panthers certainly succeeded.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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