The Riverboat was still gambling
Posted December 23, 2013
You get the feeling something big is brewing at Bank of America Stadium? I mean something a little bigger than capturing a division that seemed destined for the New Orleans Saints? You get the feeling that Ron Rivera just might be the guy you want to sit next to you at the blackjack table at Harrah's? Remember William H. Macy's character in "The Cooler?" He's a jinx, a loser whose bad vibe is so powerful, that an old school Vegas casino hires him to sit near all the high rollers on a hot streak to "cool" them off. Well, Riverboat Ron (wait, can I even use that moniker without a donation to the Rivera Family Holiday Fund?) has become the opposite.
He's got the Midas touch all of a sudden.
I saw you all on Twitter, blasting Rivera for sending on the punt team as the sand drizzled out of the hourglass on the Panthers' chances for an NFC South title. I read your #CamSighs and #WhatHappenedtotheRiverboats as Brad Nortman was punting the ball out of bounds at the Saints 26-yard line. If a chime was triggered for every post, my phone would have launched into "Carol of the Bells" for the upcoming holiday.
Shame on you, all of you, who thought the Riverboat was no longer docked on Mint Street. Rivera was gambling all the time. His gamble, which paid off handsomely when Cam Newton emerged from a phone booth wearing a red cape and "S" on his uniform, was that the Saints would be more concerned with the clock than gaining the 10 necessary yards to ice the game -- and thus, the division crown. In today's videogame-influenced sports world, everyone seems to think that if you don't go for it on fourth down all the time you probably listen to 8-tracks.
Ron rolled the dice, hoping that the same team that tried an on-side kick in the first half would suddenly turn conservative. As it turned out, it might have been a good thing that Carolina was down to just two timeouts, because that was just enough of an incentive for the Saints to keep the ball on the ground and drain as much of the clock as they could. And, when three running plays netted almost nothing, New Orleans punted the ball back to Carolina with 55 seconds left.
On one hand, Carolina only needed a field goal, and when Thomas Morstead could only muster a 37-yard punt, Ted Ginn's fair catch set the Panthers up at the 35, needing only about 30 yards to give Graham Gano a reasonable chance at a game-tying kick. On the other hand, and maybe this speaks to why New Orleans crawled inside a shell, Cam Newton played more like Juice Newton in the warm, stormy conditions in Charlotte. Before that final drive, Cam was a pedestrian 10 of 18 passing for 116 yards and an interception. Those statistics are very Geno Smith-esque. And, beyond that data, Newton was wildly inaccurate and mostly immobile as he was clearly dealing with an ankle injury that he suffered in the win a week ago over the Jets.
So, I'm totally understanding of why the Saints opted to bleed 62 seconds and then give the ball back to Cam for one final try. What would happen was hardly foreseeable.
What confuses me, though, and what makes me wonder about all of this Riverboat-ness, is that if Rivera truly was thinking about punting the ball back to Drew Brees, why didn't they instruct Newton to throw the ball downfield on 3rd and 9? I mean, that 2-yard completion to Greg Olsen effectively cost Carolina 30 seconds. Any incompletion, even a deep interception, would have been better than Cam's 10th completion of the day.
Alas, Lancey Howard had the Cincinnati Kid right where he wanted him. Newton, under duress, to Ginn for 37 yards followed by a 14-yard strike to Olsen put the Panthers in the red zone with plenty of time remaining. Two plays later, Newton, again while pressured, found Dominik Hixon in the front, left corner of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown and the comeback was all but secured. It had been a while since Cam had thrown a pass of significance with pinpoint accuracy, but this kid is a grown-up, full-fledged answer at the quarterback position and like many of the elite players in this, or any other, league, he rose to the occasion and kicked in the door when the Saints left it open just a little bit.
Maybe Riverboat knew that Newton, much like The Man sitting across the table from the Kid in that Norman Jewison classic, was holding the jack of diamonds in his pocket all along. Maybe he didn't, but maybe he just trusted that if the defense, which had made a ton of big plays already, could just get Brees and company off the field, the star coming of age that is Cam Newton would work some magic and at least get the game into overtime.
Either way, the Riverboat is still rolling along in the Queen City. Now, all they need to do is finish the deal in Atlanta.