Ron Rivera gambling his moves will pay off for Washington

ASHBURN, Va. -- Former Carolina Panthers tackle Jordan Gross doesn't recall the game or even the moment. He does remember what happened: coach Ron Rivera called for them to go for it on a crucial fourth down; they converted and the Panthers won.

Mostly, though, Gross remembers the aftereffect.

"You get hungry for that," Gross said. "You walk around with your chest puffed out. ... It would carry over to practice to where, 'This guy has faith in us. We have to be who he thinks we are.' We'd talk about that in meetings: 'Let's practice to make him have that kind of confidence in us again.' I loved it and wished there was more of it."

While Carolina got used to "Riverboat Ron," Washington is still adapting. He, of course, earned that moniker with the Panthers because of his penchant for gambling in various situations, typically on fourth downs.

From 2011 to 2019, Carolina went for it on fourth down 123 times -- seventh fewest in the NFL. But the Panthers converted 55.3%, fifth highest. And their 60 tries in the first three quarters ranked 12th in the NFL; they converted 71.7% to rank second.

This season, the Washington Football Team has gone for it 10 times on fourth down and converted eight; both numbers are tied for third most in the league. But the biggest gamble occurred at the end of the 20-19 loss to the New York Giants. That's when Rivera opted to go for two points with 36 seconds remaining. While the failed attempt will be debated for a while, Rivera made his reasoning clear after the game: He went there to win.

Washington went for two fourth downs earlier, converting both. Rivera said all these decisions come from the same place.

"The only way to learn to win is to play to win, and that's what I want those guys to understand," Rivera said. "If taking a gamble is part of it, that's what I'm doing."

Gross had been with Carolina for eight seasons before Rivera arrived in 2011. He didn't earn the "Riverboat Ron" moniker until 2013. The oft-told story that led to this philosophy stemmed from his relationship with Pro Football Hall of Fame coach and former broadcaster John Madden. He once told Rivera he played too much by the book and to trust his instincts. Rivera coaches by gut feel, which means he will change his mind sometimes in the course of a week about a player or a situation.

Rivera said he was too conservative in an early season loss in 2013, flipped a switch and became "Riverboat Ron." In the final 14 games, Carolina faced fourth-and-1 on 12 occasions; they went for it nine times and converted eight. They also went 12-2.

Rivera's military upbringing, and his love of reading books about military figures, leads some to believe he has adopted their mentality: It's not just about winning a battle, it's about the bigger picture. And the bigger picture in Washington is building a winner.

"When a new coach comes in and is doing those things, it's invigorating," Gross said. "No new head coach comes in on good terms. Usually it's through a house cleaning and down seasons where confidence is shaky at best in the organization. When Ron came in and started doing those things, we felt like he believed in us and you don't want to let him down. That was critical in his establishing his reign with the Panthers."

Rivera likely would have second-guessed Sunday's decision had they kicked the extra point and lost in overtime.

He made a similar call with Carolina in a 2018 loss to Detroit -- also 20-19. The Panthers failed on a two-point attempt with one minute, seven seconds remaining. They lost their next five games, though quarterback Cam Newton's injured right shoulder that eventually landed him on injured reserve contributed mightily.

But, for Rivera, it's the way he wants to play. And now that he's at a place that hasn't won more than nine games in a season since 2012 -- and has no playoff wins since the 2005 season -- learning to win is paramount.

"It tells your team that you believe in them," he said.

What he doesn't want to do is second-guess his mindset and subsequent decisions.

"When you start looking back and start second-guessing yourself, now you get into a situation where: 'Should I or shouldn't I?' Sometimes you freeze yourself," Rivera said. "If the players know that's what we're going to do and how we're going to play, now it starts taking hold of who they are. That's what we're trying to get across to those guys."

Newton played a huge role in Carolina's success under Rivera. But when the Panthers drafted him No. 1 overall in Rivera's first year, many considered Newton a risk. The aggressive side of Rivera showed as the team incorporated the rookie's ability to run into the game plan. At times, the Panthers called power runs with Newton.

"It was all brand new stuff," Gross said. "I'm thinking 'This won't work, we can't do this; no one else in the NFL does it.' [Rivera] was like, 'This kid is special, trust the process.' He develops those relationships with players, and he has a vision for what he wants the team to look like and he'll get it there."

Carolina's rise was fueled by many factors. The Panthers had talent and a strong coaching staff -- future head coaches such as Sean McDermott and Steve Wilks coached the defense. Newton was the NFL MVP in 2015 and a three-time Pro Bowler.

But in their first two years, the Panthers went 6-12 in games decided by eight points or less. After Rivera turned aggressive, from 2013 to 2017, they were 21-15-1 in such games.

"When we first got there in 2011, there was a lot of doubt and guys had been there and seen a lot of bad things," former Carolina quarterback Derek Anderson said.

Gross and Anderson said Rivera also built trust by doing little things throughout the week, like eating with them or sitting in on meetings. Anderson said Rivera would ask him questions about the offense or the game plan. Anderson would tell him how they planned to attack the defense. Rivera would usually respond he agreed, but wanted to check. Anderson said it helped foster communication and trust.

"It takes a while to build the culture and weed through the B.S. along the way," Anderson said.

"[Rivera] said, 'I will let you guys do it and let you guys win this game. I trust you guys can do this.' More often than not we did, but when we didn't you felt you owed the coach," Gross said.

Washington (1-5), which is at home against the Dallas Cowboys (2-4) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), has been in a bad place. In its past 29 games, it is 5-24 -- a half-game better than the worst team over that time, Cincinnati. It will take time and better players to change the direction; for Rivera, it'll also take a different approach.

"I understand it and I love that he's doing it," said Washington quarterback Kyle Allen, who played two seasons in Carolina under Rivera. "He wanted to see what we were made of. ... It's an aggressive mentality and he's been that way ever since I've been with him. Sometimes it's going to work, sometimes it's not going to work. You're going to live with it, but for him and this team, it's all about creating this mentality."

It worked in Carolina; Rivera is gambling it will work in Washington.