I wanted to believe in Ron Rivera this season.
I wanted to believe that all the close losses – a dozen by a touchdown or less – over the 2011 and 2012 seasons were not in vain.
I wanted to believe that after starting slow the last two seasons, the Panthers would find a way to start the 2013 season strong.
I wanted to believe that with two years of head-coaching experience under his belt, Rivera would learn from past mistakes and elevate the team to the next level.
I believe no more.
After watching the Panthers blow fourth-quarter leads in each of their first two games, I no longer have one ounce of faith in Ron Rivera and his coaching staff.
One would imagine that the collective sting of repeatedly coming up just short over the last two seasons would provide some learning experience for a first-time head coach. In fact, after suffering a dozen close losses, an NFL coach should be able to write a manual about how NOT to manage a second-half lead.
Despite having so many close-game failures as an anecdote for how to coach down the stretch in tight games, Rivera and his coaching staff continue to make the same costly mistakes.
Like the great Albert Einstein said, "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
That's why the script hasn't changed for the Panthers. The team continues failing to dispatch opponents and continues finding new – sometimes mind-boggling – ways to lose.
When is Rivera going to figure out that "playing not to lose" is dooming the Panthers?
Despite it backfiring repeatedly, he continues to adopt this ultra-conservative, non-aggressive style – on both sides of the ball – when the team has a lead.
There's no killer instinct; no attempt to deliver the knockout punch.
Remember the epic meltdown against the Falcons in Week 4 last season?
The Panthers, who had racked up 199 yards on the ground, had a chance to ice the game by picking up a first down on fourth and one.
If you're a Panthers fan who hasn't repressed the memory of the end of that game, you'll remember that Rivera elected to punt instead of going for the kill with the offense.
Instead of asking your 6-foot-6, 250-pound quarterback to pick up a yard to win the game, Rivera chose to put the game in the hands of a secondary who'd been torched for 350-plus yards and three touchdowns.
Despite piling up seven sacks and finding the most success pressuring Matt Ryan, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott elected to rush three and drop into a soft prevent defense.
With no timeouts and just over a minute left, Ryan engineered a 77-yard drive to put the Falcons in position to kick the game-winning field goal.
In Sunday's 24-23 loss to the Bills, Rivera and his staff were presented with an eerily similar set of circumstances.
With the ball and a 20-17 lead in the final minutes, the Panthers, despite taking zero chances down the field, had moved the ball all the way down to the Bills 25-yard line with a series of runs. Still, they had a chance to ice the game by picking up a first down on third and five.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula called a conservative run on third down with fullback Mike Tolbert, who gained four yards to put the team in a fourth-and-one situation.
Again, needing just a single yard to ice the game, Rivera elected to kick a field goal and give the ball back to the Bills with 1:38 remaining.
Keep in mind that three starting defensive backs – cornerback Josh Thomas, safety Charles Godfrey and safety Quintin Mikell – had left the game with injuries. The Carolina defense had struggled slowing down the Buffalo offense for most of the second half.
Once again, Rivera chose to put the game on the shoulders of his depleted secondary instead of his linebacker-sized quarterback or 5-foot-9, 245-pound fullback – both short-yardage specialists.
Then, in a flash of déjà vu, McDermott dialed up the infamous prevent defense. Needless to say, it failed again.
Buffalo's quarterback EJ Manuel – a rookie no less – carved through the soft defense and found Stevie Johnson in the end zone with two ticks left on the clock.
It's clear that Rivera is not an NFL-caliber head coach. He's doesn't give the Panthers an edge – like Jim Harbaugh gives the 49ers or Bill Belichick gives the Patriots.
In fact, Rivera puts the Panthers at a disadvantage with poor scheming, ineffective in-game adjustments and dreadful game management.
Even with an extra week to prepare, Rivera struggles to give his team a leg up on the opposition. The Panthers are 0-2 coming off the bye the last two seasons, suffering a 30-3 hammering at the hands of the Titans in 2011 and a 19-14 late-game loss to the Cowboys in 2012.
He lacks a sense of game awareness that all great NFL coaches must have. He doesn't have a feel for momentum and the ebb and flow of the game. Many times, he doesn't even seem to know what the strengths and weaknesses of his own team are.
More importantly, however, is who Jerry Richardson and Dave Gettleman choose as his successor.
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