CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It's a regular day in the Panthers' locker room when offensive tackle Jordan Gross sees coach Ron Rivera walking by and says, "Hey, Riverboat Ron."
Rivera shakes his head, blushes a little and keeps on walking.
Carolina's third-year coach earned the nickname after his 180-degree turn in coaching philosophy earlier this season — one that has helped spark the Panthers' five-game win streak entering Monday night's game against the New England Patriots.
One of the NFL's most conservative coaches in terms of going on fourth down a year ago, Rivera now rarely misses an opportunity to keep his offense on the field, urging them to "go for it" and pick up the first down and seize momentum.
"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.
And it seems to have changed the course of the Panthers' season.
The nickname was born after Charlotte Observer sports writer Joseph Person dubbed him "Riverboat Ron" after the Panthers converted a pair of fourth downs on their opening drive in a win at Minnesota on Oct. 13.
The Panthers went on to win 35-10.
Rivera's moves that day have set the tone for the Panthers new philosophy: all or nothing.
In the past five games the Panthers have gone on fourth down six times and converted five, three resulting in touchdowns, including a 14-yard pass from Cam Newton to Greg Olsen on a play-action fake against Atlanta.
Said Olsen: "Going for it has shown he has confidence in us as an offense."
Rivera's new approach is far different from a year ago when he went on fourth down less than any coach in the league with the exception of Broncos coach John Fox, the man he replaced here in 2011.
Rivera said his change in philosophy came after he didn't go for the jugular on fourth down in Week 2 against Buffalo, instead settling for a field goal and a six-point lead. The Bills then drove 80 yards in the final 1:39 — without any timeouts — to beat the Panthers 24-23 on a 2-yard touchdown pass by EJ Manuel.
Rivera said he's always "played it by the book" but came to realize that, hey, there is no book. Sometimes, he said, you just have to go for touchdowns instead of field goals.
The nickname "Riverboat Ron" seemed destined to slowly fade into Panthers folk lore. But it received new life when Rivera's daughter, Courtney, re-posted on Instagram a photo-shopped picture of Rivera as a riverboat gambler. Graphic artist Jim Kennedy from Raleigh, N.C., created the online picture of Rivera wearing dark sunglasses, a Panthers blue jacket and black cowboy hat while holding a cigar in one hand and some playing cards in the other.
When told Courtney had re-posted the image of him, the upbeat Rivera laughed and said, "Oh, that's not fair now. I'm going to talk to her."
Rivera has said in the past he doesn't particularly care for the moniker. If you ask him he'll tell you he prefers "Calculated Risk Taker Ron."
That one never caught on for some reason.
But "Riverboat Ron" has, particularly with the help of Rivera's daughter.
"I love it," Gross said of the nickname. "I've been calling him that. It's funny. He loves football and it's been hard for him going through his first two seasons and I'm as happy for him as I am for myself or anybody else. He works hard and all of the players respect him."
Gross, now in his 11th season, is one of the few who feels comfortable calling Rivera by that name. Younger players such as defensive end Greg Hardy and Newton have shied away.
"Hey, you can give your boss a name (but) I'm going to keep my job. So no, (it's) Ron," Hardy said.
Added Newton: "I don't think you want to tease our head coach. That's not a good method of flattery."
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