How in the world did we get here? And is there any coming back?
Astonishingly, those are the two questions facing the free-falling Carolina Panthers as they approach the final four weeks of their 2018 regular season.
The NFL is notoriously mercurial, but this has nonetheless been bizarre. Less than a month ago, the Panthers rode into Pittsburgh with a 6–2 record, an impressive three-game win streak, and legitimate ambitions to challenge the Saints for the NFC South championship. They were destroyed by the Steelers 52–21 that night and haven’t won since. They are now 6–6 and appear likely to miss the playoffs. Shakeups have begun taking place within the coaching staff and rumors of major off-season changes have begun to circulate in the event that the team does not turn things around. The most amazing thing about the entire meltdown is how largely avoidable it might have been with just a couple of breaks and a couple of better decisions. This is complicated.
Setting aside the Steelers debacle, Carolina really hasn’t played that poorly during their losing streak. In the week following the Pittsburgh incident, they mostly outplayed a capable Lions team on the road and were about to tie the game with seconds left following a clutch drive led by Cam Newton. Only they didn’t tie the game, because head coach Ron Rivera elected against kicking the extra point and went for a win in regulation with a failed two-point conversion. The decision seemed frighteningly rash in the moment and obviously catastrophic in the aftermath. While there is no guarantee the Panthers would have prevailed in overtime, there was likewise nothing in the game flow that suggested the need to get off the field as quickly as possible. It is very likely that poor risk management cost the Panthers a win in Motown.
The following week’s home loss to the Seahawks was, if possible, even more painful. Seattle is good, and Russell Wilson may indeed be great, so it wasn’t a shock when the Cats found themselves in a modified shootout. But the Panthers led at the half and after three quarters while Christian McCaffrey continued his astonishing breakout campaign by dominating Seattle as both a runner and a pass-catcher. Cam largely played well, but ultimately was outdone by his counterpart Wilson, who made a crazy-making number of critical plays in a game when failing to convert on even one of them likely would have changed the outcome. There are times in the NFL when you face a Hall of Fame quarterback and he just does Hall of Fame quarterback things to you. No, the defense wasn’t great, but the ’86 Bears might not have slowed Wilson that day.
The loss at Tampa last week is the hardest one to explain, but it’s not completely incomprehensible. As a division rival with dynamic offensive weapons, the Bucs have moved the ball against nearly everyone they played this season, only to self-destruct with penalties and turnovers. Last week they didn’t. Instead, Cam Newton played his worst game of the year, tossing four interceptions while being pressured and harassed by a suddenly motivated Tampa Bay front seven. Carolina ended up minus three in turnover differential and lost 24–17 in a game in which they were sloppy but not terrible. You just don’t win many games in the NFL with four interceptions.
Whatever the context, the net result is the same. Four straight losses and an existential threat to the existing order in Charlotte. This week, head coach Ron Rivera decided to relieve first-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington of play-calling duties. This kind of midseason shift in responsibilities isn’t especially unusual, but neither is it a good sign. More consequential are the rumors swirling that new owner David Tepper may be contemplating a complete overhaul if the team does not finish the season on a high note. It’s not clear what a high note looks like, but with two games against the Saints, an always tough division game against the Falcons, and a not particularly easy road trip to Cleveland this week, a 2–2 finish may be about the most realistic outcome we can expect. That won’t be enough to make the postseason.
The impasse represents Tepper’s first real challenge as an owner, and he’ll need to proceed with caution. As frustrating as this past month has been, the core of this roster is young, talented, and improving, especially on offense. In the past two seasons, they have added game-breaking threats in Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore, and despite a poor game last week, Cam Newton has shown real growth in Norv Turner’s system. There are holes in the defense, especially in a secondary that has struggled of late, but that side of the ball is hardly a total teardown either. A few years ago, the Saints found themselves seemingly treading water following three consecutive 7–9 seasons but stayed the course with a Hall of Fame QB and a top-tier head coach. Now they find themselves the favorite to gain home-field advantage in the NFC and return to the Super Bowl.
Carolina is in a similar circumstance. A multi-year rebuild would burn through years of Cam Newton’s prime, which is the single greatest asset the franchise has at its behest. Rivera hasn’t had his best season, but he is an upper half-of-the-NFL coach with an impressive track record and the ability to inspire real effort out of his teams on a week-to-week basis. Patience can be enormously difficult in sports, particularly for a new owner eager to leave his mark on the team, but no matter how the rest of the Panthers’ season plays out, Tepper cannot afford to be overly impulsive.
The Record: 6–6
Next Game: At Cleveland
Odds: Panthers –1.5
Prediction: Cleveland 27–Carolina 21