You know that ‘hangover’ feeling? When the pulses in your head profusely pound away, causing your eyes and all facial features to melt away? Well, that’s basically how every single Carolina Panthers fan in 2016 is feeling right now. That “Super Bowl Hangover” is now becoming a reality for Carolina and it’s been predicated through countless slow starts, under performances out of core players, and an overabundance of bad mistakes. Now, this once superior and high-caliber Panthers squad find themselves in the depth of a 1-5 start, wounded, and afraid.
Here’s how the Panthers have gotten to this point, and ways that they can (somehow) dig themselves out of such a deep hole.
The Norman Effect
The first thing people are going to talk about is Carolina’s gamble to rescind the franchise tag of all-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. That gamble has definitely not paid off, given the fact that the Panthers’ secondary is relying on two rookies (Daryl Worley and James Bradberry) on each side.
I backed our decision to let Norman walk for the reason that Carolina’s extremely talented front-seven would wreak havoc to opposing team’s offensive lines once again. Instead, the Panthers’ pass rush has disappeared, forcing defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to bring extra guys on blitzes, allowing an already challenged secondary to become exploited. Overall, Carolina’s defense, which stood at No. 6 in the league last season, has exponentially gotten worse dropping to an atrocious 29th in the league.
While I agree that Norman is a factor in Carolina’s struggles, also remember the absences of veterans such as Charles Tillman, Jared Allen and Cortland Finnegan who played vital roles in the continuity of their defense last year. With that said, I think the lack of a pass rush has been a bigger factor than the loss of Norman. It’s put even more pressure on the rookies having to cover for so long and has exposed the fact that they are young and don’t know the speed of the NFL yet. There’s no doubt this gamble has backfired, but you’ve also got to put it on the execution of the players just as much the decision of the organization.
Turnovers and misusage of players
The offense has had its share of struggles, by battling an injury-filled season out of workhorse running back Jonathan Stewart, to suffering from an unfathomable amount of carelessness in ball security. After leading the NFL last season in turnover margin (+20), the Panthers have unraveled in a sense, holding a woeful -7 margin this season.
Carolina’s less than desirable offensive line play has contributed partly to that. When he isn’t battling concussion protocols, quarterback Cam Newton has been running for his life outside the pocket this season. Additionally, Newton or his backup Derek Anderson hasn’t received the same stellar production like they did last year at wide receiver. Kelvin Benjamin has emerged and is thriving once again as option No. 1, catching 29 passes for 394 yards and recording a team-high four touchdowns. But after Benjamin, no one has solidified their roles. Ted Ginn and Philly Brown have lacked that “edge” or breakaway speed that captured their framework amid breakout years in 2015. And Devin Funchess has seemingly disappeared to the tune of just seven catches this season.
Honestly for the season’s first six weeks, Carolina has looked every bit of what a 1-5 should look like; not finishing drives, failing to stop opponents when they need to, and simply not winning the turnover margin. However, through all of it the Panthers have been dealt with an unfortunate hand. In three of their losses, Carolina has fallen victim to field goals late in regulation. A missed game-winning field goal attempt by Graham Gano at Denver in Week 1. A game-winner by Tampa as time expired in Week 4, and another game winner with 11 seconds left against the Saints. The reality is the Panthers are seemingly three field goals away from possibly having a 4-2 record. That in itself is why the NFL can be depicted as a “game of inches”.
While Carolina’s season has no doubt been disappointing, there’s still a sliver of hope that the playoffs could be calling. Hey, the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs were handed this same fate after starting their season 1-5 as well. However, it’s worth mentioning that no teams’s schedule is the same, and that the Chiefs clawed their way to the divisional round last year through an opportunistic defense that was deep and versatile. Right now, Carolina’s defense is anything but that. The Panthers still possess a good enough roster to not blow everything up in 2016. But time is ticking.