After the 23-10 loss to San Francisco, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera walked through the locker room, hugging stars and starters and players whose names you probably have never heard.
More than thanking them for their good work this season, Rivera was pumping them up for the next one.
His theme was: Yes, we lost. Yes, our season ended, but we started something and we are going to build on it, and we are going to be good.
The Panthers, who played their first game in 1995, have had five winning seasons. Never have they had two seasons in a row above .500. If John Fox, the Denver coach who preceded Rivera, had two in a row, he still might be coaching in Charlotte.
Steve Smith says, “We fought through adversity, we did not give in to the naysayers and proved a lot of people wrong.”
Carolina started the season 0-2 and finished 12-4 and won the NFC South.
Carolina built a foundation, Smith says.
He’s right; without a foundation, the Panthers would not have played this weekend.
But their loss in the NFL divisional round showed the flaws. They showed what they couldn’t do.
They couldn’t get pressure on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick threw 28 passes and was sacked once, by linebacker Luke Kuechly, on a blitz. In their other lopsided, late-season loss, Dec. 8 to New Orleans, Carolina failed to consistently get to quarterback Drew Brees.
The Panthers parlay red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. If the field were 99 yards they might have won. They’d cruise through San Francisco territory and when they’d reach the 1 it was as if the end zone were protected by an armed guard and a steel gate.
When the Panthers fell behind 20-10, they couldn’t come back. This is not a big-play, fast-strike offense.
Cam Newton did Smith with a 31-yard, second-quarter touchdown pass. And Newton had a chance to hit Ted Ginn Jr. deep in the third quarter. Ginn blew past cornerback Tramaine Brock. Brock had one option, which was to grab Ginn. Instead of a 48-yard touchdown, the Panthers picked up 5 yards and a first down on a holding penalty.
Officials missed calls, and early those missed favored the 49ers. For the afternoon, the Panthers were penalized eight times for 73 yards, the 49ers five times for 40.
Whether it was the officials or the 49ers, the Panthers allowed themselves to come undone.
Mike Mitchell was called for unnecessary roughness on San Francisco’s first series after Carolina had stopped the 49ers on third down; Captain Munnerlyn was called for a headbutt; Josh Thomas was penalized for trying to throw a punch or a slap. The act probably was Thomas’ last with the Panthers.
The Panthers did not act as if they had been here before. Should they return next season, they’ll know.
Some Carolina players, some starters, won’t be among them. Defensive end Greg Hardy, presumably, will be. A free agent, he helps forge the identity of this team.
General manager Dave Gettleman proved he is willing to cut players and compel starters to rework their contracts. That won’t stop. The Panthers need a boost on their offensive line, in their defensive backfield and at wide receiver.
But this group, the group that lost to San Francisco, was successful. The nucleus features many young stars and potential stars. Rivera doesn’t want a winning team. He wants to be the first of Carolina’s four coaches to create a winning program.
“We learned a lot about who we are as a football team, a lot about our football players,” says Rivera. “We learned a lot about our organization. We learned a lot about our fans.
“I’m pretty fired up about that. I think going forward it means a lot of good things. If we don’t learn from what happened (Sunday), if we don’t learn from the games we played this year, then we wasted this season.
“We are not going to do that. We are going to get better and we are going to come back.”