A Carolina Panthers season that began with lofty expectations came to a quiet end Monday, when players stuffed equipment into black garbage bags and tried to explain where it all went wrong.
Quarterback Cam Newton, wearing another in his collection of wild hats, walked out of the locker room without speaking to reporters.
Tight end Greg Olsen surveyed an NFC playoff field that, for the first time since 2012, will not include the Panthers.
And coach Ron Rivera moved quickly to try to turn the page on a 6-10 finish.
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“You look at it and some things just didn’t work. It just didn’t happen. There’s a lot of reasons. Like I said, there’s enough to go around for everybody,” Rivera said. “What I’m more interested in is moving forward. And the sooner I can get done talking about it, the better off I’m going to be.”
The Panthers’ nine-win dropoff from 15-1 tied for the third-worst, season-over-season dip since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
Olsen noted that even a 9-7 season might have been enough to give the Panthers a chance to defend their NFC title.
“Nine games made the playoffs, right? Six seed (Detroit) was nine wins,” he said. “We all watched the season. We can come up off the top of our heads with three games we’d love to have back. But that’s the NFL. That’s why you play them. You are what you are.”
The Panthers are on a team in transition, particularly at quarterback.
After Carolina drafted Newton No. 1 overall in 2011, the Panthers became the first team to bring the zone-read offense to the NFL, to take advantage of his unique skill set.
The deception-based, option offense kept opponents on their heels for Newton’s first five seasons, until it didn’t anymore.
Rivera and his coaching staff decided toward the latter part of the season the offense needed to evolve.
No quarterback has been hit as many times as Newton since he entered the league. The cumulative effect of all the hits seems to have caught up with Newton, who had the fewest rushing attempts (90) and yards (359) of his career in 2016.
“He’s not as young and nimble as he used to be,” Rivera said. “We have to be smart about it. We have to think about other ways to use him, other ways to use his athleticism.”
Newton, who will turn 28 in May, was sacked 36 times this season – on par with his career average. Rivera said the Panthers need to look for ways to reduce the wear and tear on him.
“You can’t sit there and expect us to run 20 zone-reads and then expect him to carry the ball, say, 10 out of those 20 times,” Rivera said. “But he still has the ability to get outside the pocket. He still has the ability to use play-action, (roll-out) action because he’s athletic and he’s strong-armed.”
The Panthers’ inability to close out tight games ultimately did them in. They finished 2-6 in games decided by a field goal or less, beginning with a momentum-draining, 21-20 loss at Denver in the season opener.
As much as Rivera talked about warding off complacency after last season’s Super Bowl appearance, defensive end Charles Johnson wondered whether it crept in this year.
“You’re used to winning. Guys might get lax, get relaxed on stuff,” Johnson said. “My motivation is always to go out, compete and win. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Johnson’s said the Panthers’ recent success also made them a target every week.
“Once you get that red dot on you, then everybody’s going to be looking at you,” he said. “We had a couple Xs on us from, I guarantee you, a bunch of teams that we beat (in past seasons). But we didn’t win this year, so they got the best of us.”
The upside of going from first to worst is a top-10 pick. The Panthers will pick eighth in the April draft, their highest position since taking linebacker Luke Kuechly No. 9 overall in 2012.
The Panthers also will play a fourth-place schedule, although they’ll have six games against teams coming off playoff appearances – the same number as in ’16.
“Listen, no one wants to play the fourth-place schedule. No one sets out wanting to have an easy schedule. That means you sucked,” Olsen said. “No one wants to pick in the top 10 because then you sucked. No one wants that. But that’s the situation we find ourselves in, so you’ve got to try to capitalize on it.”
One day removed from another tough loss – 17-16 at Tampa Bay – Olsen didn’t want to handicap the Panthers’ chances of returning to the postseason in 2017.
“Ask me in training camp. I’ll have a lot better feel for how guys come back, how this affected guys. What our roster looks like,” he said. “It’s going to be a whole different feel around here come a couple months – from a personnel standpoint, from draft, free agency, guys on our team that go elsewhere. It’s the ever-changing world of the NFL.
“So I don’t know. I’m not going to make any promises.”