The Carolina Panthers entered December last season in the midst of an eight-game winning streak on their way to the franchise’s first playoff berth in five seasons.
Players were happy, coaches were satisfied and the front office was not making any moves, wanting to preserve the locker room chemistry on a team that would finish the regular season 12-4.
A year later, the Panthers (3-8-1) limped into December on a seven-game winless streak. Players are down, coaches are still searching for answers and general manager Dave Gettleman is getting rid of underperforming veterans to give more reps to young players.
Defensive tackle Kawann Short was a rookie on the 2013 team that won the NFC South and hosted a divisional-round playoff game. Short let himself think every season would be that fun and rewarding.
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Then this season happened.
“Just coming off of last year, by this time we were happy. We were walking around here with our heads up and all that,” Short said Wednesday. “I’m not saying we have our heads down, but you can tell the atmosphere is different than what it was last year.”
Even as the losses piled up in October and November this year, the Panthers remained in contention in the NFC South, a division in which no team has had a winning record since Week 6 when the Panthers tied the Cincinnati Bengals to go 3-2-1. Division leader Atlanta (5-7) hasn’t been above .500 since Week 3, and New Orleans (5-7) has only come as close as 4-4, after a Thursday night win at Carolina in Week 9.
But the Panthers are fully in rebuild mode now, having cast off four veterans, including three in the past two weeks. Wide receiver Jason Avant, cornerback Antoine Cason and linebacker Jason Williams are gone, replaced by three undrafted, first-year players who were called up from the practice squad.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera won’t wave the white flag, of course. But the fourth-year coach has made it clear the team has an eye on the future with the recent moves.
“We have to be smart about it. This is not a knee-jerk. We’re not looking to make knee-jerk reactions,” Rivera said. “We’re looking to evaluate, and evaluate over a period of time.”
The comings and goings could make for a disjointed locker room over the final four weeks of the season.
There will be a number of rookies and young players getting increased reps, in some cases at the expense of veterans.
And there is the question of how motivated the team will be, starting Sunday against the Saints.
Backup quarterback Derek Anderson, in his 10th season, said he’s seen no signs of a malaise yet.
“I don’t think in any way have guys quit. I’ve been on teams with dudes that don’t care,” Anderson said. “It is difficult. Obviously, it hasn’t gone the way that we wanted. At the same point, you still have to play for your job. It’s bigger than just right now.
“Sometimes when you have young teams, guys don’t get that. But I thought (Wednesday) was a decent start to the week.”
Panthers strong safety Roman Harper, who played his first eight seasons with the Saints, talked about playing for “the name on the back of your jersey.”
“It’s all about putting good stuff out there for your resume,” Harper added. “At the end of the day, every play, everything, is what you put on tape. That is you and it speaks for who you are.”
Rivera said that goes for coaches too.
“You always talk about what you leave on film. That’s important. Players have to understand that. We as coaches have to understand it, as well,” Rivera said. “Again, is (what’s) on film a reflection of us? Obviously, going back to the Minnesota game and getting two punts blocked is a reflection on me, first and foremost. That’s disappointing. You don’t want to leave that on tape.”
The Panthers’ biggest influx of youth has come at the three position groups that saw the greatest changes during the offseason -- the secondary, receiving corps and offensive line.
Gettleman tried to piece together the defensive backfield by adding three mid-tier free agents in Cason and safeties Thomas DeCoud and Harper. Cason’s been cut and DeCoud was benched in favor of rookie Tre Boston during the 31-13 loss at Minnesota.
Rookie Bené Benwikere will start in Cason’s former spot, while Rivera would not say whether Boston would get the nod over DeCoud against the Saints.
But Rivera continued to defend the free-agent acquisitions in the secondary, suggesting the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy beginning in Week 2 has played a big part in the pass defense.
“The bottom line is pass rush, as well. Let’s don’t forget that,” Rivera said. “I know it’s the white elephant in the room. But that plays into part of it.”
Cornerback Josh Norman said the rookies in the secondary are still learning, but they’re hungry.
And Norman said the Panthers’ youth movement should not be confused with surrender.
“I’m not going to be down on it and give in or tank this season just because of our situation that we’re in,” Norman said. “These four games are crucial for us and we’re going to keep pressing on and no matter what the situation or outcome is, we’re going to fight to the end.”