The Carolina Panthers nearly made a miraculous comeback Sunday night in the Superdome.
Instead, they fell 31-26 to New Orleans – with the final Panthers drive advancing to the Saints’ 21 with 46 seconds to go but no further.
And so the final image of this Carolina season was 81-year-old team owner Jerry Richardson walking slowly with a cane into the Panthers locker room and saying his goodbyes to the players on a team that is now officially for sale after 23 seasons.
For 31 of 32 NFL teams, the final goodbyes of every season are always bittersweet because those teams fell short of winning the Super Bowl. So it always has been with the Panthers, but Richardson’s appearance in the locker room inserted an extra layer of emotion into a group of players that had already been through a wringer of a day.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly broke down – his voice cracking, his eyes tearing up – as he described Richardson’s visit.
“Everybody on this team owes a lot to him,” Kuechly said of Richardson. “That’s not how we wanted him to” – and here Kuechly had to stop and compose himself – “that’s not how we wanted the season to end for him and, unfortunately, for us. ... We’re going to miss having him around.”
Of course, it’s not all that simple and heartwarming. Richardson announced in December that he was going to sell the team once this season concluded. He made that announcement about seven hours after an explosive Sports Illustrated report that detailed several instances of workplace misconduct by the man who is the only owner the Panthers have ever had.
Richardson has not publicly disputed any of the allegations. The NFL is investigating.
The Panthers themselves weren’t ready for the season to end, of course. They never led Sunday, but managed to hang around long enough that when rookie Christian McCaffrey took a short pass 56 yards for a touchdown with 4:20 left in the game, they suddenly had a legitimate chance.
By then, it was 31-26 as Carolina tried to overcome what had been a 12-point deficit in the final five minutes. New Orleans got the ball back, tried to run out the clock, gambled by going for a fourth-and-2 on the Carolina 47 and saw Drew Brees’ pass instead get intercepted by Panthers safety Mike Adams.
The controversial call
So Carolina had one last shot, behind a quarterback in Cam Newton who had matched Brees throw for throw most of the day.
“We moved the ball pretty much at will the whole game,” said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who had 104 yards and a touchdown receiving. “We just struggled in the red zone in the first half, and that was the difference.”
Still, Carolina had a chance as Newton – out briefly after being poked in the eye on a hit that looked like it could do much worse damage – marched the team to the New Orleans 21 with 46 seconds left. After one incompletion, the quarterback faced a second-and-10. Under pressure and scrambling, he heaved the ball toward the right sideline.
This was intentional grounding, referee Tony Corrente decided.
This was bunk, the Panthers would contend later.
Said Panthers coach Ron Rivera: “I thought we had a chance to score on that last drive and kind of feel like it was taken away from us. … I thought the quarterback was out of the pocket, a receiver (was) in the vicinity, the ball was past the line of scrimmage. … I didn’t get an explanation.”
Olsen claimed that Corrente – who was not available for comment after the game – stuck to the call despite other officials on the field trying to persuade him that the throw shouldn’t be flagged.
“I heard the other officials come in and try to convince the head ref that he was out of the pocket and that the ball crossed the line of scrimmage,” Olsen said. “That’s what they continued to say over and over. Obviously, he (Corrente) stuck with what he originally saw.”
The grounding call on Newton meant both a 13-yard penalty and a 10-second runoff on the clock. Backed up to the New Orleans 34 and with hardly any time left, Newton attempted one desperation heave that fell incomplete and then never got off another as he was sacked on fourth-and-23.
Game over. Season over. Richardson era over.
‘We gave him everything we had’
The Panthers had lived on a knife blade for much of this season – rarely good enough to beat teams by a large margin, but almost always good enough to stay in games. Carolina was 8-1 in games decided by eight points or fewer entering the playoffs, but lost a close one at exactly the wrong time this time around.
In three games against New Orleans, this was by far the closest. But Carolina had the ball three times at or inside the 10 in the first half, and came away with only two field goals in those opportunities.
So Richardson’s tenure as the Panthers majority owner – while not officially done until the team is sold – has almost certainly seen its last game. It came several weeks earlier than the Panthers had hoped.
Olsen and Richardson shared their own moment after the game in the locker room.
“I told him we gave him everything we had,” Olsen said. “It just wasn’t enough.”
That’s what Sunday ultimately was.
The Panthers were very entertaining. They tried hard. They did a lot of things on the field to be proud of.
And ultimately, it just wasn’t enough.