With his jaw set and a big crowd of reporters around him early Tuesday morning, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said Panthers coach Ron Rivera knows the way to lead his team out of the darkness.
It’s sound reasoning: In Rivera’s six seasons in Charlotte, the former Bears linebacker several times has roused his team from a September slumber and put together a strong finishing kick.
With the Panthers off to their third 1-4 start under Rivera, it’s worth noting the Panthers are 13-17 in their first five games of a season since he took over in 2011, and 35-19-1 in their final 11 games.
There are a few things working against the Panthers this year, though, as they attempt to turn their season around, namely history, the Atlanta Falcons and themselves.
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Carolina was able to salvage the 2014 season from the wreckage of a two-month winless streak because the rest of the NFC South was equally terrible. The Panthers won the division with a 7-8-1 record.
With Atlanta (4-1) riding a four-game win streak that includes victories against Carolina and the previously unbeaten Broncos last weekend, the Panthers will head to New Orleans this week already three games behind the first-place Falcons – 3.5 counting the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Rivera isn’t conceding anything, though – “despite the fact that some people want to go ahead and give the division to somebody already with 11 games left to play,” he said, before adding: “We’ll just wait and see, though.”
It’s Rivera’s positive outlook in the face of adversity that Kuechly was extolling in the aftermath of Monday night’s 17-14 loss to Tampa Bay, a game that included four Panthers turnovers and a couple of dumb, late penalties.
When the Panthers were in the midst of a 14-0 start last season en route to the franchise’s second Super Bowl berth, veteran additions like defensive end Jared Allen said they’d never been part of a more harmonious locker.
Things aren’t as warm as fuzzy on Mint Street eight months later. Kuechly said Rivera’s steady hand and the presence of respected leaders in virtually every position group will keep the team from fracturing in the face of a three-game losing streak.
“We’ve got enough older guys on this team we’re not going to have any problem staying together,” Kuechly said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any issues with guys jumping ship. There’s a guy in every room that’s an older guy that’s going to keep this thing together.”
Keeping it together and making the playoffs could be two different things.
Since the NFL went to its 12-team playoff format in 1990, 128 teams have started 1-4. Only eight have made the playoffs, although Kansas City and Houston did so last season.
Rivera’s first two Panthers squads were among the 120 teams that failed to make the postseason after losing four of their first five games.
So Rivera knows the difficulty of the task ahead.
“This will be a real good test to find out exactly where our character and personality are,” Rivera said. “It’s a different group. And that’s one thing I’m trying to stress is this is nothing like last year as far as personnel and people and attitude and the way we do things.”
These Panthers are younger and greener in the secondary than last season’s Super Bowl team, which featured defensive backs with a strong locker room presence in Charles Tillman and Roman Harper.
The secondary also included Pro Bowler Josh Norman and the versatile Bene’ Benwikere, both of whom were cast off with the Panthers receiving nothing in return.
Most of the roster that went 15-1 during the regular season remains the same though.
Yet, the teams are markedly different in the area of ball security.
The ’15 Panthers led the NFL in turnover margin (plus-20), takeaways and interceptions. This year Carolina ranks next to last in turnover margin (minus-7).
After four turnovers Monday, the Panthers have 14 giveaways – more than any team and not far off last year’s season total of 19.
That Panthers’ defense is on pace for 22 takeaways after coming away with 39 last season.
“We need to do a better job of getting the ball,” Kuechly said. “We’ve got enough guys on this team that understand that. We’ve just got to do it.”
Takeaways usually go hand-in-hand with pressure on the quarterback, something the Panthers have lacked all season.
Starting defensive ends Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson still don’t have a sack. The only two the Panthers had against the Bucs’ Jameis Winston came on blitzes.
Unless Carolina finds a pass rush, improves its pass protection and gets better play from quarterback Cam Newton, this team will continue the curse of the Super Bowl loser – with a thud.
It’s been 23 years since the losing Super Bowl team made it back to the game the following year. At this point it looks like that streak will reach 24.
“Losing sucks, man. Nobody likes to lose,” Ealy said. “All the preparation we put in, it’s a bad feeling.”
The Panthers hope it doesn’t get worse.