Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to sit Cam Newton a series for violating the team’s dress code – I still have no words to describe the absurdity of the whole situation – don’t let yourself be distracted.
Newton even said it himself, after a 40-7 crumpling at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night.
“We didn’t lose this game because of a tie.”
So don’t let your eyes wander from the gravity of the situation.
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The Panthers are not playing like a good football team.
At 4-8, they’re not even playing like a mediocre football team. They can, at best, post a mathematically average record. They cannot have a winning season, continuing a streak of the inability to do so in back-to-back seasons since the organization’s 1995 inception.
A defense that had so often bailed the Panthers’ offense out this season was exposed.
Sunday’s loss saw the Carolina defense yield 534 yards and 29 first downs, and force one Seattle punt. Of this, 240 yards came on the ground.
The Panthers’ front seven was a paper towel against the Mississippi, and it started with running back Thomas Rawls. He gashed the Panthers for 103 yards and an average of 9.3 yards per carry before having to exit to be evaluated for a concussion in the first half.
When he left the game – with a 45-yard run, by the way – quarterback Russell Wilson and backup Tyler Lockett stepped up to run in his place. Wilson scurried for 9.7 yards per carry on three carries, with an 18-yard long.
Lockett poured through the Panthers defense for a 75-yard touchdown run, too. And all of this came against a team ranked second in the league in rushing defense.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly, sidelined while in the concussion protocol, was visibly frustrated, screaming and pacing on the sideline.
“Well, he was disappointed that he thought the referees had obviously missed a call,” said Rivera. “It was one of those things. Guys in the heat of battle, they want it to be what it is. Upset about that.”
Added linebacker A.J. Klein, “It wasn’t just Luke. I think everybody was animated, including myself. The entire defense.”
There is reason for frustration. Carolina’s defense is riddled with injuries. Kuechly’s return has yet to be determined. Starting safety Kurt Coleman is in the concussion protocol and longtime backup Michael Griffin played in his spot. Cornerback Daryl Worley had to leave the game and has entered the concussion protocol. Defensive end Charles Johnson was banged up and in and out of the game. Backup linebacker David Mayo also is now in the concussion protocol.
“Health, lack of health, there are some things that go on with that,” said Rivera. “I think that’s part of it. But it does come down to execution.”
The team’s backups did not step up as expected, said Rivera.
“Probably the biggest disappointment, though, was really it was a matter of discipline,” said Rivera. “Guys trying to make plays instead of trusting and staying in their creases. Because we didn’t stay where we were supposed to be, we gave up a couple of really big runs because of that. ...
“Guys just trying to do too much. Not doing the things that they’re supposed to. And as we look at it, as coaches maybe there are some things we could have done differently too.”
Klein, Kuechly’s backup, said the front seven was taking full responsibility for being gashed so heavily, especially in terms of gap accountability against the run. That comes from a lack of mental discipline, he said, especially when defending against quarterback Russell Wilson and the zone read.
“Overall, it was a poor performance by us,” he said. “It’s hard to see it happen over and over again. I know we’re a better defense than that. Everybody in this organization knows we’re a better defense than that. Every player knows we’re a better defense than that. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the team that plays the best and executes the cleanest is going to win the game.
“And we didn’t execute.”