Coach Ron Rivera became just like those of us lamenting the many public pitfalls of 2016 for a moment during his final post-practice news conference on Friday.
“I can’t wait to get out of this year, believe me,” he said, jokingly. “Just like the rest of this country.”
First, he needs to get through the season finale at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
But after that, the questions loom.
How do the Panthers get their mojo back?
Carolina is at its best when players are having fun, and that comes hand in hand with winning football games.
A defense that has put forth an inspiring effort after a woozy start to the year - the resurgence seemed to happen after the bye week, and continued even after the loss of star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly - is not so much the problem.
Instead it’s the offense that is desperately in need of life. Or, as Rivera put it, evolution.
While that doesn’t seem to mean getting rid of offensive coordinator Mike Shula, Rivera did share with Panthers.com that his ideas included a heavier blend of quick passes in the short game, as well as keeping the run game a bit more traditional instead of relying on quarterback Cam Newton in the zone read or on designed runs.
What does evolution look like for Cam Newton?
Defenses are certainly starting to catch on to Newton’s game, and he hasn’t looked himself. He has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in five of his past six games, and has had to be limited in practice with a sore shoulder that required an MRI (it came back clean).
An offseason spent recuperating his shoulder and the rest of his body will be crucial for Newton.
When Rivera spoke of “evolution” to Panthers.com in regards to Newton, he alluded that the big, fast quarterback is feeling the effects of being a runner and passer. This doesn’t mean Newton won’t run, but not as often as the past six seasons.
“We want him to last 10 more years,” Rivera said. “We have to find ways to change. We have to find ways to protect him and for him to protect himself.
“Part of his evolution is learning how to survive.”
OK, so what does that mean for receivers?
It means Carolina’s receivers absolutely have to start winning at the line of scrimmage and forcing separation.
That is a rarity among the big-and-tall variety the Panthers have seemed to favor, unless it’s Ted Ginn Jr. simply running faster than everyone else to get his space.
But if the Panthers shore up the quick-route game in hopes of a spark, that means big guys like Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin must be quicker out of the gate and improve their footwork and hands. .
Could a spark be found in this draft class?
Everyone saw the juice still left in running back Jonathan Stewart during the game at Washington.
But it’s likely the Panthers will want to find a young talent at running back, and this draft class is loaded. Pittsburgh’s James Conner is a big-bodied power runner who could fit Carolina’s style, or Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey could be a long-term investment. And there’s LSU’s Leonard Fortunette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel and Texas’ D’Onta Foreman. Loaded.
Carolina also might look to tighten up its safeties while veteran Kurt Coleman is still around to mentor them. While free safety Tre Boston’s knee injury doesn’t sound career-ending, it wouldn’t hurt checking out guys with the intent of using a late pick.
With the personnel returning on offense, it might be wise sign a tackle in free agency, and then draft a promising young offensive lineman who can be developed behind veterans slated to return next season.
And, no disrespect meant to veteran tight end Greg Olsen, but how about Michigan’s Jake Butt? His draft stock is expected to drop after he injured his knee in the Orange Bowl, and he could be a steal. Butt can block and is great at getting mismatches with linebackers and defensive backs. Sound a little familiar?
Who are potential free-agent targets?
Courting Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil wouldn't just make an interesting storyline for the Panthers, it would make sense.
The Panthers’ decision-makers are counting on left tackle Michael Oher to return to 2015 form. The loss of Oher (concussion) this season proved again how valuable depth is at tackle.
Kalil, brother of Panthers center Ryan Kalil, is coming off hip surgery and likely won't command the contract he might have before the injury.
Even if they re-sign defensive ends Mario Addison and Charles Johnson (see below), the Panthers could stand another edge rusher. New England's Jabaal Sheard is young (27) and good at rushing the quarterback and stopping the run. He's also been effective dropping into coverage.
If the Panthers are serious about protecting Newton better, they should take a long look at Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco, who is a tremendous blocker.
Will Mike Remmers find a big payday in free agency?
Some in the Panthers' organization think he might.
Remmers might have boosted his value by shifting to left tackle in Week 4 after Oher went out with a concussion, although he still seems best suited for the right side.
Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who writes for cbssports.com, does not see Remmers getting paid like one of the game’s top right tackles ($6.5 million to $7.5 million a year).
Remmers would like to stay with Carolina, the first team that gave him a chance to be a starter. But he's also excited to see what the market might hold.
The sense is the Panthers might be willing to let Remmers leave and enter next season with Oher and right tackle Daryl Williams as the starters. At a minimum, the Panthers need to improve their depth at the position, although experts view this as a weak draft for tackles.
If Sunday turns out to be Remmers' final game with the Panthers, he's earned the respect of teammates.
“I don't think people realize how hard that is – to move back and forth between the two tackle positions,” Olsen said. “I think he's done a great job.”
Which Panthers free agents are priorities?
Take your pick along the defensive line, beginning with defensive tackle Kawann Short.
Short was looking for Fletcher Cox-type money (six years, $103 million) after Short’s Pro Bowl season of 2015, but the Panthers weren't willing to go that high. Short's price might have dropped along with his production this season, but only slightly.
He's still a difference-maker at a position where athletic playmakers are hard to find.
The Panthers also want to re-sign Addison, the speed rusher whose 8.5 sacks lead the team. Addison has been used exclusively as a situational rusher in Carolina, and it will be interesting to see if other teams view him as an every-down player. Probably not.
Look for general manager Dave Gettleman to work out a long-term deal for Star Lotulelei, the first player Gettleman drafted in 2013. Johnson is 30 and his body is breaking down, but he's effective when healthy and could return on another team-friendly contract.
The Panthers also could bring back Ginn at the right price.
What will the running-back rotation look like in 2017?
It might not be as drastic as the wide receiver overhaul in 2014, but fans could see a makeover of the offensive backfield.
The Panthers would gain salary-cap savings by cutting Stewart. But this is a team that could have as much as $60 million in cap space, so that's not an issue. More importantly, who would carry the ball?
Watch Stewart's video highlights from the Washington game two weeks ago. He's still a productive runner who goes all-out. Expect him to be the featured back one more season.
But fullback Mike Tolbert could be on shaky ground, despite making the Pro Bowl again. Change-of-pace back Fozzy Whittaker is a free agent, while Cameron Artis-Payne has been inactive in all but three games during his second season.
Given the talented crop of backs in the draft, this seems like the year to draft Stewart's successor.
Will coach Ron Rivera's staff return intact?
Rivera says he doesn't expect to make staff changes. But these things often are dictated by the front office or ownership, although Rivera is a loyal guy who will fight for his assistants.
Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey have caught heat locally because of Newton's regression. But Rivera sounded like both would be part of the process of reshaping the offense, at least if Rivera has his druthers.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott interviewed for the Cleveland and Tampa Bay jobs last year and Rivera said he hopes he gets another opportunity. The Panthers' defense slipped out of the top 10 this season after cornerback Josh Norman was allowed to leave and Kuechly missed the final six games after his concussion.
But Rivera says McDermott still deserves a shot. He’s right.
Will we see Kuechly back on the field in 2017?
Kuechly might just be the one person antsier for next season than Rivera.
Meantime, it’s OK to get a little excited about the chance to see Shaq Thompson on the field more often - especially in coverage. He is coming along well at buffalo nickel (the Panthers’ term for an oversized nickel created to match up with big receivers and tight ends) and working more in the middle.
Veteran Thomas Davis is still a tackling beast, but has shown signs of slowing down in coverage. And while Davis is not ready to retire, he also said if the situation called for it he’d be open to sharing reps with Thompson.
And, given Kuechly’s concussion history and the investment that has been made in him, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Panthers’ best defender to take a play off every once in awhile, either.
Panthers' 2017 free agents
Unrestricted free agents (15)
DT Kawann Short
DT Kyle Love
DE Charles Johnson
DE Mario Addison
DE Wes Horton
LB A.J. Klein
CB Teddy Williams
CB Leonard Johnson
S Michael Griffin
S Colin Jones
OT Mike Remmers
OL Ryan Wendell
OL Chris Scott
RB Fozzy Whittaker
WR Ted Ginn
Restricted free agents (5)
G Andrew Norwell
WR Philly Brown
WR Brenton Bersin
WR LaRon Byrd
LB Ben Jacobs