As the Carolina Panthers’ sunken season marched to its inevitable ending Sunday at Tampa Bay, take small solace that coach Ron Rivera chose not to extend it a minute longer.
Down by one with 17 seconds left after (finally) a Cam Newton touchdown pass, Rivera never hesitated in going for 2.
Anyone who watched and followed this team with any regularity knew how it was going to end – if not the specifics, then the sudden, sad result.
The epitaph on the 2016 Carolina Panthers should read: Came close, but not good enough to finish the deal.
When tight end Greg Olsen slipped in his route, Newton’s 2-point pass bounced off Bucs safety Bradley McDougald and Tampa Bay had put Carolina out of its misery, 17-16.
“We were going for it. We didn’t come here to tie and see what happens (in overtime). We came here to win the football game,” Rivera said. “With 17 seconds left, I thought we had a good opportunity. Unfortunately, Greg slipped coming out of the break. The ball was on the money and unfortunately he slipped.”
One upside – and not an insignificant one – of Olsen’s slip is a top-10 pick in the April draft.
For a team that went 15-1 and made the Super Bowl a season ago, it’s a bit disconcerting to think of all of the areas that could be helped with that top-10 pick – a safety, a second tight end, another edge-rusher, an offensive tackle (or two).
The Panthers finished 6-10 – a nine-game difference that tied for the third-worst season-over-season decline since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978.
They didn’t merely relinquish their reign of the NFC South. They fell to the bottom of the barrel, getting swept by Atlanta (11-5) and Tampa Bay (9-7).
Rivera talked about keeping his staff together the other day, pointing out the same group of coaches was good enough to win 15 games in ’15.
But this kind of fall of grace in the NFL generally costs people jobs.
Sunday’s game wasn’t much different from many of the losses that preceded it.
Newton played poorly, the defense did its part to keep the game close, but the Panthers didn’t make enough plays late to win.
The Panthers fell to 2-6 in games decided by a field goal or less. They were 7-1 last season when the margin was eight or fewer points.
“It’s not like we’re coming into football games and just getting blown out of them,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “It really comes down to the last two, three minutes of the game. If we do a better job of executing and making a play here or there, it’s a totally different season.”
The math backs up Davis’ point: The Panthers were outscored 161-89 in the fourth quarter this season, beginning with Week 1 in Denver when the Broncos outscored Carolina 14-3 in the final quarter.
The loss in the Super Bowl rematch seemed to steal some of the Panthers’ mojo. Their 1-5 start pretty much sealed their playoff-less fate before the calendar reached Halloween.
“We didn’t play to our full potential. Point blank, period,” defensive end Mario Addison said. “That’s what it was. We didn’t play as a team.”
Standing in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium, Rivera wasn’t interested in taking a comb through the wreckage of 2016.
“Not much to reflect on,” he said. “We’re going to take a long hard look at it, study what we do, and as I said before, we’re going to evolve.”
Defensive tackle Kawann Short, who along with Addison are Carolina’s most important free agents, said this season smacked the Panthers back to reality after last season’s magical ride.
“It humbled us. It set us down. We see that now, compared to when we first started,” Short said. “It was just one of those humbling experiences. We’ve got to find out the right thing to do around here. We’ve got to come back this offseason and everybody’s got to work twice as hard.”
Hard work alone won’t cure the Panthers’ problems.
They need better players on the edges of both lines and a different offensive philosophy for a quarterback who can’t keep taking the pounding he did this season.
The past two weeks Newton sounded like a guy who’d been beaten into submission, saying after the Christmas Eve loss to Atlanta he was ready for a sabbatical.
A little humility might be good, as well – for Newton, Short and every other Panther who followed up the Season of Dab with the Season of Drab.
At a glance
Largest season-over-season decline in wins since NFL went to 16-game schedule in 1978
Source: Elias Sports Bureau