The Carolina Panthers (6-6) have lost four games in a row, five of six in a one-possession game, and are 1-5 on the road this season.
Fingers are being pointed.
Quarterback Cam Newton metaphorically pointed his at himself after Sunday’s 24-17 loss to Tampa Bay, during which he threw four interceptions.
But some fingers are being pointed a little higher.
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Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was asked after the game about a report published by CBS Sports on Sunday morning that said, citing multiple anonymous sources, owner David Tepper was “becoming increasingly frustrated with the team’s recent performances and is considering major changes if the results do not change quickly.”
“At the end of the day, unless Mr. Tepper says it, I’m not going to address it,” said Rivera. “So we can forget about asking me those questions, please.”
Rivera was asked later in the press conference if he was concerned about his job security, and became frustrated.
“I am not going to answer that question,” he said. “Do not ask that question again, please.”
Tepper has not made any sort of public comment on the matter. But with the team on a four-game skid, a substantial portion of the fan base has become vocally frustrated that, after a 6-2 start, the Panthers are now on a four-game skid despite operating with what seems to be one of Carolina’s historically better rosters.
In an avalanche of muck, it’s hard to know where to point the fingers that certainly would not be extended so angrily if not for the repeated losses.
But multiple players, including veteran center Ryan Kalil, veteran tight end Greg Olsen and Newton, said the issues with the team are player-driven, not coach-driven.
“I think we have a lot of talent on this team, and honestly, I look at last year and I look at this year and I think we’re a more talented bunch this year, but I think we were more disciplined last year,” Kalil said. “I just don’t think we’re a very disciplined football team, especially in critical situations.
“And that’s what it comes down to, in all three phases. ... There’s nothing you can do about that, from a coaching standpoint. I’m very, very happy with how Ron goes about (his job) week to week, and that’s what makes this tough.”
Newton and multiple players agreed.
But it’s fair to question why, if player discipline is the entire problem, Rivera called at least some of the game’s defensive plays.
“I was helping with the defensive play-calling all day,” Rivera confirmed after the game. He did not expand on how long he has been assuming that role alongside first-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington.
“Just a different set of eyes, another perspective,” he said, when asked why he felt the need to make some defensive calls.
Carolina even tried to mix things up even more defensively, benching backup defensive tackle and former first-round pick Vernon Butler in lieu of playing inside-outside defensive lineman Wes Horton on the interior a little more to generate pressure.
“Absolutely, trying to create a little something different as far as our pass-rush,” Rivera said. “We like Wes’ length and we like his quickness off the ball as a three-technique. We were trying to mix something up on the inside.”
But despite the fact that the pass-rush generated three sacks, Carolina still has major inconsistencies in how it and the secondary complement each other.
Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, who entered the game with 11 interceptions in six games, threw for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Carolina struggled to contain the Buccaneers’ passing attack in multiple third-and-long situations and allowed a 101-yard receiving day from backup wideout Chris Godwin, playing in place of an injured Desean Jackson.
“I thought they (complemented each other) at times, I thought we had some opportunities at times,” Rivera said. “I will admit this though, I thought that Jameis hurt us big-time with his mobility, tucking the ball and running sometimes and converting some early first downs for them, and that kept us off-balance a little bit as well.”
At times, Carolina’s rhythm seemed to be clicking. But mistakes like deep pass-interference calls — including one extremely questionable call against rookie cornerback Donte Jackson in the fourth quarter — missed tackles, inconsistent pressure and failing to convert offensively on third down while giving up to many third down conversions on the other side are a thorn in Carolina’s side the team can’t seem to pluck out during this four-game skid.
Rivera said that he hopes any potential talk about shaking things up staff-wise does not seep into the locker room.
“As far as I’m concerned, unless Mr. Tepper puts his name on it, I think that everybody just needs to calm down,” he said. “Let what’s really being said, let the truth come out. Again, if anybody has a question, I think they should ask Mr. Tepper. But I don’t think that’s fair to sit there say and ‘sources say.’”
Tepper has been consistent in engaging in dialogue with the Panthers’ coaching staff and front office about their status. It also seems a little dubious that in his first six months as the team’s owner, he would get rid of a tenured head coach who is so well-loved by his locker room.
Many of the Panthers’ veterans made it clear where they stand on the topic of any potential “hot seat.” They are in support of Rivera and his staff.
“We’ve won a lot of games around here, we’ve had a lot of success around here,” Olsen said. “It’s always easy to feel certain ways after bad losses, tough games. I don’t think these are the times, now, to talk about those sort of things. We’re on the record, over the last eight years, of what we feel about Ron.
“I think that’s been made pretty clear across the board by everybody who has played here.”
But the season’s rapid decline is a tough pill to swallow. And many of Carolina’s veteran players have a quickly closing window in which to have success.
After rupturing the plantar fascia in his twice-fractured foot, Olsen’s season is over. Kalil is in the last year of his contract, as are linebacker Thomas Davis, defensive end Julius Peppers and safety Mike Adams.
But in light of Sunday’s loss, the sill of that closing window might be getting pretty crowded with coaches, too.