In the midst of their now seven-game losing streak, the Carolina Panthers have experienced more than their share of heartbreak.
Whether it be a failed two-point conversion, a laughable blowout, or any of the myriad other ways this once 6-2 football team found to lose, there was always a different reason for the hurt.
But Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons still, somehow, produced its own excruciating breed of sadness — the kind that comes with finality.
Ignore for a second that with Sunday’s loss, Carolina is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. That, while painful, isn’t unique. Twenty teams miss the playoffs every season.
Rather, the finality Sunday comes not from the result, but what it means for this era of Panthers football.
It comes from the idea that longtime center Ryan Kalil, who has already said he will retire after this year, and maybe defensive stalwarts Thomas Davis and Julius Peppers too, have just played their last home game at Bank of America Stadium.
And instead of riding off into the sunset with one last victory, they got the opposite.
“You look at it like you let those guys down,” rookie cornerback Donte Jackson said. “It was already thought out that we were going to play for them guys. Playing for our pride, playing for ourselves, but more importantly, playing for those guys who won’t play on this field again, and it just sucks when you’ve built that camaraderie with those older guys all year and you send them out on that note.
“It doesn’t feel good.”
Peppers, who was originally drafted by Carolina in 2002 and spent 10 of his 17 professional seasons with the Panthers, said after the game that he had no additional or special emotions before Sunday’s contest. But as the league’s oldest defensive player at 38 years old, and with his one-year contract done after this season, there’s a chance this loss is Peppers’ final home game, too.
Peppers was asked postgame about his future, but as he did at the end of last season, said he would wait to make that decision until after the season.
“We’ll get into that when it’s time,” Peppers said. “We’ve still got a game left to play, so yeah, I guess I’ll save that answer for a later date.”
Davis did not speak to reporters postgame, but has previously said he would retire after this season. He later changed his mind and said he would like to be back with the team in 2019, but his contract is also up at the end of the year.
As multiple Panthers put it, this was certainly not the way anyone imagined the end of the line for local heroes such as Peppers, Davis, and Kalil.
And the dull locker room postgame captured that sense.
Instead of booming loudspeakers and off-pitch singing echoing through the room, there was almost complete quiet. The dull splattering of water in the showers, a loose squeaky wheel on an equipment cart. No celebration, no laughter. Instead, just hurt — the physical kind from a complete butt-whooping, but also the internal kind. The ‘What happened here?’ sort of shock and awe.
“I’m hurting for (Kalil) because we let him down,” receiver Torrey Smith said, “but we got what we earned.”
That much, the actual discussion of the game, came easier than anything else. It’s easier to explain one loss, one blown coverage, one missed tackle or sideways play than it is to explain away an entire lost season.
Speaking of which, there is one thing the Panthers did accomplish Sunday. They moved a step closer to NFL history.
Of the 168 other teams have started a season 6-2, just as Carolina did this year, not one single team finished 6-10.
The Panthers are a loss to the NFC’s No. 1 overall seed, the New Orleans Saints, from becoming the first.
“I know the work that we put in,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “I know the guys in the locker room and what we’ve been through, and to start 6-2 and to end like this, it just hurts.
“You try to put yourself in the best position for those guys, to let them go out on top, but we didn’t do that this year.”
Of course, one loss does not spoil an entire career. Losing to the Atlanta Falcons with a starting quarterback out, a hobbled backup, several offensive linemen missing and other gaps does not at all mitigate everything Kalil, Thomas, and Peppers have done over their vaunted careers.
Davis will be remembered as much for his tremendous play through three torn ACL’s as he will for winning the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, given annually to in honor of extraordinary volunteer and charity work in the community.
Same for Peppers, who has become a North Carolina legend for both his Hall of Fame career and charitable fundraising, most recently for hurricane victims throughout the Carolinas.
Then there’s Kalil, who has endeared himself to teammates and the community at large as one of the team’s key role models.
The loss stings, certainly. Seemingly every player would tell you that. But what it does not do is overshadow the past. If anything, it makes all those contributions even more significant.
“I don’t think people understand what (Kalil) has meant to this football team and to this football program, but he truly is the heart and sole of our team,” running back Christian McCaffrey said. “There’s not a better leader out there. There’s not a better person out there. He’s a role model in every single way.
“His accolades and his football play speak for itself, but as a friend, as a father to his kids, as a husband ... that’s going to be a tough one to say goodbye to.”