Carolina Panthers

These moments defined the Carolina Panthers in 2018. Some might tell the future, too.

What will be evaluated with the Panthers in coming days?

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera responds to a question about what will happen in the coming days with evaluations.
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Panthers head coach Ron Rivera responds to a question about what will happen in the coming days with evaluations.

It was hard to believe that, after a 6-2 start to the 2018 season, the Carolina Panthers would finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs by a wide margin.

So much was going right. So many of the roster pieces important to Carolina’s long-term future were playing well.

The offensive line, minus its starting left and right tackles, gave up a franchise-low 10 sacks through the first seven games. Quarterback Cam Newton had a career-high completion percentage with career-low interceptions thrown during that span.

Second-year running back Christian McCaffrey was beginning to show just how much of the offense will ultimately run through him. He was targeted as a receiver 15 times at Atlanta in Week 2, catching 14 passes for 102 yards, and followed that up with a 184-yard rushing game in a victory over Cincinnati the following week.

Placekicker Graham Gano hit a 63-yard field goal to beat the New York Giants in Week 5, a high point in the season.

But just as that 63-yard field goal covered a lead blown by the Panthers in the fourth quarter, winning those six games in the first half of the year covered a lot of mistakes that hurt the Panthers down the stretch.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton loses control of the ball as he is hit by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt during second quarter action at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA on Thursday, November 8, 2018. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Early indicators

There were warning signs that, in hindsight, pointed to the seven-game losing streak that derailed Carolina’s season.

They began as early as Week 2, in Carolina’s 31-24 loss to Atlanta. The defense missed an uncharacteristic number of tackles as they allowed Tevin Coleman to rush for 107 yards on 16 carries, with a 36-yard long. It was the first 100-yard rusher the defense had allowed in 21 games, the longest run-stuffing streak in the NFL to that point.

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Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman (26) runs against Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson (26) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) John Amis AP

But that wasn’t all. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan rushed for two touchdowns, while the Panthers, featuring the best short-yardage runner in the NFL in Newton, elected to kick a 54-yard field goal on fourth and 3 in the first quarter, down seven. That juxtaposition was jarring.

The one-score loss also foreshadowed a problem that would irk the Panthers down the stretch: The inability to close close games. Six of the Panthers’ eight losses after Week 2 were decided by seven points or less.

Those included a 23-17 road loss to Washington in Week 6, during which former Panthers cornerback Josh Norman intercepted Newton and forced a fumble.

And then in a 52-21 Week 10 drubbing at Pittsburgh in prime time, the Panthers’ wheels fell off and their nearly historic slide began.

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Washington cornerback Josh Norman stands over Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton talking after Newton was tackled during fourth quarter action at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland on Sunday, October 14, 2018. Washington defeated the Panthers 23-17. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Defining the slide

During the seven-game slide, head coach Ron Rivera often repeated that each loss came down to just a couple of plays — a couple of “missed opportunities.”

These were some of the key plays that defined that losing streak:

In the Week 10 loss to the Steelers, an early turnover and a big passing play killed Carolina’s game plan. The Panthers had a 7-0 lead, scoring on their opening drive for the first time all season.

But James Bradberry was beaten by JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 75-yard on the Steelers’ first offensive play, erasing the lead.

Then, Pittsburgh “spied” Newton so he couldn’t run on the first play of the Panthers’ second drive, sending linebacker TJ Watt as a delayed rusher. Watt hit Newton in the shoulder area on his throwing arm, disrupting a throw that was intercepted and returned for a score. Newton was already showing up on the injury report with shoulder soreness. But that hit, and many more Newton took in the latter half of the year, only drew more concern about his throwing arm.

Week 11’s loss to Detroit emphasized the Panthers’ season-long issues containing chunk passing plays. Bradberry looked elite against some of the league’s top receivers early in the year, but allowed Kenny Golladay to make two big plays over the top — a 36-yard catch and a 19-yard touchdown.

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Detroit Lions receiver Kenny Golladay makes the game-winning catch against Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry in the second half on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018 at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich. (Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press/TNS) Kirthmon F. Dozier TNS

Losing to Seattle in Week 12 highlighted third- and fourth-down defensive struggles. The Seahawks were 2 for 2 on fourth down, including a 35-yard touchdown pass given up by reserve corner Corn Elder. Seattle also converted long third downs with ease. Five of the Seahawks’ six converted third downs were chunk plays of 10-plus yards, and one was a touchdown.

There were already questions about Newton’s shoulder health after the offense went away from utilizing the deep ball as heavily as it had in previous seasons. The questions increased when Newton popped back up on the injury report in Week 8, listed as “limited” on Wednesdays and for some Thursday practices. That looked like 2017, when Newton was recovering from his offseason shoulder surgery.

Then came Week 13’s loss to Tampa Bay, when Newton threw four interceptions — two in the fourth quarter — and was replaced for a Hail Mary attempt for the second time in the season. Newton ultimately sat out of the final two games of the year to rest his shoulder.

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Notably, this Tampa Bay game was not memorable for the plays called so much as the people calling them: Rivera took over the defensive play-calling full time in the 24-17 loss as questions about his future circulated.

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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has publicly assumed the defensive playcalling after a coaching realignment and the firing of two assistants. Many others’ roles will become crucial to the success of the team, which is on a four-game skid heading into Cleveland. Jason Behnken AP

How well-known had the defense become for giving up explosive passing plays by Week 14? So much so that Cleveland rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield threw deep on the Browns’ first offensive play. It went for 66 yards and set up a touchdown two plays later. Mayfield’s pass was the 13th passing play of 20-plus yards given up by Carolina’s secondary since Week 10, for a total of 534 yards — 41 yards per play.

There wasn’t a lot to be excited about by Week 15, but the 12-9 loss to New Orleans did highlight the potential of some young players. McCaffrey ran a trick play on fourth down, throwing a 55-yard touchdown pass to reserve tight end Chris Manhertz for Carolina’s only offensive touchdown. Rookie cornerback Donte Jackson had a “pick 2,” returning an interception of Saints quarterback Drew Brees on a two-point conversion for two points.

The feeling watching Carolina’s Week 16 loss to Atlanta was that of sickening fascination. A normal-person-sized quarterback, backup Taylor Heinicke, took the kind of hits superhuman-sized Newton had to endure weekly in the latter half of the year. One such hit, ultimately a penalty on Falcons defensive end Grady Jarrett, injured Heinicke’s left arm in the second quarter.

Carolina had to play its third quarterback in as many weeks as undrafted rookie Kyle Allen stepped in while Heinicke received medical attention before re-entering the game Heinicke went on injured reserve, giving Allen his first NFL start in Week 17.

Like Heinicke the week before, Allen had to leave the game after taking a vicious hit.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke holds his left arm as he is attended to by team physicians. Heinicke was tackled by Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett during the second quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Falcons. He left the game to get a wrap and a brace, and re-entered at the two-minute warning of the first half. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

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Win removes bad taste, but not questions

The 33-14 Week 17 victory at New Orleans ushered out veteran center Ryan Kalil without the bitter taste of what would have been an eight-game losing streak in his mouth. Rivera made it clear in his postgame press conference that he would be retaining his job, which a league source confirmed this week. A source close to the situation told Observer that general manager Marty Hurney hadn’t been told any different by ownership, either.

Everybody felt good.

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But the next morning, it was hard to avoid the looming questions.

What will the Panthers do to overhaul their defense, and how deep will that go? Which free agents will be back in 2019? What is the plan to get Newton healthy? And while Rivera and Hurney have the benefit of owner David Tepper’s patience for now, it’s hard to see the full coaching staff remaining intact over these next few weeks.

Plus, the Panthers will pick at No. 16 in the first round of April’s NFL draft — from a 2019 class top-heavy with defensive talent.

The Panthers’ 7-9 season was full of “missed opportunities,” as Rivera often said.

To right the ship, the offseason can’t be.

Buckle in.

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