As the gold confetti started falling Sunday night in Santa Clara, Calif., Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera looked across the field at Levi’s Stadium and hoped he saw the future.
On the Denver Broncos sideline, players and coaches celebrated as the final seconds of Super Bowl 50 ticked off. The Broncos’ 24-10 victory came just two years after Denver was embarrassed 43-8 by Seattle in the Super Bowl at East Rutherford, N.J.
When Rivera addressed his team for the final time Tuesday morning in Charlotte, he pointed to the Broncos as a worthy model to follow.
“I told them right across the field is an example of a team that’s gone through what we are right now. A couple years ago they lose in New (Jersey) to Seattle. And then this year they’re back and they win,” Rivera said.
“So we can learn from their example, is what I told our guys. Denver came off a very disappointing loss in a Super Bowl, got knocked out in the playoffs the next year. And a year later they’re Super Bowl champions. So there is a lesson there for our guys to learn and emulate.”
A few days might have given Josh Norman’s tears time to dry and Cam Newton’s petulance to soften, but the loss to Denver will stick with the players well into the offseason.
After a 15-1 regular season and two convincing playoff wins, the Panthers (17-2) fell short in the Super Bowl for the second time in their history.
Only one team in history won more games than Carolina did this season without taking home the Lombardi Trophy – the 2007 New England Patriots, who finished 18-1 after losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
“I watched it and you feel worse after you watch it,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said Tuesday. “This notion that we couldn’t do anything offensively is not the case. That’s even more the tough part to swallow. They made a couple big splash plays that really turned out to be the difference in the game.”
Denver outside linebacker Von Miller was responsible for two splash plays – sacks in which he beat right tackle Mike Remmers and stripped the ball from Newton.
The Broncos recovered one of the fumbles in the end zone for a first-quarter touchdown. They came up with Newton’s second fumble at the Panthers’ 4 to set up the put-away touchdown.
Miller was on injured reserve two years ago when the Seahawks whipped Denver at MetLife Stadium. The one-sided loss convinced Broncos general manager John Elway to overhaul his defense.
That offseason Elway spent a combined $109.5 million on three marquee free agents – outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. Ware (two sacks) and Ward (interception, fumble recovery) played big roles in the victory against the Panthers.
Sunday’s Super Bowl defeat won’t necessarily prompt any sweeping changes in the Panthers’ locker room.
While Remmers struggled mightily against Miller, the former St. Louis practice squad player was mostly solid in his first full season as a starter. Plus, the Panthers drafted a right tackle last year, Daryl Williams, who will compete with Remmers for the starting spot in 2016.
The Panthers could stand to give Newton more offensive weapons. Although as general manager Dave Gettleman said this week, they get a first-round wide receiver back this year when Kelvin Benjamin returns from last summer’s ACL surgery.
Defense wins championships
It’s also worth noting Gettleman’s response to the first question he was asked Tuesday about the Super Bowl:
“(The Broncos) were the top-ranked defense in the league. That doesn’t happen by accident,” Gettleman said. “I’ve told you a number of times offense scores points, defense wins championships. And kudos to Denver. They played up to that No. 1 role.”
The Broncos had seven sacks, forced four turnovers and generally made Newton’s life miserable.
With Charles Johnson not performing up to his contract (he’s due $15 million next season) and Jared Allen possibly headed toward retirement (Rivera seemed to hint at that Tuesday), the Panthers are in need of another pass-rushing defensive end to pair with Kony Ealy.
Ealy had a break-through performance (three sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery) against the Broncos and might have been the most valuable player had the Panthers won.
So while Gettleman isn’t going to go on an Elway-like splurge this offseason, he has shown a knack for hitting on his draft picks and signing veteran free agents to plug holes and address any deficiencies.
A different look
It might not be an overhaul, but Rivera said next season’s roster will have a different look.
“That locker room will never be the same,” he said. “I’m very proud and honored to say I was head coach of the 2015 Carolina Panthers because they will not be the same group. There will be guys who will have moved on from that 2015 team.”
While Allen mulls his future, the Panthers have five key players in their 30s with expiring contracts – defensive backs Roman Harper, Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and fullback Mike Tolbert.
The top offseason priorities involve a pair of first-time Pro Bowlers – Norman, who’s an unrestricted free agent, and defensive tackle Kawann Short, who is under contract through 2016.
But after Gettleman locked down Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly with long-term deals last summer, the Panthers look well positioned to make a few more runs at the Lombardi Trophy.
Las Vegas thinks so. Various sports books have installed the Panthers as one of three early Super Bowl favorites for next season, along with the Seahawks and Patriots.
“We’ve got to keep going,” Ealy said. “Obviously, there are going to be different people in and out next year. Some people are going to retire, may get traded. That’s just the business of the game.”
Olsen, a two-time Pro Bowler, said he trusts Gettleman and the rest of the front office to keep the Panthers on top.
“They haven’t steered us wrong yet. The decisions made around here – while not always easy, while not always popular – have gotten us to this point,” Olsen said.
“And the guys we know we have coming back are guys we can build around and are guys that are a big reason we’re here and are going to be a big part of our success going forward.”