If there was one positive takeaway for the Carolina Panthers to offset the blocked punts and chapped lips from Sunday’s latest loss, it’s this:
While the Panthers thawed out during the two-hour flight home after a 31-13 loss at Minnesota, hopefully they realized they can stop with all this playoff talk.
As bad as the rest of the NFC South is, the Panthers (3-8-1) don’t belong in the postseason.
Teams that go two months without winning need to start looking to the future, a point the Panthers appeared to reach in the second half when they trailed the 5-7 Vikings – another bad football team – by three touchdowns.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott used three drafted rookies for much of the second half – cornerback Bené Benwikere, free safety Tre Boston and defensive end Kony Ealy.
Coach Ron Rivera said the plan had been to rotate Benwikere and Boston with veterans Antoine Cason and Thomas DeCoud, respectively. Rivera also acknowledged that Benwikere and Boston didn’t get in the game until after Cason and DeCoud were burned on first-half touchdowns.
The Panthers’ youth movement at receiver started during the bye week, when underperforming veteran Jason Avant was cut, clearing playing time for De’Andre Presley and Philly Brown, who had his second touchdown catch in as many games Sunday.
Rivera certainly isn’t going to concede anything, but when asked during the bye week if the Panthers had gone into evaluating-for-the-future mode, he said, “Yes and no.”
After the Panthers ran their winless streak to seven games and clinched a losing record – they still have never had back-to-back winning seasons in their 20-year history – I asked Rivera again if the future is now.
“We still have to play to win and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to play who we think gives us the best chance,” he said. “If we think a younger guy might give us a better chance, we will play him and we will play him a lot. I’m not throwing this season away by any stretch of the imagination.”
The season was laid to waste over the past eight weeks, and there looks to be no salvaging it.
The offensive line got Cam Newton sacked four more times, special teams are among the league’s worst and the secondary made rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater look like Fran Tarkenton.
The Panthers’ loss – coupled with wins by New Orleans and Atlanta – left Carolina a game and a half behind both teams in a division that has been bad all season.
It’s time for Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman to see if the kids can play.
Brown has injected some speed that has been missing in the passing game since Ted Ginn bolted for Arizona. When Rivera went for it on a fourth-and-4 in the third quarter, Brown got behind the Vikings secondary for a 32-yard score.
The three rookies each showed flashes.
Benwikere forced a fumble that rolled out of bounds. Boston drilled Greg Jennings after a catch, although Jennings held on, and Ealy narrowly missed a sack on Bridgewater that linebacker Luke Kuechly finished off.
Are any of the three impact players?
The ball-hawking Benwikere appears to be, but the Panthers should spend the next four weeks trying to answer that question.
Boston, a fourth-round pick from North Carolina, said the evaluation process started last week when coaches opened the competition at several positions.
“We had such great practices – me, Bené, Kony – (last) week, it was kind of one of those things where we built that trust to, ‘OK, let’s see what these guys can do in the game,’ ” Boston said.
“We’re still trying to win, but you can’t just put anybody in there just because you want him to get reps. I feel good that they trust me.”
Boston, who replaced DeCoud on the second series, left in the third quarter after rolling his left ankle. He said he expected to play Sunday against New Orleans.
Sneaking into the playoffs with a losing record would guarantee the Panthers would pick no higher than 21st in the draft. Based on their current record, the Panthers would have the eighth overall pick.
For a team that needs at least one offensive tackle, a top-10 pick is essential.
Newton, who set a team record by throwing an interception in his eighth consecutive game, said the Panthers won’t mail in their final four games, regardless of the past two months.
“No matter what type of caliber team that we are, the answers are in that locker room,” he said. “What are you going to do, cut this person, take that person away, add this person, add that person? The answers are in that locker room.”
It’s up to Rivera and Gettleman to figure out who those answers are for 2015.