You’re going to lose an NFL game fairly often. You’re going to lose two straight occasionally. But when you lose at least three in a row and you’re the Carolina Panthers, your season is usually doomed.
This is relevant because the Panthers enter their game at Tampa Bay Sunday on a three-game skid. Once 6-2 and considered one of the NFL’s top five teams by some observers, the Panthers are now 6-5 and wouldn’t make the playoffs if they began today.
The Ron Rivera-Cam Newton era – I’ll call it the “RC Era” here for simplicity – began in 2011. In the 7 1/2 years since, the Panthers have had six losing streaks of at least three games, including this current one.
Losing streaks are hard on everyone. Players can start to press. Coaches can, too. What makes it dangerous, Rivera said, is when “you over-evaluate. You overcompensate. You apply pressure. You lose focus of what really needs to be done. And you create even more problems for yourself.”
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Tampa Bay (4-7) would seem to represent a great chance for the Panthers to get well. Carolina whipped the Buccaneers 42-28 only a month ago, rolling up 35 points by halftime in Charlotte.
‘What am I doing wrong?’
Then again, the Panthers have lost their past two games in the final two minutes against Detroit and Seattle, two mediocre teams with a combined record of 10-12. Carolina has a bit of a crisis on its hands, and the players know it.
Said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, referring to something Newton has mentioned several times over the past few days: “Like our quarterback said, you have to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘What am I doing wrong?’”
Said Christian McCaffrey, whose franchise-record yardage total from scrimmage last Sunday still wasn’t enough: “At times like these, you can go down two different roads. We’ve just got to stick together.”
Said slot receiver Jarius Wright: “We’ve played against the best offense in the league. We’ve played against the best defense in the league. We’ve done it and we’ve flourished. We just have to get back to that team.”
Former Carolina coach John Fox used to say that every NFL team is “two games from disaster,” referring to how things start to disintegrate around any squad that loses two games in a row.
For the Panthers in the RC era, however, two straight losses have often been survivable. It’s three or more losses in a row that have sent the season spiraling.
The three seasons during RC in which the Panthers never had a three-game losing streak – 2013, 2015 and 2017 – have also been Carolina’s three winning seasons during this era.
The power of three
Here’s what happened during the years the Panthers couldn’t avoid three straight losses:
▪ In 2011, Newton’s rookie year, the Panthers actually had two streaks of three losses apiece. That was a team that didn’t have the talent to make the playoffs, so finishing 6-10 wasn’t the worst thing. Carolina, after all, was coming off the 2-14 season that allowed it to draft Newton in the first place.
▪ In 2012, then-Panthers owner Jerry Richardson watched three losses in a row, got fed up and fired general manager Marty Hurney in midseason when the team fell to 1-5. (In an odd twist, Hurney is now back working in the same job and Richardson sold the team under duress after workplace misconduct.)
After Hurney’s firing, the Panthers lost their fourth straight game, sabotaging their entire season by starting 1-6.
▪ 2014 was the outlier. Carolina dropped from 3-2-1 to 3-8-1 by losing six games in a row. In an extremely down year for the NFC South, however, the Panthers still won the NFC South and made the playoffs. They won their final four games, finishing 7-8-1, and that was good enough. They won a playoff game at home, too, before bowing out. This was Carolina’s “anything’s possible” season — the year everyone brings up whenever things are going down the tubes.
▪ In 2016, the Panthers lost four straight early, going from 1-1 to 1-5. A team coming off the Super Bowl never regained its form, and Carolina finished 6-10.
In 2018, this three-game losing streak could be solved. The Panthers’ next two games — at Tampa Bay and at Cleveland — both are eminently winnable. After that, though, comes the finishing push of New Orleans/Atlanta/at New Orleans, which is the equivalent of running the 26th mile of a marathon straight uphill.
The season isn’t lost yet.
But if the losing streak doesn’t end very soon, it will be.