Scott Fowler

Panthers on brink of dubious NFL first for futility. Should Ron Rivera stay anyway?

There have been worse moments in Carolina Panthers history than this one we’re now in, but not too many and not too recently.

By the fourth quarter of a 24-10 home loss to Atlanta Sunday, the Panthers were reduced to using a backup quarterback who was basically playing with one arm, in front of about 65,000 empty seats and 5,000 occupied ones, for a coach who may lose his job and was directing his seventh straight loss.

The Panthers had once again been dive-bombed by locusts, who had driven them into a sinkhole, and that sinkhole contained a dumpster, and that dumpster had caught fire.

Carolina scored a touchdown on its first drive Sunday, then managed only three points on its final 11 possessions during a loss that officially knocked them out of playoff contention. Backup Taylor Heinicke — whose left arm or elbow sure looked broken but who wouldn’t say later what his injury was — gutted it out as best he could but also threw three interceptions inside the Atlanta 20.

The Panthers defense — so routinely overmatched during this losing streak that it doesn’t surprise anyone anymore — allowed both a run of 60 yards and touchdown passes of 44 and 75 yards. The 75-yarder came on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, breaking a 10-10 tie and deflating an entire stadium’s worth of fans.

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Atlanta Falcons’ Calvin Ridley (18) celebrates his touchdown catch and run against the Carolina Panthers with teammates during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek) Jason E. Miczek AP

On the game’s defining play, Panthers safety Mike Adams bit hard on a play-action fake by Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, leaving Atlanta receiver Calvin Ridley open by at least 10 yards.

Said Adams: “That was my fault on that long pass. … Totally my fault. Never happened in my career. … That’s one thing I take pride in, taking care of my corners, and I didn’t take care of him on that play.”

That’s the sort of thing that has routinely happened to the Panthers over the past two months. Once 6-2, the Panthers are, astonishingly, now 6-9. It’s embarrassing, much like the WWE-worthy tackle that Atlanta punter/kicker Matt Bosher laid on Carolina kick returner Kenjon Barner Sunday.

Should Rivera stay?

If Carolina does the expected and loses on the road against New Orleans next Sunday, the Panthers will set a dubious NFL record.

Since the NFL schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978, there have been 168 teams to start 6-2 according to Pro Football Reference. Not a single one of them has gone 0-8 in the second half of the season to finish 6-10.

That brings us to the question of whether Ron Rivera should stay. No one knows what new owner David Tepper is thinking about this, and he’s basically going to be a committee of one on this decision.

My thought at the moment won’t satisfy those wielding pitchforks. I think Rivera should stay, Steve Wilks (about to be fired in Arizona, according to an ESPN report) should return to Carolina as the defensive coordinator and both the entire defense and offensive line should receive major personnel overhauls.

I get the anti-Rivera sentiment. The Panthers, after all, have totally collapsed.

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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera looks up at a video board during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) Mike McCarn AP

But part of that is due to having a quarterback in Cam Newton who hasn’t been able to throw the ball deep for a month, and you have to look at the long term here.

Who are the Panthers going to hire if they fire Rivera? Maybe eight or 10 other NFL teams are going to be looking for head coaches, and not everyone can hire Mike McCarthy. Even counting this awful season, Rivera has led the Panthers to the playoffs in four of the past six years. That’s the best stretch in Panthers history.

‘Guys were untouched’

As for the very recent history, though, it’s been nasty. Here’s Ryan, Atlanta’s quarterback, on the ease of his 75- and 44-yard scoring passes: “Rarely in this league do you get two long touchdowns in a game that are untouched, and both of those guys were untouched on both plays.”

Meanwhile on offense, Heinicke was throwing the ball 53 times. He blinked back tears in his postgame press conference while describing why he wanted to stay in the game and “give my all” for his teammates. It was an admirable effort, but I thought the Panthers should at least have given some of those throws in the fourth quarter to the only healthy quarterback they had left — Kyle Allen.

Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton watches the action from thew sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) Mike McCarn AP

In any case, not many fans of the black and blue were left to see the bitter end. The Panthers won their first five games at home this season, then lost their last three.

They won’t play another game in Charlotte that counts until September 2019. By then, this season will be a somewhat distant memory.

And that, as Don Henley once said about the Eagles breaking up, will be a horrible relief.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.