Tom Sorensen

Panthers need to make offseason changes, or next season will look a lot like this one

The Carolina Panthers still have talent, including tight end Greg Olsen (88), but the lack the toughness and swagger of a season ago.
The Carolina Panthers still have talent, including tight end Greg Olsen (88), but the lack the toughness and swagger of a season ago. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

I wrote a month ago that the Carolina Panthers were not a playoff team. They have the talent to make the playoffs. But they lack the poise. When a game gets tight, they get tighter.

If you’re 12 or older, you can’t be surprised by Carolina’s 35-32 loss Sunday to the Oakland Raiders. The Panthers are 2-5 in games determined by three or fewer points. Reverse the outcome of those close games, make them 5-2, and they’re tied with the Atlanta Falcons atop the NFC South.

But it’s not a coincidence the Panthers lose close games any more than it was a coincidence that last season they won them. We ought to put a moratorium on last season. Look in your rear-view mirror and you can hardly make it out. It’s like leaving the beach after a vacation. A few pictures and a few memories are all you have to prove you were there.

So, what should the Panthers do now? Would you like to see them tank so they can win a higher draft pick? They won’t. Players’ faith in head coach Ron Rivera is such that they won’t give up.

They’ll be underdogs in their three remaining road games – at Seattle on Sunday night, at Washington and at Tampa Bay – but almost certainly will be favored at home against San Diego and on Dec. 24 against Atlanta.

Oddsmakers have been respectful to the Panthers. The betting public still remembers their work in 2015-16.

The Panthers have nice pieces – Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil and Cam Newton, Greg Olsen and Jonathan Stewart, Kawaan Short and Kelvin Benjamin. Although the talent Short and Benjamin offer is unquestionable, neither is having a stellar season.

The rookie cornerbacks will improve. Carolina’s pass rush, comatose most of the season, shows potential, especially when speed rusher Mario Addison is healthy. Veteran Charles Johnson was good Sunday.

What do the Panthers need? They could use a playmaker on offense. But even more, they need to improve their offensive line. Derek Carr threw 38 passes Sunday, nine more than Newton. Each was sacked twice. But if Carolina didn’t blitz, Carr had much more time than his Carolina counterpart.

Newton creates problems for his blockers because he holds the ball as he waits for – something. The 88-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. was a play of beauty that featured Ginn’s fast feet and Newton’s strong and accurate arm. But Newton is so confident in his ability to shake off tacklers and go deep that he often disdains the short and intermediate pass.

The Panthers have difficult offseason decisions to make. Do they give Short the money they elected not to give cornerback Josh Norman, who now plays for Washington? The decision, as are all money decisions, won’t be made in a vacuum because a year from now Benjamin’s rookie contract will expire. Short’s expires this season.

Whatever the Panthers do between now and September, they have to improve their offensive line. If not, next season will remind us not of the Super Bowl season, but of what we’re seeing now.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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