Tom Sorensen

Panthers of 2016 take their rightful place in Charlotte sports history

The Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton (1) won’t make the NFL playoffs, but how they play in the final four weeks of the season will tell us a lot about them.
The Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton (1) won’t make the NFL playoffs, but how they play in the final four weeks of the season will tell us a lot about them. AP

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory offered his concession speech Monday. The Carolina Panthers offered theirs Sunday night.

The Panthers gave up in their 40-7 loss to Seattle. They never threatened the Seahawks. At most, they inconvenienced them.

Carolina’s performance was the most lackluster in a season full of lackluster performances. Major league sports came to Charlotte in 1988. And in those 28 years, no team has been as disappointing as Carolina this season.

Teams have had worse records. The Panthers went 2-14 in 2010, the last season in Carolina for head coach John Fox. But what did we expect? They purged the roster of veterans. Rookie Jimmy Clausen was not going to be the quarterback of the future or even the present. Those Panthers were dysfunctional, and to be fair Clausen never had a chance.

By finishing last, they drafted first. The Panthers hired a new coach, Ron Rivera, and with the first pick in the 2011 draft chose quarterback Cam Newton.

In 2011-12, the Charlotte Bobcats’ winning percentage was even worse than that of the 2010 Panthers. They, too, purged their veterans and finished 7-59.

But little was expected from those Charlotte and Carolina teams. There’s only one season that, in terms of bitter disappointment, can compete with the Panthers this season.

That season is not 2003 when Carolina made the Super Bowl and lost to New England in a 32-29 thriller. The Super Bowl season was great. The Panthers were on their way.

And then they weren’t. In 2004, a season similar to this one, they finished 7-9.

The difference in 2016

Last season, the Panthers won 17 of 19 games, finishing with an ugly loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.

Why couldn’t they again attain the Super Bowl?

The major difference between Carolina last season and Carolina this season is that when there was a close game last season the Panthers won it. They went 5-0 in games decided by five or fewer points.

In games decided by a field goal or less this season, they are 2-5.

There have been games – against good teams such as the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, for example – when Carolina’s talent is evident. But if you continually lose close games, it ceases to be a fluke and becomes who you are and what you do.

At 4-8, the Panthers have the same record as the Los Angeles Rams. If your record is the same as the Rams’ record, you are not good.

Assigning blame

Somebody has to be blamed. Who’s your candidate? You can blame head coach Ron Rivera if you choose. I don’t. He’s respected around the league, in Carolina’s locker room, and in the front offices.

Yet by benching Cam Newton for the opening series against Seattle he undoubtedly angered some players.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton did not start in Carolina's 40-7 loss to the Seahawks because he did not wear a tie on the team plane to Seattle.

When a player is publicly reprimanded by a coach, players usually side with their teammate, the theory being that if it happened to one of them it can happen to all of them.

Years ago John Fox singled out a player, a good player, and publicly criticized him after a loss. Teammates rallied around the player. A private meeting was held, and Fox acknowledged he should not have said what he said to the media.

On the flight from San Jose, Calif., to Seattle, Newton chose not to wear a tie, thus violating Carolina’s dress code. Rivera says he treated Newton the way he would any other player.

Benching Newton for a series was not the exception, Rivera says. Allowing Newton to play would have been.

Derek Anderson, who replaced Newton, was intercepted on the game’s first play. Anderson rolled out and threw a short pass to fullback Mike Tolbert. The ball was there to be caught. Tolbert didn’t catch it. The fault is not Anderson’s.

Had Newton started, the result would have been the same. On that night, in that place, against that team, the Panthers never had a chance.

In the final four ...

So what happens next? The Panthers came into the season with what appeared to be a collection of veterans at their best and young players whose work suggested they were about to be.

Next season, however, some of those veterans might not be as good and some of those young players might be no closer than they are. Carolina has to find another pass rusher and, more importantly, improve their offensive line.

The Panthers looked soft on national TV Sunday night. I’ve never seen a team coached by Rivera give up. December is when, since 2011 when Rivera arrived, the Panthers have done their best work.

The Panthers still play and, to watch them, the fans still pay. The playoffs have been conceded. The remaining four games don’t have to be.

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

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