All summer long, Ron Rivera preached to his team about fighting off complacency.
Rivera spoke to people from John Madden to a retired Navy admiral on dealing with the after effects of Super Bowl 50. He maintained a countdown of days until his Panthers met the Denver Broncos in season kickoff.
After today's 41-38 loss to New Orleans, his team is now 1-5 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Actually, “in danger” denotes there’s some chance of the Panthers making the playoffs. There’s really not.
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At 1-5 and 0-3 in the NFC South after Sunday’s 41-38 loss to New Orleans, the Panthers will almost certainly not be playing in January. And really everyone not named Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly and punter Andy Lee can share in that blame.
The lowest-hanging fruit of all is the defensive backfield. The Panthers started fifth-round cornerback Zack Sanchez against Drew Brees less than two months after they decided he wasn’t good enough to make their 53-man roster. That they ended up in this position was entirely of their own volition. They rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag, put their chips on a trio of rookies and cut Bene Benwikere on a Friday despite second-rounder James Bradberry being out for who-knows-how-long with turf toe.
Kuechly and Thomas Davis have played well, but what does it matter when no one behind or in front of you is? Carolina’s pass rush has been anemic. Defensive end Kony Ealy went from the team’s Super Bowl MVP to zero sacks through six games. The team leader in sacks is free safety Tre Boston, who got benched three weeks ago.
Carolina’s offense hasn’t looked like itself since the Week 2 shellacking of the 49ers, and yes, Cam Newton can shoulder some of that blame. Only Sunday against New Orleans did he looked like his MVP self. Not all eight of the sacks he took against the Vikings were his fault, but he could have gotten rid of the ball quicker. I won’t blame him for getting concussed against Atlanta, but he didn’t learn his lesson about walking into the end zone like he said last year in New Orleans when a similar play occurred. This isn’t the first time Newton has dealt with porous offensive line play or drops in his career, but it’s the worst that he’s looked with them.
And while the players make the plays that leave them 1-5, the common thread in all this has been general manager Dave Gettleman. His cost-saving approach that was so effective for his first three years as Carolina’s GM is catching up to him. With newly extended Michael Oher missing his third straight game due to concussion, Gettleman’s inability to find suitable depth at tackle is biting him. Taking away Norman’s tag continues to boggle the mind. But the biggest failure was not having enough competition at training camp.
The only legitimate competition for a starting position was at punter, and not one of the three players Carolina brought to Spartanburg ended up punting in Denver Week 1. The starting lineup projected in late July was essentially the starting lineup against the Broncos. A few starters really competing for their jobs would have likely curbed any lingering complacency.
Only two teams since the merger have started 1-5 and made the playoffs: the 1970 Bengals and 2015 Chiefs. The biggest difference between these Panthers and last year’s Chiefs is that, by Week 7 of 2015, the Chiefs had played five playoff teams and would only face two more for the remainder of their 11-5 season. The Panthers have played—and lost—to three (probable) playoff teams and still have teams like Arizona, Seattle, Oakland and Atlanta ahead of them.
Take a look around the NFC. Carolina’s division title hopes are on life support, meaning it will have to rely on a wild card spot. An NFC North team is posied to claim one of the two, and the Panthers will have to pray that their best-case scenario of 10 or 11 wins beats out any NFC East team.
Perhaps this is proof of the difference between winning and losing in the NFL. Carolina lost Norman but gained Kelvin Benjamin from their 15-1 season, and just about everything else is the same. A made field goal in Denver by Graham Gano, another miss by Roberto Aguayo on Monday Night Football and just one defensive stop against New Orleans and this team could be 4-2. But Ron Rivera is quick to remind you that you are what your record says you are.
The Panthers’ record says they’re a bad team. And history says their playoff dreams are shot.