Chuck Burton, File
October 21, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The decision to pull the franchise tag offer on All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman appears to have backfired on general manager Dave Gettleman and the Carolina Panthers.

The reigning NFC champions are the league's most disappointing team following a 1-5 start. The team that went 17-2 last season suddenly finds itself mired in a four-game losing streak and desperately searching for answers heading into their bye week .

They've looked in complete disarray at times, particularly in the secondary where they have allowed the two highest single-game passing totals in the franchise's 22-year history in the past three games - 503 yards and four touchdowns to Atlanta's Matt Ryan on Oct. 2, and 465 yards and four TDs to New Orleans' Drew Brees last Sunday.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera acknowledged this week ''it was a little bit of a roll of the dice, I guess'' to go with younger cornerbacks this season.

A roll that has come up snake eyes for the Panthers.

It didn't have to be this way, of course.

Knowing they were already losing their other starting cornerback Charles Tillman to retirement, the Panthers initially put the franchise tag on Norman on March 1. It was a move, most figured, designed to buy time while they worked out a long-term deal with the cornerback.

But six weeks later, after failing to reach an extension with Norman, the Panthers surprisingly rescinded the $13.9 million franchise tag offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent.

He signed a couple of days later with the Washington Redskins and the Panthers haven't been the same since.

Carolina tried to replace Norman by drafting three cornerbacks - James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez - and adding veteran nickel back Leonard Johnson.

The moves simply haven't paid dividends so far.

Bradberry has missed the past two games with turf toe, Worley has struggled in coverage and Sanchez was beat for an 87-yard touchdown pass by Brandin Cooks last Sunday after initially failing to make the team's opening day roster. Johnson hasn't played all season while recovering from an offseason Achilles injury.

Robert McClain, the one returning veteran from last season, is out with a hamstring injury and the team cut Week 1 starter Bene Benwikere after Julio Jones racked up 300 yards against the Panthers.

At safety, Tre Boston has struggled filling in for veteran Roman Harper, who was slowing down with age last season but still found ways to be in the right place at the right time.

Gettleman declined interview requests for this story.

He said back in April that ''I don't subscribe to the we-are-only-one-player-away theory.'' He also said in training camp Carolina's pass rush was more than good enough to account for the loss of Norman.

But Carolina's pass rush has disappeared.

Starting defensive ends Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson have combined for a half-sack this season. The lack of a pass rush combined with a young secondary has resulted in quarterbacks hurting the Panthers through the air.

Carolina, a top 10 defense the past four seasons, is giving up 282 yards passing per game and has allowed 13 TDs passing.

''Well, that's probably the biggest disappointment is we haven't had the production we would have liked out of the front,'' Rivera said.

''The front has done a nice job. We've done a good job stopping the run. But that's not what's killing us. ... We've also got to find other ways to create those opportunities for us to put pressure on the quarterback.''

With problems in front of them and behind them, Carolina's star linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have found themselves pressing - trying to do too much to accommodate for the shortcomings of their defensive teammates.

Interestingly enough, the bulk of the money the Panthers saved by jettisoning Norman hasn't been spent. Gettleman had that earmarked for a contract extension for defensive tackle Kawann Short, but that never materialized partly because the Eagles raised the bar for defensive tackles when they gave Fletcher Cox a $17 million-a-year deal.

So the Panthers still have $19 million left under this year's salary cap - money they can carry over to next season.

Like Norman a year ago, Short is set to become a free agent after the season and the Panthers could face another tough financial decision on defense.

Even with Cam Newton back from a concussion, the Panthers have a big climb remaining.

Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, only one of 91 teams has started 1-5 and made the playoffs - the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs.

But Kuechly believes the Panthers are capable.

''We're going to take a few days off on this bye week and regroup,'' Kuechly said. ''Then we will come back and start winning some games.''

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