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Have the Panthers Underachieved During the Cam Newton-Ron Rivera Era?

Following their wild-card loss to the Saints, the Carolina Panthers are officially up for sale. And looking through the eyes of a potential owner, this is a wildly talented team, from Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey to Greg Olsen. So why hasn't there been more success?

At some point before the start of the 2018 season, a new owner or ownership group will likely purchase the Carolina Panthers from disgraced owner Jerry Richardson. And while, like everything else in sports now, it will be a calculated and cold business decision based on future profits, there will be someone forking over millions (possibly billions) of dollars who will ask a simple question.

What type of team am I buying, anyway?

It’s an interesting thought following Carolina’s spirited, 31-26 loss to the Saints in Sunday’s wild-card round. The Panthers have made the playoffs in four of the seven years of the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera era. They reached one Super Bowl, but were overwhelmed by a generationally talented Denver Broncos defense. They won three division titles, but one came during a year where the team was 7-8-1 and advanced in the playoffs only because they faced a Carson Palmer-less Cardinals team in the first round.

They’ve had stretches where they were unbeatable, and stretches where they are so confounding offensively that it’s hard to believe they’ve had the same coordinator since 2013.

A new owner might wonder: Have the Panthers underachieved during the Rivera/Newton era or is this just another good football team being muted amid the Patriot dynasty? On Sunday, it was hard to pick them apart. Newton was blindsided in the third quarter by Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata after escaping from another oncoming defender. He was unable to make it off the field by himself, but only sat out a series (his right eye got jabbed, though the league is evaluating whether Newton actually had a concussion, or should have gone through formal concussion protocol) before coming back in to chuck a 56-yard touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey, putting Carolina within a score on their final drive. On defense, they bottled up Rookie of the Year shoo-in Alvin Kamara, holding him to just 33 total yards (he averaged nearly 100 total yards per game this season). These are signs of a talented team interested in playing for their head coach who—by the way—just received a contract extension.

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But during Sunday’s game, I couldn’t help but think of something Newton himself said back in 2015:

“I don’t think anybody has ever been who I’m trying to be,” he told WCCB in Charlotte. “Nobody has the size, nobody has the speed, nobody has the arm strength, nobody had the intangibles that I've had. I’m not saying that to say I'm a one-on-one type of person that this league will never see another. No, I’m not saying that. Hear me out. I’m just saying that so much of my talents have not been seen in one person.” 

Newton was right back then. When the Panthers are humming, there is not a single defender in the league who can match Newton’s skillset. He is taller and heavier than Ben Roethlisberger, but he was only about .18 seconds slower than Michael Vick’s Pro Day 40-yard dash time and yet, there are offensive coordinators in this league designing more prolific offenses for Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Blake Bortles and Jared Goff. There were moments this season, and throughout Sunday's game where this loaded roster lacked any panache. Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen are stars. Two of their offensive linemen, Andrew Norwell and Daryl Williams, made the Pro Football Focus All-Pro roster. This should be a deadly combination. 

If I were a prospective owner of the Carolina Panthers, that would be the side of the argument keeping me up at night. Whether it be scheme, personnel or a combination of the two, something has failed the Panthers during Newton’s tenure. He’ll enter next season at 29 years old—dicey territory for a player that is so prolific as a power runner as well as a passer. Did we all just expect too much out of Newton, or were some of his best years squandered trying to figure the whole thing out?