There wasn’t that much to criticize the Carolina Panthers on in regards to the 2015 National Football League season as they went 15-1 for the best record in the league. Quarterback Cam Newton was the NFL’s MVP, and the Panthers possessed a defense that was very difficult to score on. Heading into the 2016 NFL season, the Panthers were still expected to be one of the best teams in the NFC, but it was highly unlikely that they’d be able to replicate what they were able to do last year. However the Panthers have dug themselves an early hole that will be difficult to climb out of.
Following the Panthers 17-14 loss at home this past Monday night to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina is now 1-4. The Panthers have faced a tough schedule as three of their four losses have come against teams that are currently leading their respective divisions, but Carolina hasn’t been able to answer the bell.
What made the Panthers so difficult to deal with in 2015 was the fact that they dictated the pace. The Panthers scored first in 10 of their 15 victories which allowed them to dictate the pace in those games. Offensively the Panthers would jump on teams with their powerful rushing attack that was second in the National Football League and hand things over to their opportunistic defense that was known to pin their ears back and stifle opponents. The Panthers were the bullies of the NFL, but ever since they got punched in the mouth by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, they have not been able to find the winning formula that made them so successful last year.
The Panthers issues began in the off-season when team general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded Carolina’s franchise tag on cornerback Josh Norman, and voiding contract of veteran strong safety Roman Harper which made them free agents. Norman had 4 of the Panthers 24 interceptions last year and he was the team’s best cover corner. Gettleman took a hard stance with Norman who would go on to sign a five-year, $75 million deal with the Washington Redskins, while Harper would re-join the New Orleans Saints.
Norman’s departure has had a negative impact on the Panthers pass defense which is 17th in the National Football League this season as compared to 11th last year. And in Carolina’s Week 4 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers defense allowed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to torch them for 503 passing yards, while wide receiver Julio Jones amassed 300 receiving yards as Atlanta won 48-33. To make matters worse, the Panthers would release cornerback Bene Benwikere last week, while also cutting rookie defensive back Zack Sanchez prior to start of the season as these were two players that were initially looked at as far as replacing Norman. Overall the Panthers defense is 14th this season in total defense, but as a team they’ve been unable to rekindle the magic from 2015.
What made the Panthers defense so dominant in 2015 was the fact that they were flying to the football as they personified “gang tackling”. Very rarely was there a situation where one Panthers defender took on a ball carrier as it was a group effort which gave them a psychological edge over their opponents as it also led to a bevy of turnovers. Last season the Panthers defense forced 39 turnovers, while here in 2016 they’ve only produced 7. And it also hasn’t helped the Panthers that their offense has given away the football on 11 occasions this season.
In 2015, Newton couldn’t do any wrong en route to being named as the National Football League’s MVP as he made good decisions in regards to throwing the football and knowing when to scramble. But this year Newton has already thrown 5 interceptions, while he missed Carolina’s game this past Monday night against the Buccaneers after he suffered a concussion against the Falcons. Newton returned to practice yesterday, but his status for this Sunday’s contest against the Saints is still up in the air. The Panthers are still sixth in the NFL this season in rushing, but they have not produced the same level of physicality as they’ve only seen one running back produce a 100-yard game which was Fozzy Whitaker in their Week 2 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The Panthers are a prime example that once you give opposing teams a season’s worth of game film to see your strengths and weaknesses, they will find a way to make what you did last season obsolete. And in spite of the fact that the Panthers didn’t win the Super Bowl, they are still a big game for each of their opponents due to what they were able to accomplish last year, along with the fact that they drew the ire of many of their opponents in 2015 for their penchant to celebrate on scoring plays. This season, teams have been giving the Panthers a dose of their own medicine as they are punching them in the mouth and winning the physical matchup which is evident by their current three-game losing streak.
There is still time for the Panthers to get back on track, but there is little room for error. The Panthers will be on the road this Sunday to face the Saints in a must-win game as they can ill afford to fall to 1-5, and 0-3 within the NFC South. The Falcons are the team to beat so far in the division, and although that they currently have a three-game lead over Carolina in the division, these two rivals are set for another meeting on Christmas Eve.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera knows a thing or two as far as mid-season turnarounds with this team as he got Carolina to the playoffs in 2013 after a 1-3 start, and in 2014 in spite of beginning the year with a record of 3-8-1. The Panthers can lean on their past experience, but the time is now for them to put it into full gear.