The Carolina Panthers flirted with perfection in 2015. They posted a 15-1 regular season record (and came dangerously close to winning the single game they lost). They won 10 games by seven or more points. The face of their franchise and the best player in the league, quarterback Cam Newton, won the NFL MVP award. They had two players (linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman) finish in the top four for NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting. A whopping six Carolina Panthers earned first-team AP All-Pro honors. And the team easily rolled through the NFC Playoffs, winning their two games by a combined score of 80-39.
While the Denver Broncos thoroughly dominated Carolina in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers looked like a budding NFL dynasty. You can understand why we touted the Panthers as one of the top Super Bowl 51 contenders in the offseason. However, through the first six weeks of the regular season, it is painfully obvious that we were dead wrong. Carolina has struggled to a 1-5 overall record, which ties them with the San Francisco 49ers for second–to–last place in the NFC (the Chicago Bears are 1-6). To be blunt, they look nothing like the team that made their opponents look foolish in 2015.
First and foremost, the Panthers’ neglect of their glaring offensive line issues finally came back to bite them. You can call it a simple oversight by a team that puts their faith in the elusiveness and size of their MVP quarterback. Or, you can call it downright idiotic given the importance of Newton to their team’s success. Either way, the Panthers must figure out a way to protect their most prized asset (Newton). If they don’t, they will run the risk of fading into the oblivion — otherwise known as NFL mediocrity.
Carolina already lost Newton for one game (due to a concussion he suffered in Week 4) this season. He’s been sacked 15 times and taken countless additional hits inside and outside of the pocket (remember Carolina’s Week 1 game against the Denver Broncos). At the rate he is taking hits, there is very little chance that the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner will finish out the 2016 season without missing more time.
The Panthers’ other glaring issue in 2016 is the absence of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman from their secondary. As a refresher, in one of the most shocking developments of the past offseason, Carolina General Manager Dave Gettleman rescinded the franchise tag tender that the team used on Norman after the two sides struggled to make any progress toward a long-term contract extension for the 28-year-old defensive back. The decision immediately made Norman an unrestricted free agent. In less than a week’s time, he signed a five-year, $75 million deal with the Washington Redskins.
Some circles actually applauded the hardline approach Gettleman used to make this risky decision. However, at this point it is clear that he should have let Norman play out the 2016 season on the franchise tag at the very least. The Panthers are relying on a group of young, unproven players at the cornerback position. They are now actually starting two rookies (James Bradberry and Daryl Worley) following the team’s decision to waive third-year pro Bene Benwikere after Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones scorched him for 300 yards in Week 4.
At the end of the day, Carolina’s dominance up front (we still believe they have one of the top two or three defensive front sevens in the league) won’t be enough if their secondary lacks leadership and swagger and can’t slow anybody down. As Norman said, “You get what you pay for.”
Is the 2016 season officially a lost cause for the Carolina Panthers? Not completely. But winning another conference title or taking home a fourth-straight division title seems out of the picture at this point. In fact, the odds of the Panthers even making the Playoffs at all are stacked against them. According to data from USA Today, only eight NFL teams have gone on to make it to the postseason after a 1-4 start, which is where Carolina stood in Week 5. Regardless, stranger things have happened. When this team plays well, they undoubtedly have the talent to beat any team in the league.
Only time will tell if they can prove us wrong again — only this time it would be beneficial for them to do so. However, we just don’t see this team having what it takes to turn things around in time to find their way into the NFC Playoffs in 2016.