2016 NFL Preview: Great season, Panthers. Now do it again

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

What happens when the storybook season doesn’t have the right ending?

The 2015 Carolina Panthers had a season for the ages. They had a 14-0 start and became the seventh team in NFL history to win at least 15 regular-season games. Quarterback Cam Newton emerged as the best player in the league, and its MVP. They led the Seattle Seahawks 31-0 in a divisional-round playoff win and beat the Arizona Cardinals by 34 points in the NFC championship. They were a single step from one of the greatest seasons in NFL history.

It’s funny how it all gets erased with one loss at the end. It might not be fair, but the Panthers will be remembered more for one loss than their 17 wins. They face-planted in Super Bowl 50 and Von Miller ended up on your television all offseason. Nobody will fondly recall the 2015 Panthers, just like nobody talks about the 2011 Green Bay Packers or the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers. I’d love to tell you that Panthers fans will have untarnished, beautiful memories of last season and can put Super Bowl 50 out of their minds, but I doubt that’s the case. Getting that far and then losing at the end is brutal.

And now the Panthers have to start again. That’s not easy. Super Bowls VI and VII were won by teams that lost the Super Bowl the previous year. That’s the last time it happened. The 1972 Miami Dolphins were the last team to win a Super Bowl after losing in the Super Bowl the previous year. It has been 23 years since a Super Bowl loser even made it back to the next Super Bowl (1993 Buffalo Bills). Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 29 of 45 Super Bowl losers didn’t win a playoff game the next season. Among them, 12 missed the postseason entirely and 17 lost their first playoff game (h/t to the San Francisco Chronicle).

That’s the bad news. The good news is the Panthers are loaded again.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

The Panthers return almost their entire 15-1 team and bring back receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was injured all of 2015 (they had one big loss on the roster, and we’ll get to that in a moment). Newton is 27 years old. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is 25. The Panthers had some good veterans, but a lot of their core is young. The Panthers return head coach Ron Rivera, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Mike Shula. The staff did a great job last season and the Panthers are a bit lucky they didn’t have a coordinator poached by a team with a head-coaching vacancy.

On one hand the Panthers seem ready to make another run right back to the Super Bowl. But the history of Super Bowl losers is tough to ignore. So much has to go right, whether it’s bounces in certain games, injury luck or avoiding a tough playoff matchup, like facing one the greatest defenses ever in a Super Bowl. The Panthers caught a lot of those breaks last season, until they were upset in Super Bowl 50.

Then there’s the weird Josh Norman situation. I still don’t know exactly what happened, because none of the Panthers’ explanations make any sense. I’ve written about it extensively before but here’s the short version: The Panthers voluntarily removed an All-Pro player from their roster and got nothing in return for it. They didn’t re-invest the savings, because there was nothing at that point to spend the money on. Free agency was picked through by late April, when Norman’s franchise tag was rescinded. If the Panthers decided Norman was not a part of their plans, they should have figured that out in February, not late April. Norman would have played under the franchise tag. He had made $2.21 million in career salary at that point; Norman was not holding out and passing up $14 million for one season. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is very good, but this was an illogical, rash decision that cost the Panthers one of their best players with no benefit attached. It was really strange.

And it might not even matter. The Panthers are so talented on both sides of the ball, they could win it all without Norman (I mean, they went 15-1 without Benjamin last season, right?). They’re just attempting it with a higher degree of difficulty.

The Panthers have never won a Super Bowl, and coming so close only to watch Denver lift the Lombardi Trophy was tough. It’s difficult to get as close as Carolina did last season. The Panthers have the talent to get to another Super Bowl this season, but they’re facing a tough, long road back. Talent or not, they might never repeat what they accomplished in 2015. That’s why the lost opportunity is so painful.

Read the Josh Norman paragraph above. The Panthers didn’t really add much or subtract much of note before deciding to jettison an All-Pro for no good reason. Grade: D-

The Panthers have an MVP quarterback, and his receivers should be better. Kelvin Benjamin wasn’t quite the rookie superstar he has been made out to be — many folks, especially in fantasy football circles, have pointed out that a lot of his 2014 production came in garbage time. But that doesn’t mean he’s not good. He’s a former first-round pick and should be better, assuming he’s healthy after ACL surgery. Second-year receiver Devin Funchess has gotten rave reviews all offseason. Coming off a fantastic 2015, Cam Newton should have even more options in the passing game this season.

Another reason the Josh Norman move was odd is that the Panthers aren’t very deep at cornerback. The Panthers depth chart at cornerback is led by underwhelming vets Bene Benwikere and Robert McClain and the three corners they drafted. It could all work out, and the Panthers’ defensive scheme doesn’t put too much responsibility on their cornerbacks anyway, but it’s still the most glaring weakness the Panthers have.

Cam Newton is unique in many ways, especially with how he’s used in the run game. Usually running quarterbacks only play that way for a season or two and then they evolve out of necessity. NFL teams don’t want their well-paid quarterbacks running into linebackers too long. Even Mike Vick, the most exciting runner at quarterback in NFL history, never had four straight seasons of 100 carries or more, or had more than 123 carries in a season. Newton has at least 100 rushing attempts in all five of his NFL seasons and had a career-high 132 last season. Newton ranks second, third, fourth 12th and 19th for most rushing attempts in a single season by a quarterback (Bobby Douglass holds the record with 141 in 1972). Even in 2014, when Cam Newton was coming off offseason ankle surgery and had a car accident during the season, he still ran the ball 103 times in 14 games.

Part of what makes the Carolina offense great is that Newton is a spectacular runner. It’s something the defense has to account for every play. The Panthers understand they’re a better team right now with Newton being a big part of the running game. They also have to realize that no other quarterback has come anywhere close to this type of volume in the running game, and they are probably shaving years off Newton’s career by using him so often as a runner. Will Carolina ease back on Newton’s responsibility in the run game? It’s an interesting dilemma. It’s hard to worry about how effective Newton might be in five or 10 years when you’re trying to win a Super Bowl now.

Thomas Davis is a medical marvel. He’s believed to be the only pro athlete to come back after tearing his ACL three times. He’s 33, yet moves like he’s five years younger. Last season he was named first-team All-Pro for the first time. What makes the Panthers defense special is a very good line and two linebackers who can cover from sideline to sideline. Luke Kuechly might be the best linebacker in the NFL. But when Davis finally slows down the Panthers’ defense will lose some of its luster, though 2015 first-round pick Shaq Thompson is being groomed to replace him.

Cosell: “I think Carolina has continued to expand and advance all the run game principles, which helps Cam Newton, and it creates opportunities in the pass game. While he may never totally lose his scattershot tendencies, I thought he was a little better last year. And keep in mind, he makes some throws that are ridiculous. There are times he’ll make throws with great ball location and great velocity. He’s a velocity thrower. He’ll make some throws that are just ‘Oh my god’ throws. You have to put him in context of the overall offense. He’s the reason they can do all these things. Even though he may never be a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees in terms of those precision throws and the ability to throw with pace and tempo the way Brady and Brees can do, he adds so much to what they can do tactically that this offense is very difficult to defend.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Panthers and the rest of the NFC South.]

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “Kelvin Benjamin eclipsed 1,000 yards and scored nine touchdowns during his rookie season, which is obviously impressive, but he was highly inefficient when doing so, securing just 50.3 percent of his targets. Despite coming off a torn ACL and playing for a team that ran more than any other in football last season, his average draft position (according to Fantasy Football Calculator) is the WR16. Sophomore Devin Funchess could easily emerge in 2016, so the volume that aided Benjamin his rookie year may not necessarily be there. He’s getting drafted awfully aggressively for someone who got just 7 yards per target as a rookie in 2014 and is coming off major knee surgery.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

There have been seven teams in NFL history to win at least 15 regular-season games. Not surprisingly, none of the first six matched their win total the following year.

San Francisco 49ers: 15-1 in 1984, 10-6 in 1985

Chicago Bears: 15-1 in 1985, 14-2 in 1986

Minnesota Vikings: 15-1 in 1998, 10-6 in 1999

Pittsburgh Steelers: 15-1 in 2004, 11-5 in 2005

New England Patriots: 16-0 in 2007, 11-5 in 2008

Green Bay Packers: 15-1 in 2011, 11-5 in 2012

The good news for Carolina is that none of those teams fell off a cliff. Five made the playoffs, and the exception was an 11-5 Patriots team that lost Tom Brady to a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the opener. The 2005 Steelers won a Super Bowl as a wild-card team.

The bad news is those six teams dipped by an average of four wins. If the Panthers follow suit, 11-5 would probably win the NFC South. But it probably would mean they’d have to travel at some point in the NFC playoffs, which isn’t ideal given how good some of the conference’s top teams are.

DO THE PANTHERS HAVE ENOUGH AT RUNNING BACK?

For a run-first team, the Panthers haven’t poured a ton of resources into running back. Jonathan Stewart has a high salary-cap number, but that was due to a contract from the previous regime. The Panthers seem content with what they have elsewhere at the position.

Stewart is still effective, but he’s 29 with a long injury history. The last time he played all 16 games in a season was 2011. If he misses time again, Cameron Artis-Payne would probably be next up. Artis-Payne was a fifth-round pick last year, and averaged 4.1 yards on 45 carries. Fozzy Whittaker (85 career carries with three teams over four seasons) is also around. The Panthers have an injury-prone starting running back and neither of their top two backups have 100 career carries. That’s a bit risky for a team that led the NFL with 526 rushing attempts last season, but the Panthers apparently are comfortable with what they have.

The Panthers aren’t going 15-1 again. Last season’s run isn’t something that happens twice in a row. But that’s not the goal for Carolina anyway. Cam Newton could win another MVP, the Panthers could be the top seed in the NFC again, they could advance to the Super Bowl and win it all this time.

The Super Bowl hangover is real. The Panthers aren’t going to fall off, especially in a division that might not have another .500 team, but after going 15-1 and coming up short in the Super Bowl, nobody cares if they win another NFC South title. And it’s hard to make two Super Bowls in a row because so many things have to go right. Even if they get through some of the scary stuff that could happen — Cam Newton regressing or getting hurt on one of his 120 or so carries, the cornerback situation being a bigger problem than the team cares to admit, Thomas Davis finally slowing down some after an incredible career — they will still have to win at least two playoff games in a very tough NFC just to make it to the Super Bowl. That’s the problem with enormous expectations. Carolina could have a very good season and it will be considered a disappointment if it doesn’t end with a championship.

Some people tried to downgrade the Panthers last season because of their easy schedule, but 15-1 is undeniable. They were a phenomenal team last season. They happened to go up against a great defense in the Super Bowl and lost. There’s no shame in that. Either the Panthers struggle with huge expectations and starting back at square one after getting so close last season, or they use the near-miss as motivation and finish the job this season. The talent is there for them to win it all. They deserve the top spot as we head into the preseason.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders
14. New York Jets
13. New York Giants
12. Houston Texans
11. Dallas Cowboys
10. Minnesota Vikings
9. Kansas City Chiefs
8. Denver Broncos
7. Cincinnati Bengals
6. Green Bay Packers
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. New England Patriots
3. Seattle Seahawks
2. Arizona Cardinals

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!