The season’s not lost yet, but the Carolina Panthers know time is running out.
Five games in and the defending NFC champions already are in danger of missing the playoffs after Monday night’s 17-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped them to 1-4.
Only 6 percent of teams to start the season 1-4 have gone on to make the playoffs. The Panthers, who were 15-1 last season while making a run to Super Bowl 50, face an uphill climb. The Panthers are last in the NFC South, three games back of division leader Atlanta.
“We’re not going to put our heads down,” safety Kurt Coleman said Monday. “I'm not going to let anybody mope. We have a lot of life left in us.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera understands the sense of urgency, but said his team still has time to turn things around.
“Despite the fact that some people want to give the division to somebody already with 11 games left to play, we’ll just wait and see,” Rivera said Tuesday. “We’re going to play them one at a time and that’s how we’re going to look at it.”
Carolina’s struggles this season are dumbfounding. The Panthers have the same core group of players in place on both sides of the ball. The front seven, led by Pro Bowlers Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, has not been as dominant as it was last season. The Panthers had the NFL’s sixth-best defense last season, ranking fourth against the run. Carolina is 12th in total defense and 10th against the rush so far this year.
Quarterback Cam Newton, last year's NFL MVP, suffered a concussion against the Falcons and missed Monday’s game versus Tampa Bay. The Panthers hope to get him back for Sunday’s game against the 1-3 New Orleans Saints.
Even before he was injured, though, Newton hasn’t been the same. He accounted for 45 touchdowns last season to lead the NFL’s highest-scoring team and had 14 turnovers (10 interceptions, four fumbles). Newton has thrown just six touchdown passes, with two rushing touchdowns, this season with five interceptions and a lost fumble.
“We’re not going to worry about last year,” Rivera said. “It’s a different football team, different season. The bottom line is we have to focus on us getting better as a football team.
“It’s a number of things and these are things we have to correct as we go forward.”
The Panthers probably underestimated the value of Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, believing they could replace him with rookie James Bradberry. Carolina also drafted cornerbacks Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez this spring.
Worley struggled Monday night against the Bucs, falling for a double move by Mike Evans to give up a game-tying 26-yard touchdown with 4:27 remaining in the third quarter.
After getting torched by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for 503 yards and four touchdowns a week earlier, the Panthers cut third-year corner Bene Benwikere. Rivera said the Panthers were “retooling” the roster.
“This will be a really good test to find out exactly where our character and personality are,” Rivera said. “It’s a different group and that’s one thing I’m trying to stress. This is nothing like last year in terms of personnel and attitude. We have to find our way. That’s what the challenge will be.”
Rivera cited “missed opportunities in every phase” as reasons for the poor start. The Panthers had four turnovers Monday, including Brent Grimes’ end-zone interception of Derek Anderson in the fourth quarter.
Tight end Greg Olsen said during training camp he was worried about a Super Bowl hangover. Carolina is in danger of becoming the 13th team in NFL history to lose the Super Bowl and miss the playoffs the following season. Among the previous 12 teams to fall victim to the so-called “Super Bowl Curse” were the 2004 Panthers, who went 7-9 after losing Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Expectations were high entering this season, but the Panthers have not handled the pressure well.
“I do think we are pressing,” Rivera said. “These are some of our really good players who are pressing.
“It’s frustration at times.”
The Panthers were 3-8-1 in 2014 before closing the season with four straight victories to win the NFC South. They’re already three games back of division-leading Atlanta, but last season’s record does give the returning players confidence.
“The mindset of this team is we can easily win out,” running back Cameron Artis-Payne said Monday night. “We put together a 14-game stretch where we won last year. And we can put together whatever stretch this year.”