The Carolina Panthers must win four of their final six games to equal a 6-10 mark last season that generated some excitement in the Queen City.
But repeating last year’s record isn’t on anyone’s mind around the franchise.
Rumors swirling on radio shows and elsewhere suggest many of the Panthers are playing for their jobs because the team will be blown up after the season and Carolina will start from scratch, again.
That, of course would mean a regime change. With former general manager of 11 years Marty Hurney canned last month, that may not bode well for second-year head coach Ron Rivera.
“I’m not concerned about me, I’m really not,” Rivera said following Sunday’s home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “No matter what happens, I’ll be OK. Whether I’m here next year or not, I will be A-OK.”
But Rivera’s face has increasingly told a different tale. You can see the stress, and he doesn’t wear it well. He’s not a rah-rah coach, so there’s no camouflaging it there. He isn’t a demonstratively dictatorial man, so he’s not covering up any insecurities.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I won’t know until after the season, I know that much,” he said. “From my conversations with (owner) Mr. (Jerry) Richardson, that’s my approach. That’s the way I look at it.”
The Panthers are 2-8 and coming off perhaps the most discouraging loss of the season, and maybe the two-year Rivera and Cam Newton era.
They led Tampa 21-10 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter Sunday in at that point was their most complete effort of the season. But the defense fell apart and the team’s increasingly fragile psyche collapsed under a stream of short pass plays and a questionable personal foul call.
Carolina didn’t recover and lost in overtime, never getting the ball in the extra period. The teams’ body language following the defeat told a tale that hadn’t yet surfaced despite the losing. It was as if reality was finally beginning to settle in: Not only are preseason claims of a Super Bowl appearance and even a spot in the playoffs long out of the picture, but this franchise that was so excited just a few months ago could be on the verge of imploding.
The Panthers’ play lends reason to believe this trek is their destiny.
Newton’s sophomore slump and the criticism extending beyond his play has become an anchor of negativity for the franchise. Injuries along the offensive line and its awful play has limited his chances at breaking out.
And as the close losses piled up, speckled with a pair of blowouts courtesy of the Manning brothers, Sunday’s breakdown may have been the steel beam breaking. As each day passes and the players struggle clearing their minds to focus on the immediate task at hand – visiting the Philadelphia Eagles next Monday night – they are further from being able to shake the tree and make a push at last season’s final record.
“It’s just a matter of finishing,” defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “We’re going to watch the tape, and obviously we’re going to be mad at ourselves at a couple of plays.”
So many of the Panthers said Sunday they have to learn how to finish games, how to make that extra play to lift them to a victory or simply close the deal on a team they are leading.
It may have been the speed bump keeping this team from having a very different tenor about the season. But after all they have dealt with, starting may now be the team’s biggest key moving forward.