Losing ways find Panthers again

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As it now stands, all last week’s victory at the Washington Redskins did was buy the Carolina Panthers a break from the parade of negativity that has been mushrooming around the franchise since the season began.

That little respite emphatically ended Sunday, as the Denver Broncos left Bank of America Stadium with a 36-14 victory.

With it, the Panthers sloped to the locker room filled with a feeling that has become all too familiar this season, though only twice has the team been soundly beaten. Ironically, that other lopsided defeat occurred when Peyton Manning’s younger brother, Eli, visited in September when his New York Giants cruised to a 36-7 victory. Sunday’s game put the tab this fall at Mannings 72, Panthers 21.

But the Mannings are the least of anyone’s concerns around here. A season of promise that included Super Bowl talk in July and August has quickly morphed into a dumpster fire. This team keeps creating ways to lose, and on Sunday, it weaved together its weaknesses to produce a rather forgettable performance.

“Without watching the tape, everybody took their turn looking pretty bad,” said veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross. “We wanted to run the ball against them, we didn’t run it very much for very many yards. We got behind and started throwing the ball; they have a good pass rush, as everybody knows, and it showed today.”

Dismal is a good way to describe most of what the Panthers (2-7) attempted. The defense too often couldn’t get off the field, and other than a few carries, the ground game (52 yards) was nonexistent.

Quarterback Cam Newton had an awful day passing, though the numbers (21-for-36, 241 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions) might tell a slightly different story. But seeing every snap of it reveals a humbling reality.

Perhaps because he hit the turf every other time the ball was snapped added to the struggles. Certainly a relentless pass rush affected Newton, who was sacked seven times on the afternoon. In one sequence, Newton got dirty on three consecutive plays; the latter resulting in a safety that drew a round of boos from the sellout crowd.

Even place kicker Justin Medlock, who converted his first seven attempts this season, missed one from a doable 43 yards out. And then there was the body language.

Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith spent the late scoring drive on the bench with a towel draped over his head. After his teammates scored, he moved to the defensive bench.

“So far as the pounding, we’re playing football, it’s not the ballet,” Newton said when asked about the sacks and the collective ugliness of the team’s performance. “We do have to come out and get better. Like I said, I’ve got to do better on my part, and everybody has to accept their challenges.”

The defeat and its magnitude derailed the progress made a week ago. This team needs all the positive energy it can muster, and suffering a second embarrassing loss at home just doesn’t provide that.

That five of the Panthers’ seven defeats haven’t been by decisive margins illuminates the degree of frustration accompanying this defeat. 

“This is a very hard pill to swallow,” Rivera said.

The second-year head coach said his team had opportunities, but really, this game was destined for blowout status from the end of the first quarter on, and that’s the biggest problem Carolina is facing. And now it will deal with the wrath of a community that was ready for the team’s generous prognostications in the summer heat to quickly turn into a reality.

They believed in Newton, who isn’t playing nearly as well as he did a year ago. They believed in Rivera, calling him a players’ coach. They even believed in the brass’ decision making, but that was before the slow start that led to the firing last month of long-time general manager Marty Hurney.

The Panthers now hope for a lot of things, mostly to right the ship. Not so much to quell the venom, but for some to save their jobs and others to build toward next season absent of any thought regarding further changes.

At this point, that’s all the Panthers have.