Following are five Carolina Panthers plays that could have dramatically changed the 2016 season…
Just a year removed from a Super Bowl appearance the Carolina Panthers struggled to finish 6-10 in 2016. Injuries occurred on both sides of the football, limiting production, and a young defense took their time getting consistent results.
Carolina had their weaknesses highlighted and is now looking toward the draft and free agency in order to address those concerns.
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Quarterback Cam Newton fell short of the production from his MVP award winning 2015 season and the return of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was less than stellar. Newton’s lack of protection was evident as the franchise quarterback absorbed hit after hit while inside the pocket.
With so many glaring short falls leading to a last place finish in the NFC South and a hopeful rebound in 2017, it’s hard to imagine only a few plays making a difference. However, following are five plays that could have had Carolina in the mix for an unprecedented fourth divisional title and playoff return.
Plays are listed In chronological order beginning on opening night in Denver…
Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano (9) misses a fifty yard field goal attempt as punter Andy Lee (8) holds in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Panthers 21-20. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Week 1 – Graham Gano Misses Game Winning Field Goal
A Super Bowl 50 rematch to kick off the 2016 season was highly anticipated. Carolina was looking for redemption although they would have traded a Week 1 victory to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Still, beginning the season on a positive note would be beneficial and Carolina could build momentum for the season.
Newton took multiple punishing, unflagged, hits in a physical contest that was tight from the beginning. Carolina led by 10 entering the final quarter but Denver would respond with 14 unanswered points.
The Panthers cut the lead to one on a Graham Gano 36-yard field goal and the defense forced a three-and-out during the ensuing possession. Newton would lead the offense on a 12-play drive setting up a possible game winning field goal attempt from 50-yards.
Oct 10, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson (3) looks to pass as Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end William Gholston (92) pressures in the third quarter. The Buccaneers defeated the Panthers 17-14 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Week 5 – Derek Anderson Goal Line Interception
Newton sustained a concussion a week prior in Atlanta and would miss the Monday Night Football matchup with Tampa Bay. Backup Derek Anderson would get the start after establishing a reputation for playing well against the Buccaneers.
A slow start featuring missed field goals by both teams gave way to a 6-0 Tampa Bay lead at halftime. It appeared some half time adjustments were established as Anderson would lead the Panthers in back-to-back scoring drives to open the second half and a 14-6 lead.
The Buccaneers would answer, complete a successful two-point conversion, and tie the game before disaster struck. Midway through the final quarter Carolina would find themselves on the doorstep of taking over the game with a first-and-goal from the one-yard line.
Oct 16, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws against the Carolina Panthers during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Panthers 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Week 6 – Brees Converts on 3rd and Long
A hot start by the New Orleans Saints inside the Superdome appeared initially insurmountable of a Carolina team 1-4 and limping into their bye week. However, the resolve of this unit was tested and they continued to compete.
Trailing at one point 21-0 and 31-17 as the final frame began it would have been easy for the Panthers to quit. Instead, they battled and tied the game at 38 with 2:58 remaining on the clock. The comeback was capped off with a Newton two-yard touchdown run and successful two-point conversion attempt to Devin Funchess.
The defense would initially respond as both Charles Johnson and Mario Addison shared a sack of Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees to start the ensuing drive. On the closing side of the two-minute warning Brees faced a third-and-nine from his own 26-yard line.
Travaris Cadet with the first on a crossing pattern. Obviously big. At the Saints 35
Nov 13, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) before being stripped of the ball by Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters (22) with 29 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs defeated the Panthers 20-17 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Week 10 – Kelvin Benjamin Fumbles
Unfortunately, this game featured a variety of different plays that could have eventually changed the outcome.
After winning two straight out of the bye week Carolina surged to a 17-3 halftime lead that was highlighted by the return of the dab from Newton. Everyone appeared to be having fun again and the fans could feel the momentum of the season turning until the second half.
An ill advised lob from a pressured Newton led to a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown by Chiefs’ safety Eric Berry. The Panthers maintained the lead at 17-14 but the tide was about to turn.
Through the different miscues and mistakes Carolina continued to battle, relentless in giving up an opportunity for their third straight win that would have them within one game of evening their record. The defense held late forcing a Kansas City punt that would return the ball to Newton and the Panthers in a tie game with 29-seconds remaining in regulation.
Nov 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) rides the cart after an injury in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers defeated the Saints 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Week 11 – Luke Kuechly Injured
Even while winning 23-20 in primetime on a Thursday night the Panthers were forced to deal with another season changing play. Leading by 10 with just under five minutes remaining in the game, Brees was attempting to orchestrate another comeback.
A first-down Tim Hightower hand off went for four yards before Kuechly made the stop. However, as the pile cleared number 59 would remain grounded. The stadium fell silent as fans and players witnessed one of the team captains crumpled on the field in misery.
Carted off the field everyone feared the worse.
Kuechly had sustained another concussion, his second severe instance in as many seasons and he would not return – for the season.
Dec 24, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess (17) and quarterback Cam Newton (1) and quarterback Derek Anderson (3) before the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Week 1: Starting 1-0 versus 0-1 would have been great for Carolina. Not to mention the benefit of having defeated a team that bested you in the Super Bowl during the last game you played. Following the win at home against San Francisco the Panthers would have been 2-0 continuing their momentum from the 2015 season.
Week 5: A touchdown instead of a turnover likely wins the game for Carolina. Even with Anderson at quarterback the team would have been 3-2 and 1-1 in divisional play as opposed to 1-4 and 0-2.
Week 6: Back-to-back divisional victories following a heartbreaking loss in Atlanta could have helped build confidence into the bye week. If Brees doesn’t convert Carolina gets the ball back just under the two-minute warning with all three timeouts and every ounce of positive energy having already battled back to tie the game.
Week 10: A win here could have turned the season around from its’ present standpoint but that wasn’t the case. Had Benjamin not fumbled the game would have gone into overtime and at that point at least both teams would have had a fair chance, instead of handing it to the Chiefs. A Panthers victory would have meant an eventual six game winning streak in this scenario.
Week 11: Carolina would have now been 8-2 and 3-1 in divisional play. Without the defensive captain the Panthers finished 2-4 down the stretch or 10-6 had these plays gone another direction.
Kuechly’s presence down the stretch would have obviously made a difference and playing games in playoff contention would give Carolina an opportunity at another playoff berth. Despite the 6-10 record, the fact that only five plays could have drastically changed the season outcome gives definitive hope for a rebound in 2017.