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Watching the Carolina Panthers often leads to one of two things: the feeling you are witnessing something wonderful or the desire to punch yourself in the face.
The Panthers are one of the most frustrating teams in the NFL. It’s possible they are the most frustrating. They outplayed the Saints on Monday night and still lost. In total, they’ve lost six straight games, and with a few exceptions, they looked like the better team in almost every game.
They are faster and stronger than most teams they face, yet sometimes they look timid. Quarterback Cam Newton, whose season came to an early end Wednesday, is a fierce, smart competitor, yet some of his throws looked like ducks who just learned to fly. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is a force who crushes opponents, yet teams find ways to work around him.
The Panthers are the NFC version of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They should be so much better and simultaneously so much worse. In the first quarter, they awe you; in the second, they disgust you; in the second half, your eyes pop out of your head and then glaze over.
Several front-office sources in both conferences believe the chaotic nature of the Panthers will result in massive changes this offseason.
This isn’t breaking news. Normally, when teams have these kinds of systemic issues, people get fired. We already saw Mike McCarthy take the fall for a struggling Packers offense this season.
Ron Rivera looks like he’ll suffer the same fate, according to those front-office sources, who don’t think new owner David Tepper will tolerate this kind of losing. If Rivera and Co. drop the final two games, the Panthers would finish 6-10—after starting 6-2. According to ESPN.com, no team has done that since the league moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
Rivera knows trouble is in the air, which may be why he’s appeared annoyed at the growing questions about his future. “Absolutely, because I don’t know,” Rivera said, via ESPN.com, when asked if the speculation about his job was bothering him. “I’ve been through it a couple of times my first two seasons. But at the end of the day, it comes down to one person (Tepper), and that’s the only one that knows.”
Perhaps more troubling for the franchise than Rivera’s status is what the sources see in Newton—that he looks to be breaking down physically, and breaking down fast.
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Newton is just 29, but at times, he moved as if he was 49 this season. It’s not entirely surprising given all the hits he’s taken. He spent much of this season fighting a shoulder injury, one that prompted the Panthers to decide this week to shut Newton down for the rest of the season, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport. One NFL assistant coach said it looked as if Newton was experiencing a “Rob Gronkowski-type decline”; the Patriots tight end is also 29 and seemingly in a constant battle to remain healthy enough to play.
During the Panthers’ losing skid, Newton has thrown nine interceptions to nine touchdowns, scored no rushing touchdowns and been sacked 17 times.
But don’t let the shiny object that is Newton take all your attention. With the exception of a handful of players, including Kuechly, running back Christian McCaffrey and safety Eric Reid, this entire Panthers team is off. They are easily one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
What can the Panthers do to change things? Not much in the short term. The sidelining of Newton essentially ends the season for Carolina.
For next year and beyond? The main thing is to continue to add weapons on offense. McCaffrey is a game-changing talent, and there is some young receiving talent on the roster, but the Panthers still lack that great, field-stretching wide receiver. DJ Moore has proved a capable pass-catcher with 49 grabs for 688 yards and two touchdowns, but he isn’t keeping any defensive backs up at night.
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Carolina also needs more explosiveness on defense. Defensive end Mario Addison leads the team with eight sacks, but the team ranks 25th in the league in the category. There may not be another Khalil Mack out there, but they’ve got to find a way to make opposing QBs uncomfortable.
The Panthers have seen a lot lately, and not much of it good, from the Super Bowl 50 loss to former owner Jerry Richardson making his way out of the league under disturbing circumstances.
Yes, more turmoil awaits, but maybe this time, what emerges will be something that doesn’t want to make us want to bang our heads against the wall.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.