CHARLOTTE — The end is nigh.
Sunday’s mind-numbing loss to Washington, the worst team in the NFC, might’ve been the final straw for Ron Rivera.
In fact, it might’ve been the final act. Games like this get coaches fired.
The 29-21 loss dropped Carolina to 5-7 two weeks after owner David Tepper basically threatened Rivera and everyone else in an open forum with Panthers writers during which he warned of impending changes in the face of “long-term mediocrity.”
Rivera was unlikely to survive this season even before one of the worst losses in recent Carolina history. But this one defied reason.
After taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, the Panthers were outplayed by a team that entered the game 2-9 and outcoached by a team without a head coach.
In the fourth quarter, after Washington had scored 29 straight points, the Panthers’ banged-up defense had basically quit. And their fans were heading home.
The final minutes of the game were played in a stadium half-filled with people wearing burgundy jerseys.
This is what the end looks like.
Rivera was adamant afterward, suggesting that “play-calling” was the problem, deflecting the blame and saying he’s looking forward to the next game.
“I’m not worried about my future,” he said. “I’m worried about this football team’s future. We’ve got a game coming up on Sunday.”
A total rebuild of a franchise takes time. Whether the staff is fired after the season or this afternoon, we’re looking at a long climb back to respectability. Tepper was a minority owner in Pittsburgh, and he knows what a winning franchise looks like.
He’s likely already filled a notebook with changes to come, starting with the entire front office and going right down to the silly antics on game days in Bank of America Stadium.
The previous owners wanted decorum and a family atmosphere with the NFL shield at midfield and male cheerleaders running around with big flags and throwing T-shirts into the stands.
They don’t do that in Pittsburgh.
Tepper already removed the league logo from the field, and he’d remove the hideous statue of the previous owner outside the stadium if he could.
Some things will take longer to change.
The culture here is built around Cam Newton, who is unlikely to ever wear a Panthers uniform again. The talent around the injured Newton was designed to make Carolina an exciting, gambling team with a big personality chasing style points.
They don’t do that in Pittsburgh either.
After the Panthers lost to the Falcons two weeks ago, the day before Tepper called for the impromptu meeting with reporters, veteran Greg Olsen shredded the Carolina culture and the young players brought in by Marty Hurney and Rivera.
“Guys in this locker room got to realize playing in the NFL is a lot more than just running around and looking cool,” he said. “You’ve got to play.”
On a dreadful December day, with time running out in a loss for the ages, the Panthers offense actually made a valiant effort to come back, scoring a touchdown, getting the ball back on an onside kick then driving to the 2-yard line with a minute to play.
With no Carolina fans in the stadium, the Panthers called a timeout on a third and goal with the game and people’s jobs on the line. The stadium sound system was playing soft rock, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” to be specific.
They don’t do that in Pittsburgh.
And as soon as David Tepper runs everybody else out of the stadium, they won’t do it anymore here either.
The franchise has lost its way, and this was one of the worst days the Panthers have endured. Carolina is now on a four-game losing streak with no hope of making the playoffs, another mediocre season coming to an end way too early.
There are four games left to play, and then comes the reckoning.
Unless it comes today.