The Carolina Panthers just aren’t a good football team, and to pretend otherwise does no one any favors.
The Panthers lost for the fourth straight time Sunday, this time to a Washington squad that was only 2-9 entering the game. The Panthers were beaten, 29-21, in part because they once again couldn’t make a single yard on offense when it mattered, but also because they allowed a startling 248 rushing yards on defense.
It was the third home loss Carolina (5-7) has suffered this year to teams with losing records — Atlanta, Tampa Bay and now Washington. There were boos again at Bank of America Stadium, and empty seats, and a home team that started off on fire and ended up in ashes.
This was the 200th loss in Panthers’ history, and that had to have grated on owner David Tepper. Milestones like the franchise’s 200th defeat (vs. 195 wins) aren’t the reason that you spend a couple of billion for an NFL team.
Tepper said recently he had no intention of putting up with long-term mediocrity with the Panthers, and to call what we witnessed Sunday “mediocre” would be too kind. I don’t expect the owner to fire head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney before the season ends, but surely he’s thinking even harder now about whether he wants them to continue in 2020.
“I’m not worried about my future,” Rivera said in response to a question in his postgame press conference. “I’m worried about this football team’s future.”
If the Panthers or their fans want to find excuses for Sunday, they certainly could.
Cam Newton has been out for every game but the first two. The defense lost a couple of key interior linemen to injury. And if they only could have gained about 10 more yards in four separate games, the Panthers could be 9-3.
But what good do excuses do?
It’s time to understand that the Panthers are spinning their wheels, and those wheels are going backward when they are playing run defense. Run defense has for so long been a point of black-and-blue pride in the Rivera era. But it has gotten to the point now where the other teams’ offensive linemen are practically sprinting on the field, so anxious are they to pile up some more stats. Washington averaged 8.3 yards per rush Sunday, including runs of 21, 22, 37 and 60 yards.
By the end, Carolina wasn’t going to win unless Washington somehow never got the ball again, and for a few moments, it looked like that might happen.
Carolina’s offense nearly scored twice in the last two minutes Sunday. But then it somehow turned a first-and-goal from the Washington 1 with 41 seconds left into a fourth-and-goal from the 3, and then into a 23-yard sack-fumble of quarterback Kyle Allen.
Fans who had paused from packing up as Carolina had recovered a gorgeous onside kick to get within a single score and a possible overtime instead got their hearts broken one last time.
“I just felt like we kept taking turns making mistakes,” Allen said. “And it’s unacceptable. Poor performance all the way through.”
Washington stifled running back Christian McCaffrey on first-and-goal from the 1 in the final minute and then second-and-goal from the 2. On both plays, McCaffrey was hit in the backfield as Carolina’s porous offensive line missed assignments at critical times. Then came an Allen incompletion and the fourth-down play where he scrambled around, never got rid of the ball and was sacked for the seventh and final time.
“We took another one on the chin today that hurt,” inside linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
“It’s a game of inches,” Rivera said. “So truth of the matter is, the inches weren’t on our side this time.”
They weren’t, but they rarely are for teams at this level. The Panthers started last year 6-2 and finished 7-9. They started this year 4-2 and are now 5-7. As Tepper mentioned recently, unprompted, they have never had two straight winning seasons in a 25-year history.
The Panthers’ next winning season won’t occur until at least 2020.
By then, a fair amount of this team will have been tossed into a recycling bin.
There are some salvageable parts in this mess, but there’s also a lot of stuff that just needs to be thrown away.