Sunday’s loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a fitting end to the Carolina Panthers season. Everything that Panthers fans have dealt with all year showed up on Sunday. If you want one game to sum up this season, this was the game.
Cam Newton and the offense put together a great first drive, and then looked out of sync the rest of the game. The defense was solid, but failed to get a stop when they really needed one. And Graham Gano missed kicks that a good kicker would make.
The game ended when Greg Olsen slipped on his route as the Panthers were going for two and the win.
The perfect sequence to highlight this year came in the first quarter. James Bradberry made a heads up play to pick off Jameis Winston to give Carolina the ball on the Bucs 16. Already up 7-3, the team should have gotten a field goal at worse from that position. A good team would have scored in five plays or less and not let the Bucs off the ropes. But, the Panthers are not a good team. They took a sack, then a penalty, and then attempted a 45-yard field goal that Gano missed. That’s just how this season has gone.
Whether it was Gano missing on opening night against the Denver Broncos, Derek Anderson throwing an interception in the endzone in the first game against Tampa Bay, a 20-play, 10-minute drive against the Kansas City Chiefs that ended in a punt, the defense giving receivers too much space on fourth quarter drives; you’d lose track of all the ways the Panthers blew games this year if you tried counting.
It was just that kind of year. And it was just that kind of game.
Jonathan Stewart was effective early, and then never heard from again. Kelvin Benjamin was invisible all game, but came alive when it was too late. And Cam Newton was about as ineffective as he’s been all year. Which is saying a lot because he was inexcusably bad this year.
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I don’t know where the team goes from here. Certainly changes will be made. I still believe that Mike Shula has to go. The offense isn’t going to evolve the way Ron Rivera says that he wants it to under Shula. Cam isn’t going to evolve under Shula. I think David Gettleman has to re-evaluate the talent he has acquired and, for the love of God, not draft a defensive tackle with the 8th overall pick.
Beyond personnel changes, certain players need to make changes in the offseason. Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess have to beat press coverage and use their size to their advantage. Shaq Thompson has to make better reads. Tre Boston has to improve his pass and run coverage. Kony Ealy has to find a way to get to the quarterback more consistently. All of these guys are talented, and have shown flashes of brilliance. And they are all young and have yet to reach their prime. But they all need to get better if the Panthers hope to become a top team again.
After the game, Cam mentioned that he doesn’t like football right now, and that he needs time to away from the game. That’s probably a smart decision. This was a rough year for him. He tried having fun, but the joy was quickly sapped when he took an uncalled blow to the head. Time away to recharge is probably the best thing for him, and really everyone on the team.
I think that’s good advice for Panthers fans as well. It was a long season. It wasn’t a very fun season. But, there’s always next season.