Cats typically land on their feet, but the Carolina Panthers fell flat on their faces this season.
As the NFL playoffs roll along, the fact that both teams that appeared in Super Bowl 50 somehow missed the cut hangs heavy over the Carolinas and Colorado. In fact, the only thing that makes me feel better about the Panthers’ inability to make the playoffs is that the Denver Broncos — the team that whipped them in the Big Game a year ago — delivered an insubstantial season, as well.
At least the Broncs have the excuse of losing one of the strongest talents that’s ever played. Carolina still has their own living legend running the offense.
Super Bowl slumps have happened in the past, even in the Panthers’ relatively short history. The Cardiac Cats Version 1.0 followed up their title appearance in 2004 with a 7-9 record, kicked off by a 1-7 start and capped by a short field goal against the New Orleans Saints to miss a wild-card berth.
This year, the Panthers finished 6-10 — dead last in the tire-and-hair fire that is the NFC South. We missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012. No team has ever played as well in the previous season and failed to reach the postseason in any fashion.
The Panthers’ final game occurred on New Year’s Day. Sadly, I didn’t even catch the game, because I was otherwise engaged with covering Wake Forest University basketball.
Actually, if we’re being honest, I’m not so sad about it. In hindsight, I know I wouldn’t have wanted to witness my team limp to the end of this godawful season with a one-point loss to the damn Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
I haven’t watched a bit of the Cats since their 35-32 loss against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 27. And even worse — if you keep score of fandom like some pretentious jerk — I haven’t watched a full game since the New Orleans Saints topped the Panthers by a field goal back on Oct. 16.
I did write about that one. And it was a slow, deep stab in the belly so disheartening that I think my brain subconsciously yet conveniently forgot to keep tabs of the Panthers’ schedule as a coping mechanism.
Thing is, there are plenty of reasons why Carolina failed to keep up their near-flawless 2015-’16 run.
For one, injuries plagued the team.
Notably, quarterback Cam Newton got concussed in Game 4 against the Atlanta Falcons, which they lost 48-33; the following loss against the Bucs with backup QB Derek Anderson may have come as no surprise, but we’re still talking about the Bucs here.
Down the stretch, linebacker Luke Kuechly received a concussion of his own in the Week 11 match against the Saints on Nov. 17, which Carolina won by a field goal. Unfortunately, the Panthers lost the next game in Oakland by… well, a field goal.
There’s a pattern there: The Panthers lost quite a few close games. A cursory review of Carolina’s season shows we they lost five games by 3 points or less — four by a field goal, and the season finale off a bad call by head coach Ron Rivera, for once going a step too far with his riverboat bravado.
It does seem that strategic woes also put the Panthers at a disadvantage.
From what I saw in contests early in the season, it seemed like Cam wasn’t running the ball as much as he had last season. Whether this was his snap judgment or a conscious, deliberate decision by offensive coordinator Mike Shula, I don’t know for sure. But without Cam scramblin’ for first downs, the offense seemed hobbled in efforts to advance.
The tumultuous departure of cornerback Josh Norman also left a gaping hole in the Panthers’ roster. On top of that, we lost defensive end Jared Allen to retirement. Owner Jerry Richardson opted for three corners in the 2016 draft to remedy this unfortunate situation, but none of them are worthy of holding a candle — not even a match — to Norman.
These elements culminated in a harsh disappointment.
It’s awful to dwell in What if? but let’s just say the team remained healthy. Let’s say that if Cam scrambled more often he clearly could have and made big first downs. Let’s say Josh Norman had remained with the team he loved. Could the Panthers have won those five games and improved to 11-5?
That’s around the figure I predicted for this season. But it just didn’t happen.
Carolina’s fans must face the fact that, no matter how talented the Cardiac Cats may be, they got damned lucky in 2015. Sure, the run-up to the Super Bowl was an incredible tear through the best the NFC had to offer, but if the same number of close games the Panthers won that season had gone the way their analogues went this season, Carolina wouldn’t have been in the position or possessed the confidence to go on such a rampage.
Rest well in this comfort: The last time the Panthers had their Super Bowl slump, they returned to the NFC Championship game the following season.
Here’s hoping the Cats land on their feet this time.