No other NFL team is currently experiencing as dramatic a nosedive as the Carolina Panthers.
They are one of five teams in NFL history to start a season 1-5 after going to the Super Bowl the season before. This is a team that was 15-1 in the regular season in 2015-16. They’ve lost five times as many games as they did last year – and there are 10 games left.
The Panthers defense has fallen apart, they terribly miss star cornerback Josh Norman (who they somehow let walk after they gave him the franchise tag) and reigning NFL MVP, quarterback Cam Newton, is getting battered.
It appears the Panthers are cooked as far as 2016 is concerned. They’ve lost to each NFC South opponent in the past three weeks and they trail the powerful Atlanta Falcons, 4-2, by three games in the division.
It just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen in Carolina this year. Yet, there is no reason to blow up a team so recently removed from a 15-1 campaign. The following is a look at what the Panthers should do and what they shouldn’t do with 2017 in mind as a fresh start.
The head coach: Ron Rivera will very likely survive whatever record the Panthers finish this season with. And he should. Rivera is a big reason why Carolina became good. He is a good fit for the team, especially Newton. He is a calming influence. Look at Rivera during the team’s current state. He is acting the same way as he did during the 15-1 run. The Panthers will bounce back and Rivera, in his sixth season as the Panthers coach, will be a big reason why.
The general manager: Keeping Dave Gettlemen may not be a popular opinion right now. He is getting skewered for the way he handled the Norman situation. And he should. It didn’t make sense and it hasn’t worked out. But let’s not label the entire four-year Gettlemen regime a failure based on this year’s slow start. Yes, he made some mistakes. But he also built a Super Bowl team. I’d give him more time because the good Gettlemen has done in Carolina has outweighed the bad. Now, if Gettlemen makes mistakes again next year and the Panthers flounder again, it’d be fair to consider replacing him at the end of the 2017 season. But not now.
The quarterback: Of course, the Panthers aren’t going to replace Newton. But they need to rally around him. They need to make sure he keeps his head right. Newton has continued his somewhat worrisome habit of lashing out and sulking in press conferences after bad losses. It’s not a good look. The fact Newton reacts that way in front of the media is not that big of a deal. But it might be a hint of the way he acts behind closed doors during pressure situations. The Panthers have to keep Newton’s head up and regain his confidence, knowing that this year is just a fluke. Newton is 27 and in his prime years. The Panthers have to keep him engaged and he’ll be fine.
Help the secondary: There are some young pieces in the secondary that could develop nicely, starting with second-round pick James Bradberry. He is starting as a rookie and he has had his ups and downs. Of course, he is no Norman yet, but he can become a good player. Still, the Panthers are projecting to have more than $46 million in salary cap room in 2017. They need to go buy some veteran defensive backs. It will make the entire defense better, starting with a talented defensive line that is not having a good year. Last year, the Panthers had the sixth-ranked defense in the NFL. They have the 22nd-ranked defense this year.
Upgrade the offensive line: Newton has been getting hit at an alarming rate. He has been sacked 15 times this season, which is tied for the sixth most in the league. He already missed a game with a concussion. Newton is one of the most valuable players in the NFL and he will be the face of the Panthers for the foreseeable future. The Panthers have to protect him. Gettlemen needs to dig into free agency and the draft some better linemen for Newton.
Get a dynamic running back: If Newton gets better protection and another weapon, he will be golden again. The Panthers could use a young difference-maker in the backfield. Directing a player such as Stanford jitterbug Christian McCaffrey might just be the bolt this offense needs. Newton and McCaffrey could have a lot of fun together.
Conclusion: Some fine-tuning on both sides of the ball and the Panthers should be a solid playoff contender once again in 2017. There is too much talent on this roster for the nosedive to continue for multiple seasons if the Panthers make the necessary adjustments.