After a 15-1 regular season finish and a Super Bowl appearance last season, nobody expected the Carolina Panthers to start 2016 1-4. Yet here they are, tied with the woeful Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers for the worst record in the NFC.
It’s important to keep the performance so far in context. Yes, the Panthers have faced three of the top teams in the NFL — the Broncos, Vikings and Falcons — in those losses. The Vikings remain unbeaten and look nearly unstoppable on defense, and the Broncos and Falcons are each 4-1, with Denver’s only loss coming from Atlanta.
Carolina has also been missing several key players due to injury. In Week 5 alone, big names like Cam Newton, Michael Oher and Jonathan Stewart were sidelined while Thomas Davis, Charles Johnson and Mike Tolbert were all questionable.
Still, Carolina’s performance so far this year doesn’t begin to align with preseason expectations for the reigning NFC champions. The NFL has even decided to move the Week 8 NFC Championship rematch between the Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals to 1 p.m., giving the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons the better 4:25 p.m. time slot.
This move would have been unthinkable before the season began, but it’s not surprising considering Carolina’s performance so far this season. A Panthers team that looked nearly unstoppable last season seems to be completely broken.
Carolina is making history in a bad way
The Panthers are just the seventh team in NFL history to start the season 1-4 or worse following a Super Bowl appearance in the previous season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last team to get off to such a poor start after a Super Bowl appearance was also the Panthers, back in 2004.
Of those six other teams that started the season this poorly after a Super Bowl appearance the previous season, only the 1976 Steelers made the playoffs after that shaky start. Pittsburgh finished the 1976 season with a record of 10-4 after winning the last nine games of the season.
With the way the Panthers have been playing, their chances of becoming the second team in history to make the playoffs after a 1-4 start aren’t looking good.
Turnover differential is a factor
Carolina’s defense led the league in forced turnovers last year with 46 forced fumbles and interceptions. The offense was careful with the football last season, turning the ball over just 19 times all year. This season, Carolina’s offense has already turned the ball over 14 times.
Four of those turnovers came on Monday night against the Buccaneers, a game Carolina desperately needed to win to get its season back on track. That obviously was a bigger challenge with Cam Newton sidelined with a concussion, and Derek Anderson didn’t help matters by fumbling the ball away once and throwing two interceptions. The fourth turnover was a fumble from wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr.
The defense, on the other hand, failed to force any turnovers against Tampa Bay, a team that has 11 fumbles on the season so far.
A career day for Olsen couldn’t save the Panthers
The Panthers offense has not been nearly as dynamic as it was last year, despite the return of Kelvin Benjamin. Even when Carolina’s offense has been able to make plays, however, it hasn’t been enough.
Tight end Greg Olsen, who was the Panthers’ most reliable receiving option last season, had a career day against the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football with 181 receiving yards, but Carolina still lost to Tampa Bay on a last-minute field goal.
The secondary is a shadow of its former self
The Panthers let Josh Norman walk after rescinding his franchise tag this offseason, and while it made sense from a financial perspective, it left the secondary ill-prepared to handle receivers like Julio Jones.
Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, Carolina allowed Matt Ryan to throw for 500 yards, and Jones had 300 receiving yards. This was the only the sixth time any wide receiver in NFL history reached 300 yards in one game. Before that day, no quarterback and wide receiver had ever finished a game with 500 passing yards and 300 receiving yards.
It’s not looking good for the Panthers
Only eight teams in NFL history have come back from a 1-4 start to make the playoffs, and Carolina’s playoff odds are tanking with each loss. The Panthers started the season with 75% odds to make the playoffs, and after Monday night’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, those odds sit at 19%.
The Panthers are currently dead last in the NFC South, a division in which they would realistically have to try and catch the 4-1 Falcons for any shot at actually making the postseason. That seems unlikely.
A Panthers team that dominated the NFC last season, led by last year’s MVP, is now looking like a sure bet to miss the playoffs in 2016.