The house always wins. It’s a tired, old adage. Sure you can plonk down your $20 at the table and go on a hot streak, but eventually, if you don’t walk away — the house always gets you back. The Carolina Panthers’ string of luck is over, they hit 17 one too many times. Now the once-dynamic Super Bowl contenders are a husk at the bottom of the NFC South. The worst part: It was easy to see this coming.
The 2015 Super Bowl team got immense credit for playing fast and loose on fourth down, leaning on Cam Newton and his MVP season to pull it all together. The Panthers had no business winning games like they did without depth in the secondary, a makeshift offensive line, and a horrible group of wide receivers -- yet they did. A breakout rookie season from Devin Funchess paired with a bizarrely effective Ted Ginn Jr. gave Newton and the offense just enough weapons to make a go of it — and thanks to a lack of injuries, they did.
Fast forward to now and the Panthers are laughably bad. On Monday night it didn’t help that the team was without left tackle Michael Oher, running back Jonathan Stewart, and Newton, but those are excuses for an endemic problem. Carolina couldn’t beat a 1-3 division rival with a rookie kicker missing two critical field goals despite having a chance to win in the red zone with three minutes left on the clock. Good teams shouldn’t struggle like that, Super Bowl hangover or not.
The easy explanation is complacency. That somehow making it all the way to football’s biggest game left players unprepared, but that isn’t the problem. The real issue is that Carolina took its lauded, gambling style from the field and transferred it into the front office with how the team was built. Every single one of those bets have been a bust.
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Josh Norman is the biggest lightning rod for this criticism. In 2015 he helped organize a rag-tag secondary and did enough on the outside to let lesser players shine. However, talks between the team and Norman floundered and took a turn for the worse. Suddenly the concept of a long-term deal was in the rear-view mirror, and even the possibility of a franchise tag was waning. The sides weren’t close, and both became bitter toward each other. It resulted in a rescinded franchise tag and Norman left to find greener pastures in Washington.
Despite all this, letting Norman go was still the correct move. The Panthers had just clawed their way out of a salary cap nightmare after years of overpaying homegrown players came home to roost. General manager Dave Gettleman believed that Norman was easily replaceable, that he could find another Josh Norman in the draft with ease. So far that journey hasn’t been so easy.
Promising play from second-round pick James Bradberry has been wildly overshadowed with how bad the rest of the secondary has been. On Monday night the team had journeyman special teams player Teddy Williams as its No. 1 corner. It doesn’t take a genius to realize how bad this is.
The problem is an accumulation of bets that haven’t paid off. In 2015 a guy like Williams would have done well in the secondary, simply because everything was breaking the Panthers’ way. Roman Harper found a way to be productive at safety, free agent signing Kurt Coleman played like a superstar — and it made everyone forget the names Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell, both of whom had defensive success in the past, but who Gettleman believed were easily replaceable.
The Panthers GM looked like a sage by ditching them and refrains of “In Gettleman we trust” flooded Panthers Twitter whenever the team made a questionable move. Now people are wondering whether he should be fired.
The secondary issues are noticeable now because the pass rush is non-existent, another failure in the team’s construction. An inside-out approach to defense can work great, but only when everything is in concert.
Now the Panthers are staring at an aging Charles Johnson unable to get the pressure he used to, too much being put on the shoulders of Kony Ealy and Kawann Short isn’t disrupting the middle like he did in 2015. This is causing more pressure to be put on the defensive backs, and they’re not good enough to carry that burden.
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Defensive problems aside, the Panthers should at least be good on offense, right? After all, they had an MVP quarterback and largely unchanged personnel with Kelvin Benjamin returning to the fold on a team that led the NFL in rushing a year ago. To this end the disasters continued.
Oher was never very good at left tackle, but he was good enough and the best the team had to offer — now he’s hurt. Mike Remmers was an average, serviceable right tackle — now he’s utterly overmatched on the left.
The interior offensive line remains strong, but with Stewart sidelined there’s nothing to take advantage of that. Instead Newton keeps getting teed off on, and when he isn’t getting battered he’s risking his own safety to try and make something happen. Tie this all in a bow with offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Oh, Mike Shula.
Novels could be written about Shula’s woeful play calling, but to put it simply: He’s streaky, like the Panthers. Either his designs work beautifully, or they totally collapse and you can tell in the first quarter whether Carolina can win or lose on that side of the ball because of them.
Shula has shown no ability to adapt in-game, and the offense has absorbed that through osmosis. Now they are a streaky, oft-confident unit that collapses when met with resistance and gets in the weeds like a rookie cook burning every order that comes into the kitchen. We all saw it happen in the Super Bowl. Yet, somehow, Shula has become the Teflon Don of the Panthers. There’s nothing this guy can do to lose his job and yet when Newton lifts the offensive in spite of him, somehow, Shula gets the credit.
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The scariest part for Panthers fans shouldn’t be the poor on-field play, or the 1-4 start. It should be the activity (or inactivity) of the front office. Carolina has seen players come and go over the years though difficult, but cordial business decisions. Now players are leaving the team spiteful and hating the organization in a way we have not seen in the past. Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, Josh Norman — three former fan-favorites, now left to detest their former team because of Gettleman’s negotiating tactics.
A hard-nosed approach to team building works, but only if you’re winning — and only if your bets on replacing those players pay off.
Ron Rivera can dress up like a riverboat gambler every week and call some fun fourth-down plays to serve as a distraction, all while the vessel is taking on water faster than it can be pitched out. The hull is rusty, things are falling apart, and soon the Panthers will be underwater for good. Players are plugging the holes with their fingers but the blame resides with Gettleman, the architect who thought this leaky tub full of holes could make it for one more 16-week trip down the river.
Sorry, Panthers fans, this time you team’s luck has run out.