But nobody told the Panthers that they still have to win some games at the beginning of the season, too.
1) Start incredibly slow
2) Eliminate yourself from playoff contention in November
3) Begin peaking in December with nothing on the line
Over the last two seasons, the Panthers are 1-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Ten of those "close" losses came in September and October, when the team was still in the playoff race.
In both 2011 and 2012, the Panthers stumbled out of the gate and dug themselves into 2-8 holes, shattering any hope of a postseason berth through just 10 games.
But once Ron Rivera's team becomes eliminated from playoff contention, it's like a switch flips.
In the last six games of 2011, the Panthers posted a 4-2 record. While they still lost to a pair of playoff teams – division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans – during this stretch, Carolina also thumped Indianapolis, Houston and Tampa Bay twice.
This season, the Panthers were mathematically eliminated them from the playoffs when the Buccaneers erased an 11-point fourth quarter deficit to win in overtime at Bank of America Stadium in Week 11.
Since then, Carolina is 3-1.
They blasted the Eagles in Philadelphia on Monday Night Football, handed the Falcons their second loss in a 30-20 home drubbing and clobbered the Chargers 31-7 in San Diego. Their only loss over this four-game split was to an emotional, but nonetheless futile, Kansas City Chiefs team.
In a nutshell, the Panthers are 4-16 when the games count and 7-3 when they're insignificant.
So, what does all this mean?
First of all, some of it is just sheer coincidence.
The quality of opponents has certainly declined both at the end of this season and last. Five of those seven wins were against sub-.500 teams. You could probably include last year's win against Houston in that category too, as the Texans were forced to start rookie backup quarterback T.J. Yates with Matt Schaub sidelined. So, in reality, the only time the Panthers defeated an unquestionably "good" team during their late-season runs was in Week 14, when they punished Atlanta.
But there's more to this pattern than just the level of competition.
The Panthers have proven they can not only beat anyone, but lose to anyone as well.
They've outplayed some of the premier teams in the NFL and been outplayed by some of the league's cellar dwellers.
Heck, you don't have to look too far back to find a convincing example.
In just one week's time, the Panthers went from being dominated by a 1-10 Kansas City Chiefs team to dominating an 11-1 Atlanta Falcons team.
When you get down to brass tacks, the overarching theme of the Rivera regime has been the inability to win close games when they count.
Some of this can be attributed to the pure youth of the team.
In 2011, there was no offseason and no expectations for the Panthers, who were coming off an abhorrent 2-14 season with Jimmy Clausen under center. With a rookie head coach taking over, the team was surprisingly potent on offense. But the defense struggled, mistakes were made, injuries piled up and the team lost a number of close games. Still, everyone was pleased with the progress.
After the "honeymoon" in 2011, the team faced a whole new set of expectations in 2012. Center Ryan Kalil even took out an ad in the Charlotte Observer guaranteeing a Super Bowl.
Frankly, the Panthers, particularly Cam Newton, wilted under the pressure in the early part of the season.
Newton struggled mightily dealing with failure for the first time in his football life. During the first two-and-a-half months of the season, the second-year quarterback made the headlines more for his sullen sideline demeanor and bizarre press conferences than his play on the field. The pressure to perform caused him to force throws that weren't there and commit costly turnovers.
But the slow starts are certainly not all on Cam Newton.
With the exception of Steve Smith, there has been a clear lack of veteran leadership in the locker room. There was not enough leadership to maintain good chemistry and keep the young guys, like Newton, in line.
Still, the biggest reason for the Panthers' early struggles has been a lack of experience and leadership from the coaches, not the players.
The shortcomings of the coaching staff stood out early in the season as the Panthers struggled to win momentous games.
The coaches failed to establish an identity, failed to recognize key points in the game, failed to make necessary in-game adjustments, and, ultimately, failed to give the team the edge they needed to win those tight contests.
Instead of using their $85 million backfield to take some pressure off a struggling Cam Newton, Ron Rivera – along with offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski – elected to ask their reeling quarterback to throw the ball 35 to 40 times a game. The play calling also got ultra conservative when the team held the lead late in games, a philosophy which backfired several times in the first half of the season.
A number of specific gaffes come to mind, several which may have been the difference between a win and a loss. Among the most memorable are:
- Needing just one yard on fourth down to beat Atlanta on the road in Week 4, Rivera elected to punt the ball instead of going for the first down. The Falcons, with no timeouts and under a minute remaining, ultimately drove down the field and kicked the game-winning field goal. While the decision to punt isn't always the wrong one, it was in this game. Rivera took the ball out of the hands of his 6'6", 245-pound quarterback and asked his defense, which had been struggling all game long, to win the game.
- In Week 8 at Chicago, the Panthers had an opportunity to extend their lead to 16-7 with a 50-yard field goal before halftime. Instead, Rivera inexplicably called a Hail Mary, which fell incomplete. The Panthers would go on to lose 23-22.
- In Week 8 at Chicago and Week 11 vs. Tampa Bay, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called aggressive games with positive results. The defense forced a combined six turnovers and seven sacks against the Bears and Bucs. However, McDermott chose to abandon the aggressive style and drop into soft zone late in each game, conceding wide open underneath passes. The Bears drove 55 yards in 2:27 to kick the game-winning 41-yard field goal. The Bucs drove 80 yards in the final 1:02 to score a touchdown, convert the two-point try and force overtime. In overtime, Tampa won the coin toss and drove 80 yards again for the winning touchdown.
So, here we are again: The Panthers, in an otherwise disappointing year, are beginning to hit a stride at the end of the season.
Should we buy this string of performances as growth by the players, and, more importantly, the coaching staff?
Is it a sign that this team is ready to perform at a high level from the get-go – when the pressure is on and the games are consequential?
Or, is this hot streak nothing more than a few meaningless wins against bad teams that have quit?
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I bought into the hype when the Panthers finished on a roll last year.
I won't do it again.
I'm not confident that he can provide that extra edge that you need to win close games against good teams.
I'm not confident he can have his team ready to play at a high level every single week.
Nonetheless, it's clear that the players want Rivera as their head coach. Instead of quitting on their coaches like the Lions and Chargers, the Panthers are playing their tails off every Sunday. That speaks volumes about the respect they have for him.
I'm also a believer in consistency.
While it seems like an eternity ago, many seem to forget that Rivera inherited a 2-14 train wreck. It would be unrealistic to expect a complete turnaround overnight.
Not to mention, Cam Newton is finally regaining his confidence and getting comfortable in Chudzinski's system. A coaching change is certainly not the best thing for his development as a third-year quarterback.
Despite my skepticism, I'm cautiously in favor of giving Rivera another year.
After all, third time's a charm, right?
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