It appears to be the same old song and dance for the winless Carolina Panthers, but the root of the problem lies deeper.
Don’t point a finger at Cam Newton for the disappointing start to what was supposed to be a breakout season in Charlotte.
Newton, a once ego-driven quarterback, has turned a 180 as a captain and has put the Panthers in position to win games in the fourth quarter consecutive weeks despite being hounded nearly every snap by the opposition’s front seven and straightjacketed by conservative play-caller Mike Shula.
Backed in a corner after a crucial fumble and faulty defense led to late-game losses, Ron Rivera deserves the blame, the leader of a franchise that’s heading toward another underwhelming campaign with excruciatingly difficult-to-watch contests that mean next to nothing in December.
The Panthers are still irrelevant and that’s on Rivera.
His tumultuous two-year stint could end as early Sunday if Carolina’s thumped by winless Eli Manning and the New York Giants. And if history repeats itself, a defeat would likely feature a cataclysmic fourth-quarter debacle blue and black-clad fans have grown accustomed to at Bank of America Stadium.
Those kinds of mounting losses frustrate a fanbase, poisons morale and weakens togetherness within a locker room.
Since taking over as coach in 2011, the Panthers are 2-14 under Rivera in games decided by a touchdown or less. That’s known as “not getting it done” in the sports world to put it bluntly, a fireable offense for most leaders on the sideline.
The oft-fiery, non-apologetic Steve Smith questions the level of execution from teammates and protects Rivera’s attention to detail and ability to game plan. He’s a veteran who speaks his mind and commands the respect of other players.
He doesn’t have any answers however for Carolina’s recent folly and delivered a nuclear reaction after Sunday’s loss at Buffalo.
“This isn’t about learning hard lessons,” Smith said to the Associated Press. “This is like going to the dentist and getting several teeth pulled without any anesthesia, laughing gas, nothing.”
Despite the support from locker room leaders in keeping Rivera, at what point does Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman say enough is enough and make a switch? If the front office really views the franchise as an NFC South contender, shouldn’t its decisions reflect a progressive mindset?
Newton, justifiably, shouldered most of the blame in 2012 during a disappointing sophomore campaign that saw the Panthers stumble to a 7-9 finish despite four straight wins to end the regular season. Newton lacked the confidence he had as a rookie, partly due to being rattled in the pocket, and didn’t have the weapons around him that makes some of the NFL’s other newcomers’ jobs at quarterback that much easier.
Newton’s sharpened his focus this offseason, the Panthers shook up the coaching staff and front office and hype swelled at a projected turnaround.
So what now?
Like it or not, Carolina’s second straight loss was a direct result of Rivera’s decision to kick a field goal on 4th-and-1 from inside the Buffalo 30. The move showcased his tentative nature of playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Leading by 3, a simple keeper from his 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback would’ve sealed it since the Bills were out of timeouts without the benefit of a two-minute warning.
Rivera says he considered going for it, but put faith in his defense with a six-point lead following Graham Gano’s third make. He’d rather put pressure on that side of the football to “make a play” instead of going for the win on fourth down.
Had the Panthers stopped rookie quarterback E.J Manuel and the Bills, the choice to kick may not have been questioned, but the subsequent disastrous finish falls on Carolina’s coach, one leading a franchise that appears on the verge with the necessary pieces in place like Newton and cornerstone linebacker Luke Kuechly.
The Panthers haven’t learned how to finish games under Rivera’s regime and won’t get it done until someone else wears the primary headset.
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.