With the NFC South being as dreadful as it is, heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Vikings the Carolina Panthers and their fans were holding onto hope that the team would be able to turn the season around and compete for the NFC South title. Those hopes all but faded Sunday when the Panthers went into Minnesota and laid another egg, losing their 6th straight. So now that postseason hopes are all but obliterated, we can officially play the blame game. Who’s really at fault for the Panthers’ disappointing season? At whose feet will we lay the shattered hopes that come with a 3-8-1 record? Let’s evaluate…
1. Cam Newton: The quarterback is one of the most important positions on the football field. It’s one of the most coveted and by far the most glamorous. With that role comes most of the praise when the team is succeeding and most of the blame when the team is losing…whether it’s deserved or not. Cam Newton, coming off of a Pro-Bowl season, was supposed to enter a new phase of his career – one where he could be mentioned among some of the best in the league – but that hasn’t happened. Some would say that he’s regressed, that he’s never going to be the talent Carolina thought he would be when they selected him as the #1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft. I simply say that is not true. Cam is not to blame for the Panthers’ disappointing season. Yes, his numbers have declined since last year, although less than you might think, but there are far more components that go into making a great quarterback than raw talent…which leads me to suspect #2.
2. Offensive Line: The Panthers’ offensive line is dismal. I have to be honest. When it was reported that the front office and coaching staff thought Byron Bell would be a formidable replacement for retired left tackle Jordan Gross, this was my exact face…
No lies. You know what happens when you try to plug a leak in a pool with duct tape? It doesn’t work. Byron Bell struggled on the right side last season, so what rational person would think having him protect Cam Newton’s blind side would be a good idea? That’s how we started out the season and it has only gotten worse as injuries have hurt the line all year – with Rivera starting a different group of guys almost every game. There’s no way the line can get a rhythm when every week you’re trying something new, praying that it works. The offensive line hasn’t played a decent game since their week six tie against Cincinnati. They’ve been putrid ever since and subsequently lost every game. But as much as I can sit here and trash them…and I can go on for a little longer, even they aren’t to blame for the Panthers’ season.
3. Ron Rivera: Of course, when the team is losing you usually look at two people first, the quarterback and head coach. Many were calling for Rivera’s head after the Panthers started last season with three losses, but winning usually causes amnesia and those calls were silenced when the team started getting victories. Now we’re back at the same place. Ron Rivera is a coach with a defensive background, but the Panthers’ defense is one of the worst in the league. Yeah, we can blame some of that on the loss of Greg Hardy, but you don’t lose one guy and go from being the 2nd ranked defense in the league to 17th. Some of that falls on the players. A little more of that falls on the defensive coordinator, but if you’re a head coach that specializes in defense, the majority of that falls on you. There have been a few times this season when the Panthers have come out looking completely ill-prepared. That falls on Ron Rivera. There have been a couple of times this season where clock management has been called into question. That falls on Ron Rivera. There have been several personnel changes that have left people scratching their heads. Rivera has to take the blame for some of that, but all things considered, Tug-boat Ron still gets a pass from me.
4. Dave Gettleman: And folks, I think we have a WINNER! The Panthers’ GM shocked everyone when he announced that Steve Smith, the man who was one of the most tenured members of the team, a man who was a fan favorite and one of the faces of the franchise, was released. Here’s his statement on the decision:
When I took this position I knew that difficult decisions would have to be made along the way. To move on from a storied veteran player is probably the most difficult of all. A decision not to be taken lightly. However, after much thought I feel very strongly it’s the right one.
As I’ve stated many times, all decisions I make will be in the long-term best interest of the Carolina Panthers. Decisions, either popular or unpopular, have to be made for the greater good, and it is imperative to take an unemotional global view.
Sometimes it may appear that short-term interests will suffer, and I can assure you we have no interest in taking a step back from our 2013 accomplishments. Nevertheless, like all NFL teams, we are in transition as we try to get into the best position going forward. When Mr. Richardson hired me I promised him that my goal would be to leave the Panthers in a better position than when I came. All my efforts are in that vein.
Over the next few months we will have the opportunities afforded by free agency and the college draft to improve our roster. We also have young players who will get an opportunity. I have great trust in our evaluation process.
Well, evaluation process aside (since with the exception of rookie Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina’s receiving corp is less than stellar…putting it mildly) there are few things you can run from but so long – one of them death and another of them is karma. The way Gettleman handled the Steve Smith situation was tacky at best. As a man and leader on the team he deserved more respect than that. Although stories about exactly how/why he was released have conflicted, what can’t be disputed is that he deserved more than that unceremonious departure.
Smith’s impressive 2014 season has deservedly been one big “F You” to the Panthers’ organization. He’s called them out in post-game rants and radio interviews. I’m sure with every touchdown he scores he laughs at Gettleman and the position he has put this team in. It’s his handling of the Steve Smith situation that has brought bad karma to a Panthers’ team with high hopes headed into the season. With every Sunday and every added loss I play this classic scene from The Color Purple in my head.
And that’s it! Until the Panthers and more specifically Dave Gettleman do right by Steve Smith, they will continue to crumble. Whether that’s a private apology from Gettleman to Steve or honoring him once he’s retired, the franchise has to right this wrong, or karma will continue to penalize the club.