Pan­thers strug­gle with Su­per Bowl hang­over

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TOMMY CHALK

It has been a dif­fi­cult year for the Carolina Pan­thers.

Af­ter a 2015 cam­paign that fea­tured a 15-1 record and a rel­a­tively easy run through the play­offs to the Su­per Bowl, the Pan­thers were stunned in a 24-10 loss to the Den­ver

Bron­cos. In­stead of cow­er­ing back into the cor­ner, the 2016 Pan­thers were ex­pected to come out fight­ing, hun­gry for the cham­pi­onship that was nearly in their grasp.

But from the open­ing week­end loss to those same Bron­cos through a blowout Dec. 4 beat­down by the Seat­tle Sea­hawks, the Pan­thers have strug­gled with a sea­son-long post-Su­per Bowl hang­over.

Through Week 13, the Pan­thers stand at 5-8, on the verge, as Week 15 of the NFL sea­son be­gan, of be­ing elim­i­nated from the play­offs.

As they pre­pare for Monday night’s show­down with the Red­skins, the Pan­thers find them­selves look­ing across the field at the fa­mil­iar face of Josh Nor­man — the shut­down cor­ner­back the team dis­carded af­ter he helped lead coach Ron Rivera’s de­fense last sea­son to a No. 6 over­all rank­ing in the league.

Nor­man and the Pan­thers strug­gled to come to terms with a new con­tract af­ter the Su­per Bowl, and man­age­ment even­tu­ally opted to re­scind Nor­man’s

fran­chise tag, giv­ing the then 28-year-old an op­por­tu­nity to test free agent mar­ket. The Red­skins pounced, sign­ing Nor­man to a five-year, $75 mil­lion deal.

Say­ing good­bye to Nor­man has proven to be a bit­ter pill for the Pan­thers’ de­fense — es­pe­cially against the pass, where they’re now ranked No. 30, drop­ping from elite to the bot­tom of the league.

Rivera said there’s no doubt Nor­man’s ab­sence has been felt this sea­son.

“The way he prac­ticed, it raised the level of guys around him — whether he was com­pet­ing against our of­fen­sive guys or if it was the de­fen­sive guys that he was work­ing with,” Pan­thers’ coach Ron Rivera said. “And then he brought a swagger to us as well. There was a cock­i­ness that kind of spread — the way the de­fen­sive backs han­dled them­selves.”

Nor­man has a bite, a mouth that won’t stop mov­ing, and his con­fi­dent South­ern drawl — he was raised in South Carolina — was as in­fec­tious with Pan­thers team­mates last sea­son as it has been this sea­son with the Red­skins.

Carolina still fea­tures the reign­ing Of­fen­sive MVP in quar­ter­back Cam New­ton, but the team ‘s lack­ing last sea­son’s in­ten­sity on both sides of the ball.

One year af­ter he was re­spon­si­ble for 45 to­tal touch­downs in a sin­gle sea­son, in­clud­ing five touch­down passes in a dom­i­nat­ing 44-16 win against the Red­skins, New­ton’s num­bers are off. He has just 20 touch­down through 13 games.

New­ton, banged-up and bat­tered, just hasn’t been able to take over games like he did in 2015.

“As a quar­ter­back, some­times you get over-praised and some­times you get overly beat-up,” New­ton said. “Be­cause when a team suc­ceeds, the quar­ter­back typ­i­cally gets all the praise, and when a team doesn’t suc­ceed, the bulk of the blow goes to the quar­ter­back. So I just had the re­sults of be­ing on a great team with un­be­liev­able de­fense and guys just around tak­ing turns mak­ing plays.”

With­out Nor­man, the Pan­thers started the sea­son with Bene Ben­wikere and rookie James Brad­berry as their pri­mary cor­ners. Fol­low­ing a 48-33 Week 4 loss to the At­lanta Fal­cons, a game that fea­tured a 300-yard per­for­mance by wide re­ceiver Julio Jones, the Pan­thers waived Ben­wikere.

Carolina has now turned to an­other rookie in Daryl Worley and stuck with Brad­berry. One pos­i­tive take­away, as Rivera sees it, is that those young guys are gain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We’re learn­ing about our young guys,” Rivera said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys ... and they’re get­ting play­ing time. That’s prob­a­bly the most valu­able thing you can give a young player is the op­por­tu­nity to get on the foot­ball field and de­velop.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence is valu­able, but the re­sults are want­ing. The Pan­thers have al­lowed 3,541 pass­ing yards this sea­son, third-most in the en­tire NFL.

Last year, with Nor­man a con­sis­tent presence in the lineup, Carolina al­lowed the 11th-fewest pass­ing yards in the NFL. Keep in mind, teams were fre­quently trail­ing the pow­er­house Pan­thers and were forced to throw the ball to stay within the game last sea­son. That’s not the case this year.

Rivera ac­knowl­edges the Pan­thers thought this sea­son would be dif­fer­ent.

“[Ex­pec­ta­tions] were very high, and I agree, mine were very high as well,” Rivera said. “Dis­ap­pointed ob­vi­ously we’re in the sit­u­a­tion that we’re in right now where every game that we play counts and there is no room for er­ror and we have got to rely on cer­tain other things hap­pen­ing. That’s tough. That’s dif­fi­cult to fathom right now, es­pe­cially in light of the sea­son we’re com­ing off.

“I think I have a good group of guys,” Rivera said. “I think there’s a good cul­ture in the locker room. These guys are go­ing to come out, they’re go­ing to play hard and they’re go­ing to play to win. That’s what we’re work­ing to­wards.”


Wash­ing­ton Red­skins cor­ner­back Josh Nor­man faces the Carolina Pan­thers, his for­mer team, for the first time Monday.


Ra­dio: 980 AM wash­ing­ton­ /sports

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