Panthers struggle with Super Bowl hangover
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.
PANTHERS AT REDSKINS Monday: 8:30 p.m. TV: ESPN
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