The Carolina Panthers lost their last game of the season today to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 17-16, when a 2-point conversion attempt failed. Thus, they follow up their 15-2 Super Bowl campaign in 2015 with a 6-10 year in 2016.
The Panthers stunk up the field for much of today’s game, but still played well enough, particularly on defense, to win. But kicker Graham Gano, reportedly nursing an injury to the heel of his left (plant) foot, missed three field-goal attempts. One was a 58-yarder, but even one of the other two would’ve won the game.
Gano’s field-goal accuracy has been an issue since before he was a Panther; he missed 10 in two different seasons with Washington. His misses this year cost the team at least three games, including the crucial season opener at Denver. He still gets a lot of touchbacks on kickoffs, but I think the team would be nuts not to bring some other kickers into training camp.
There are a lot of other reasons why the Panthers’ season went as badly as it did, but I think it starts with general manager Dave Gettleman’s failure to sign or franchise cornerback Josh Norman, who ended up signing with Washington. With corner Charles “Peanut” Tillman’s retirement, the Panthers were left with rookies starting at both corners and only one returnee, safety Kurt Coleman, in the secondary. (Bene Benwikere got so badly burned by Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones after the teams’ first meeting that the Panthers cut him.) Not surprisingly, although the rookies came on toward the end of the season, the Panthers’ pass defense had become the league’s worst heading into Week 17.
The Panthers started the season with perhaps the league’s best linebacking corps, with all-pros Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and promising sophomore Shaq Thompson. But Kuechly was lost to a concussion, and his normally capable backup, A.J. Klein, underperformed before also being hurt. The team’s run defense and blitzing capability suffered dramatically as a result; the run defense plunged into the bottom third of the league.
Gettleman also must accept blame for the collapse of the offensive line, whose weaknesses were exposed in the Panthers’ Super Bowl 50 loss to the Denver Broncos. He did nothing to strengthen the line in the off-season, and his failure to address its lack of depth was exposed when LT Michael Oher, C Ryan Kalil, and Kalil’s backup, Gino Gradkowski, all were injured. Mike Remmers, who wasn’t even adequate at RT, became a major liability when moved to plug Oher’s hole.
The line couldn’t run-block, which hampered aging RB Jonathan Stewart and exposed the shortcomings of RBs Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne, and it couldn’t protect QB Cam Newton, who too often found his pocket collapsing right under his chin.
A big part of the blame also goes to Newton, the 2015 league MVP, who took several giant steps backward in 2016. He’s as physically gifted as ever, but 2016 Cam exhibited many of the mental errors of 1997-98 Kerry Collins: Locking in on receivers, appearing to forget his reads, improper footwork. He has got to get his head back into the game. Head coach Ron Rivera has said that he wants Newton to become a more traditional drop-back passer so as to be able to play another 10 or more years in the league. That transition will require Newton to become a more focused player than he was in 2016. It also will require him to spend the off-season going over video and drilling; he needs to relearn how to play his position and not rely on his instincts, which served him poorly this year.
But just as Newton’s offensive line served him poorly this year, so did his wide receivers. Kelvin Benjamin and Devon Funchess, who have size and height advantages over most of their defenders, have struggled to achieve separation. Given their physical gifts, that’s on them. And Benjamin, Funchess and Ted Ginn must reduce the drops.
What do the Panthers face in the offseason? Star DT Kawann Short, a Pro Bowl player in 2015, will be a free agent after the season, as will the team’s sack leader, DE Mario Addison; DE Charles Johnson; and WR Ginn, who hasn’t performed well anywhere but Carolina but has excelled as a Panther. Re-signing Short is critical. Johnson is aging and might be a necessary cut to create salary-cap space. And it might be time to let Ginn go in favor of WR/PR Damiere Byrd.
What are the Panthers’ greatest needs? I would argue that the O-line, particularly LT, is the top priority. I’ve watched this franchise since its inception, and its rare years of success have coincided with solid, consistent O-lines. Strength and depth at OT, I would argue, is essential.
Next? Running back. Stewart will be 30 and in his 10th year in the league in 2017, and he has been injury-prone in the past. Neither Whittaker nor Artis-Payne has shown that he can be an every-down back. And FB Mike Tolbert aside, there are no other RBs on the roster.
On defense, the team must decide if corners James Bradberry and Darryl Worley are the future. It’s a tough position to learn, and I would argue that a proven CB is essential in the near term.
I would argue that those positions must be addressed, or mostly addressed, in free agency (thus the title of this post). Doing so leaves the team free to utilize its preferred draft strategy of picking the best player available irrespective of position. Gettleman has an almost perverse appetite for defensive linemen in the draft, but if he gets Short signed and can find one more DL in free agency, he can draft for depth, if at all, at that position.
The bottom line for the 2017 Panthers, though, is that some people already on the roster — QB Newton, the WRs, and the corners — are going to have to take it on themselves to get significantly better if the team is to have a chance to get back to being a Super Bowl contender. They have the talent; the question is whether they have the desire.