CHARLOTTE — Panthers owner David Tepper said that he didn’t want the team to be mired in mediocrity for the long term.
Tight end Greg Olsen said that Sunday’s 29-3 loss to Atlanta was “just a comedy of terrible football.”
The good news is that it seems to be a far cry from the mediocrity that Tepper fears. Over the past four weeks, the Panthers have gotten smoked by the Falcons at home, dropping to 2-3 in Charlotte on the year, and also lost 51-13 at San Francisco. In addition to the two humiliating losses, there were the questionable late-game calls by coach Ron Rivera — and Rivera’s ongoing feud with the idea of using analytics in football — that led to a lost opportunity in Green Bay.
The Panthers are 5-5 this season, 12-14 since the start of last season — the start of Tepper’s tenure as owner. The Panthers were also undressed last year in a prime-time game in Tepper’s hometown of Pittsburgh, 52-21 by the Steelers.
Needless to say, the owner’s patience is short.
“Every time we have a loss, my mood is (expletive),” Tepper told the media earlier this week.
Tepper has several key decisions to make in the very new future. Basically, it all boils down to whether this is the group — or close to it — he envisioned when he paid $2.2 billion to buy the franchise, or does he need to begin the painful process of cleaning house.
A house cleaning would likely mean wasting two of the top players in franchise history — Luke Kuechly, who is already eight years into his career and would presumably be past a decade in service time before the team was back to contender status, and Christian McCaffrey, an MVP candidate during this lost season who is an undersized running back, hardly the key to NFL longevity.
He’ll need to decide on the future of Cam Newton, the team’s franchise quarterback who has battled injury in recent years and is out for the season.
Newton has one year left on his contract, and the team can save close to $20 million by cutting ties with him this offseason. A four-game Kyle Allen winning streak after stepping in for the injured Newton gave some observers fool’s gold that a seamless transition could be made, but Allen’s recent performance, capped by a four-interception day against the Falcons, makes it clear that getting rid of Newton would be the clearest signal that the team is starting over.
Tepper also needs to make a decision on the football brain trust. Does he want GM Marty Hurney and Rivera calling the shots going forward, or would he prefer to bring in his own people.
It’s perhaps symbolic that the no-nonsense session with Tepper took place a short time after Rivera completed his latest “not my fault” breakdown of a Panthers’ loss.
Rivera’s scapegoats this season include Newton, whom the coach ripped for decision-making in a season-opening loss and scoffed at a potential foot injury — which has landed the former MVP on the injured reserve — after Week 2.
With Newton off the table, Rivera turned to analytics, complaining about the idea that things in football can be measured with numbers, which led to last week’s loss to Green Bay, ending on a running play up the middle on the goal line with seconds left and no timeouts.
Now Rivera has pinned the blame on Allen, saying at halftime of the Atlanta beatdown that the first-year starter needs to work on his decision-making as well.
Then on Monday, before swinging into a rosy breakdown of how close the Panthers are to competing for a playoff spot, Rivera broke down the play of the offensive line, which surrendered five sacks on Sunday.
“There’s some things that happened because of the opponent you’re playing,” Rivera said. “There’s some things that happened because of getting beat individually, not using your technique, not falling back on the things you were taught.”
And that’s it. Either the line was outplayed by Atlanta or they didn’t use all the great coaching that Rivera and his staff provided.
Despite the lopsided home loss to the 3-7 Falcons, Rivera bright-sided that the Panthers get to play them again, in Atlanta this time, and still have two games against the 8-2 Saints.
Never mind that the Panthers are 3-10 against those two teams over the last four years and 14-19 since Rivera took over. Mathematically, the Panthers still have a chance to make the playoffs. And that’s the type of math Rivera trusts, not the stuff that an analytics department built by Tepper might tell him.
“Everything is still in front of us,” Rivera said.
His owner might beg to differ.