Matt Rhule and the curse of close

The Panthers look to snap their losing streak

The Panthers are 0-2 this season and have lost nine straight, and coach Matt Rhule is 10-25 in two-plus seasons with Carolina. (Noah K. Murray / AP Photo)

Matt Rhule summed up what’s wrong with the Carolina Panthers after last Sunday’s game.

“I know you guys have a lot of questions about the game,” he told reporters after the 19-16 loss to the Giants that dropped his team to 0-2 on the season. “I just want to make sure I say that we’re close.”

There’s no doubt that the Panthers have been close. Throughout Rhule’s pro career, now in its third season, Carolina has had close calls, and the Panthers always seem to end up on the wrong side of them.

There were long field goals that kickers missed at the buzzer and turnovers on last-ditch drives in the final minute. In the last game, it was a long kick that a former Panthers kicker, Graham Gano, knocked through to decide the game in New York’s favor.

Gano, by the way, was released by the Panthers halfway through a four-year, $17 million contract when Rhule took over the team. Since then, he’s made 64 of 69 field goal attempts for the Giants and 40 of 42 extra points. Five different players have kicked for the Panthers, making 59 of 69 field goals and missing five extra points.

Like the Panthers themselves, many of those errant kicks have been close. A few feet this way or that, a yard or two longer. Closer still — a centimeter in this direction or that on the hold. A half-a-degree difference on the angle of the kick and they sail down the middle, and the Panthers win.

The NFL is a game of inches, it’s said. The truth is much tighter than that. It’s millimeters and split seconds. At the NFL Combine, a future Arena Football player’s 40 time is close to that of an NFL first round pick. A few weeks ago, all 32 NFL teams cut 27 players who can compare themselves to the 53 that made each team. The difference? Close.

After two full seasons and two weeks of a third, the Panthers have had their fill of close. Twenty-one of their 35 games under Rhule have been decided by one score or less. Carolina is 5-16 in those games. Including both losses in this young season, the Panthers are 0-6 in games decided by a field goal or less.

New quarterback Baker Mayfield talked about the team being close on Sunday. Tied at 13 in the third quarter, Carolina gained eight yards on the first two plays of their drive to reach midfield. Mayfield then rolled out and released a bomb to Shi Smith up the sideline.

“We’re very, very close from that being an explosive play for a touchdown,” Mayfield said. “I can’t set up and stop my feet just because it’s a sprint out or else I would try to, to give them a better ball, but it was very, very close on that one.”

Instead, the ball was just off target, bouncing off Smith’s hands.

“He’s a good player, he’s got to be able to make plays, but that’s a look that I kind of caught him off guard and we were very close to still making the play,” Mayfield said.

Close to a touchdown, but instead, the Panthers punted.

The Rams were close a lot last year. They went 6-2 in one-score games, including three-point wins in the divisional round, NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. They’re 1-0 in such games this year. One of those playoff wins was over Tampa Bay, who had won nine straight one-score games before that, dating back to the previous season. The Chiefs have won five of their last seven close games. The Jaguars have lost 11 of their last 13 one-score games. But they’ve all been close

Close is not an explanation. It’s the way of life in the NFL. Good teams make plays, the old saying goes, bad teams make excuses.

At some point, close will stop being an acceptable explanation for failures on the field and sidelines. For some Panthers, it appears that point has been reached.

Close, defensive end Brian Burns said after the Giants loss, “almost doesn’t matter.”

“It’s better than not being in the game at all, I can say that,” Burns said in the locker room. “But it’s time. I’m tired of being close. I want to win those extra reps, win those plays and really win these games.”

And yet, Rhule continues to take solace in being close.

“I believe that with all my heart. I think we’re so close,” Rhule said on Sunday. “We’re coming down the stretch but we haven’t found a way to get it done. That’s my job, to help us get over that last hump.”

He’s right.