Just two seasons ago, the Carolina Panthers were one of the NFL’s marquee teams, on their way back to the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 12 years, and appeared poised for sustained success in the NFC South. Young quarterback Cam Newton vaulted himself into a superstar level on par with his collegiate success at Auburn, where he won a national championship and Heisman Trophy.
The Panthers lost in that Super Bowl to a retiring Peyton Manning and a legendary defense led by Von Miller. It was a heartbreaking defeat, but at the time it felt like the beginning of the Panthers run atop the NFC.
Since the Super Bowl loss, things haven’t gone according to script in the slightest for the Panthers. Emerging star defensive back Josh Norman left for big money in Washington and the Panthers fell from the top of the NFC South to a last-place finish in 2016.
This year, the Panthers bounced back on the field to find themselves in a playoff position in December. At the same time, news came out implicating Jerry Richardson in a sexual harassment scandal in the Panthers office.
The news of Richardson’s misconduct and treatment of women in the Panthers office – including the use of racial slurs – has forced the former owner to sell the franchise in a move to avoid further damage to the organization due to his unacceptable actions.
Now – at a time where the Panthers are already showing signs of instability in managing a team that was once one game away from the Super and blessed with young talent – the franchise is moving on from the owner who brought the Panthers to Carolina more than two decades ago.
After Sunday night’s loss to the Saints – a 31-26 defeat through the all-too-familiar dominance of Drew Brees – there are no more hopes of a Super Bowl run to distract the Panthers from the reality of their situation and the scandal of their soon to be former owner. The fallout is impending and change is coming to the Panthers at the top for the first time since the team was created as an expansion franchise in 1993.
The Panthers deserve little sympathy for the Richardson fallout, but how the sale of the team is handled will have a direct impact on if this current roster is able to get back to a Super Bowl level or if the reduction of pieces from 2015’s run continues.
Ron Rivera’s contract extension to 2020 will provide the semblance of stability for the Panthers. Even if the extension of Rivera comes with the risk of continued regression under a head coach who hasn’t been able to advance the team towards a championship over the past two seasons.
Rivera has yet to post consecutive winning seasons since his 2011 hiring in Carolina. That trend should be a concern for whatever new ownership group that comes in as Rivera needs to find a way to foster sustained regular season success year after year.
The Panthers can’t afford another playoff season followed by a losing year under Rivera and despite his contract extension, his job should be on the line if he fails to guide the team to the playoffs in 2018. A failure to do so would give Rivera his fifth losing season in eight years with the Panthers, certainly grounds for firing if the team fails to improve after this offseason.
Beyond Rivera is the need to hire a general manager who can retool the roster after the firing of Dave Gettleman. Gettleman received the majority of the blame for the downturn in Carolina and the hope is that a successful hire serves as a catalyst to improve the team’s personnel decisions.
Right now, the Panthers are facing a very uncertain future after a humbling playoff loss on the road to a division rival. With their team facing a sale and exit from their original owner amidst scandal, the Panthers players and front office will watch their two NFC South rivals continue their postseason runs.
At the present moment, it looks like the balance of power in the division is shifting away from the Panthers. That wasn’t the vision as Cam Newton gained more experience and Drew Brees and Matt Ryan continued to age and is now the reality for the Panthers entering the 2018 offseason.
Perhaps a new owner will be the shot in the arm the Panthers need to make the most out of their special talent in Newton. Jerry Richardson was never able to get his beloved Panthers over the hump during his decades as the team’s original owner and now it is public that he was an awful person to his employees. It is an uncertain future now that the season is officially over in Carolina at the hands of the hated Saints, but maybe it is a future that could bring out the best in a Panthers team that has struggled to find their once championship-level potential.