Despite making it to the Super Bowl last season, the Panthers have started the season with just one win from six
Why are they crying in Carolina?
Last season the Carolina Panthers roared through the NFL: 14 wins to start the year, a 15-1 record, and crushing playoff wins over Seattle and Arizona. They lost to Denver in the Super Bowl, 24-10; a game that was closer than the score indicates. Were it not for a late turnover handing the Broncos the ball close to Carolina's goal, Denver might have become the first team ever to win a Super Bowl without scoring an offensive touchdown.
2016 was supposed to be the Panthers' year. Returning most of their team, including the league's MVP, Cam Newton, and welcoming back top receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed all of 2015 through injury, they were prohibitive favourites to again win their conference title.
Coming off a bye week this Sunday for a rematch with Arizona at home, the Panthers' record stands at one win and five losses, the last four losses in a row. The media herd immediately blamed the "Curse Of The Super Bowl Losers," which supposedly sees teams who lose in the big game get punished in the following season. Which would be great except for one thing: it isn't true.
Consider the 2003 Panthers, who went 11-5, lost a thriller of a Super Bowl to New England, and in 2004 dropped to 7-9. They were in the middle of a string of ten seasons in which nine times the Super Bowl loser did actually play worse the next year.
Image: Butch Dill AP/Press Association Images
But the closer you look at this 'curse' the less juju it contains. In 1997, the first year of the "hoodoo," the Packers went 13-3 and lost; in '98 they dropped, but only to 11-5. In the final year, 2007, the Patriots went 16-0 and lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl; they too dropped to 11-5 and missed the playoffs, but that was without Tom Brady, and where else can you go but down from 16-0? And in 1999 the Titans rebounded from their Super Bowl loss after a 13-3 season to finish 13-3. So eight seasons ending nine years ago does not a curse make.
But still, what has happened to Carolina?
While it isn't a curse, it's important to consider what baseball writer Bill James defined as the "Plexiglass Principle," a sort of regression to the norm by which teams that play better than expected one year play worse the next.
Luck and the odds tend to even out, especially in a violent sport like football, where injuries can have such an effect. But a couple of missed kicks, a few fumbles that bounce the opponents' way, a few penalty flags thrown or kept in the pocket, and it's easy to turn a 15-1 season into something less successful.
Understand too that lots of Carolina's success is based on Newton's ability to create points from plays that break down - he has rare running skills to keep plays alive and to gain yardage on his own. But an offense reliant on one player can be easier to shut down, and Newton's running has also exposed him to greater injury risk; he's already been sidelined this year by the NFL's concussion protocol.
But that doesn't explain a 1-5 start, especially for a team with such a powerful defense. The ancient Greeks had an explanation. They called it hubris.
The Panthers' defense was built around a big investment in the line, especially disruptive tackles, who could generate pass rush without blitzing, and the best pair of linebackers in the league in Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. Their speed and talent allowed them to play much of the game without a third backer, in nickle coverage with five defensive backs.
One of those five, Josh Norman, was considered another of the league's best, but 2016 was his contract year, and rather than offer him the big-money long-term deal he desired, the team put the 'franchise' tag on him, keeping him for one season at a salary (about $14 million) commensurate with the top corners in the league.
Norman did not feel flattered by this, and insisted he wanted a long-term deal with Carolina. Instead, the team rescinded the franchise tag, making Norman a free agent, and he quickly signed with Washington for five years and $75 million. After the fact, he said he would have taken less to stay in Carolina, and observers wondered why general manager Dave Gettleman hadn't explored that avenue further.
Gettleman obviously felt that in the Panthers' defense, with lots of zone coverage, he didn't need high-priced corners, and in the salary-cap era, he needed to direct money elsewhere.
Norman himself had been a mid-round draft pick from unheralded Coastal Carolina University, and every season the Panthers would patch holes in their secondary with unwanted journeymen signed on one-year deals.
Gettleman appeared to be confident in drafting three corners, with his second, third and fifth round picks, and moving Bene Benwikere, injured late last season, into Norman's spot. How did that work? At the beginning of October, Atlanta's Julio Jones caught 300 yards worth of passes, mostly burning Benwikere. The Panthers cut him the next day.
Carolina may be feeling the effects of over-confidence in their system to make up for problems in personnel. This week's match-up with Arizona, who are coming off a brutal 6-6 slugfest with Seattle on Sunday night, will be a real test of whether they can.
They've had an extra week to prepare, but Arizona has a deep core of quality receivers to challenge their struggling secondary, and in Tyrann Matthieu, the 'Honey Badger', a player uniquely suited to 'shadow' Newton and help keep him in check. A loss now would mean the Panthers would need to win their last nine games in a row merely to have a sniff at the playoffs. Their coach, Riverboat Ron Rivera, will be aware of that.
But whether its a curse or whether it's hubris, he needs his rookie secondary to play like veterans starting this Sunday.