When the Carolina Panthers last cleaned out their lockers, it was less than 48 hours after the good vibes from their record-setting season were erased in Super Bowl 50.
So on the one hand, Monday didn’t sting as much. On the other, it was just a different form of disappointment.
“This was a very difficult year,” coach Ron Rivera said after his players began heading into their offseasons. “Things didn’t go the way we planned or hoped. Our expectations weren’t met.”
Rivera declined to go into much detail about why his team fell from the top of the NFC to the bottom of the NFC South, but he did admit he “overthought a lot of things.” The sixth-year coach spent much of the spring and summer planning ways to avoid the dreaded “Super Bowl hangover,” a curse that’s now 24 years long.
It didn’t help that quarterback Cam Newton followed his best season with his worst.
The 2015 MVP set career lows in completions per game, completion percentage and passer rating. He also used his legs less, rushing for 180 yards fewer than his previous low in 2014 when he was coming off ankle surgery and dealing with broken ribs.
Newton wasn’t completely healthy this year, of course. He missed Week 5 with a concussion and a sore shoulder clearly hampered him down the stretch.
Now, after ignoring outside suggestions to be more cautious with their most important player for years, the Panthers are finally planning to “evolve” around Newton, who turns 28 in May.
“He’s not as young and nimble as he used to be, and we have to be smart about that,” Rivera said. “We have to think about other ways to use him, other ways to use his athleticism.
“He still has a unique set of skill sets. We’ve just got to find the best way to utilize it now.”
That could mean less read-option and more play-action, and if ownership and management allow Rivera to make the call, offensive coordinator Mike Shula will head that evolution.
But any improvement offensively needs to include another weapon or two for Newton, who could also use better protection. Rivera remains hopeful Michael Oher can return from a concussion that ended his season after Week 3, and five-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will be back after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Defensively, there are a number of free agency question marks up front, but the Panthers will head into 2017 with a healthy Luke Kuechly and a more experienced secondary.
So while it would have been interesting if Rivera provided more precise explanations for a 6-10 season, it’s understandable why he, like much of the country, is relieved it’s a new year.
“Quite honestly,” he said, “the less I talk about 2016, the happier I’m going to be about it.”