The Carolina Panthers have endured three truly horrible seasons in their relatively short history, 1998, 2001, and 2010. Each marked the final year for the current head coach. And unless things turn around soon, 2012 could be more of the same, on both counts.
In 1998, the Panthers were coming off a disappointing season that had been marred by injuries, and started 0-7. That squad had severe locker room problems, in no small part stemming from Kerry Collins' alcohol-induced racial slurs and questions about his heart. The team rallied somewhat, winning four of their last nine games, but still finished 12th in the league on offense, and 30th on defense. Head coach Dom Capers and QB Kerry Collins were both released at the end of the season.
Cut to 2010. John Fox was a lame duck coach, a status that all but dooms any team in the NFL. He was a guy who loved his veterans, but they were purged from the roster in the off-season. Toss in 15 players on the IR/PUP list, and it's not hard to see why this team earned the top overall pick in the 2011 draft.
And then there was 2001. The Panthers started in a somewhat promising fashion, beating the Vikings in Minnesota. Rookie Chris Weinke, the 2001 version of Brandon Wheedon, was thrust into the starting role for a team that really didn't need much more than a game manager. The Panthers were returning plenty of talent at the other offensive skill positions, and it didn't seem like a rookie under center would sink the season.
On defense, the Panthers were replacing a 39 year old Reggie White with Jay Williams, but all three other positions on the line were somewhat upgraded with the additions of Brentson Buckner, rookie Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker. The Linebackers looked like a wash, talent-wise, and the secondary did too.
Given that the 2000 Panthers were 27th in the league in total yards allowed, the general feeling was that if they could improve on that side of the ball and remain consistent on offense, they could contend for the NFC West title. How familiar does that sound to fans in 2012?
The 98 Panthers didn't get along. The 2010 Panthers were young and didn't believe the coaches had a future. But the 2001 Panthers just didn't believe the coaches. They were outscored in the second half of games by an average of 5.5 points, and they blew seven second half leads. It wasn't just the league's 28th worst defense giving up 25.6 points a game, the offense was also pretty poor at 15.8 ppg, good enough for 29th in the league. That differential was 31st. And, of course, that's back when the league only had 31 teams.
But the point there is that the Panthers had a team that regularly showed enough talent to be competitive. You couldn't really say that about the 2010 edition, not with so many players on IR and a rookie QB who seemed afraid to hold the ball long enough for any play over three yards to develop. The 2010 team got beat like a drum. The 2001 team just found a way to lose.
On Sunday, the Panthers found a way to lose to a Seahawks team that was a questionable call away from being 1-3, and which was led by a rookie quarterback. The Panthers had the lead, they had a little momentum, and they were kind of driving. Then Williams fumbled. Seattle scored a few plays later, making it look easy. And when the Panthers finally found a way to move the ball (mainly by passing it to someone OTHER than Steve Smith), and marched down the field to a 4th and goal at the 1, instead of playing to their strengths they decided to get cute and lost four yards.
In short, they found a way to lose.
So far in 2012, the Panthers have played five games. Two of them were fierce rivalry contests, against teams that the players want to beat on a visceral level. And in both of those games, the Offense has clicked to the tune of 63 total points. In each game, they scored above what their opponent has allowed, and allowed less than their opponent's average score. In short, they played motivated, they executed, and they clearly demonstrated that they have the talent to compete with anyone.
And then there are the other three games. In them, the offense has scored a total of 20 points combined. The defense has played well enough to win a couple of them, but the team as a whole just isn't getting it done. It's 2001 all over again.
Aside from their inaugural year, the Panthers have started 1-4 or worse five times. There are the three years mentioned, 2004, and 2011. In 2004, the Panthers were dealing with injuries at linebacker, defensive tackle, receiver and running back that left them without playmakers, and it took them half the season to adjust. When they did, they won six of their last eight, setting the stage for their NFC South Champion campaign in 2005.
In 2011, the Panthers were young, had a new staff, no training camp, and a rookie quarterback. Expectations were low, but the team was showing promise even at 1-4 and managed to win four of their last six, generating a little excitement for 2012.
At 1-4 in 2012, that excitement's gone. And if this is 2001 all over again, you can bet Rivera will be too.