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Monday Morning Optimist: Next year isn’t more than a year away

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A lot of bad teams are a year away for the better part of a decade. The Panthers don’t have to be one of those teams

Washington Redskins v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper spoke with the Charlotte media a few weeks ago and told them that he wouldn’t accept sustained mediocrity. The team has responded by displaying a brand of football that certainly isn’t mediocre. The full truth of the matter is that the Panthers, no matter how talented they are on the field, simply don’t have what it takes to win in the NFL as they are currently constructed. A lot of that is on injuries. More of it is on coaching. That means that a lot of their ills can be resolved in one off season of careful decisions and patient recovery.

F-150 folk hero Kyle Allen, through no personal fault of his own, proved to be the perfect avatar of this team. He opened the game, to somebody not watching too closely, like vintage Peyton Manning. He was surgical—meaning precise, careful, and effective—in the passing game while leading the Panthers to two touchdowns. Afterwards, he was downright comical. In effect, he was the Peyton Manning we all remember from Super Bowl 50: having enough of a pulse to doom the Panthers.

That dichotomy has been the Panthers team identity under Rivera. Stellar individual efforts or above average talent has carried the team to great successes. Mistakes or below average talent has led to losing seasons. That is in the context of the team possessing the above average talents of Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly for nearly the entirety of Rivera’s tenure. They have formed the core of an average, coin-flip team under Rivera’s leadership.

The 2019 Carolina Panthers are a team of below average talent due largely to an excessive number of injuries concentrated among the team’s better veterans. Technically, they still have the opportunity to finish 9-7 if they win out. Sure.

Anyway, this season will mark the sixth losing one in Rivera’s nine years as head coach. If you are still on the fence about him then ask yourself if you are at all surprised that his team has found itself inside the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter where a touchdown would have won or tied the game for the Panthers during four separate games and that his team has lost all four of those games.

Yesterday was another embarrassing loss for the Panthers. It would have been an embarrassing loss if they accidentally forced overtime at that last minute and managed to win. It was their third embarrassing loss—including their second at home—this season. For all of that, however, they aren’t a team bereft of value.

Regardless of what happens with Rivera, with Newton, and with their unfortunately limited cap space, the Panthers will face the season with the best number one receiver they’ve had since Steve Smith in DJ Moore. They will have one of the few running backs in professional football worth signing to a long term contract in Christian McCaffrey (who will still be on his rookie deal).

They have a small stable of playmakers on both sides of the ball and an offensive line full of guys that have played well when healthy in the past. Names like Ian Thomas, Donte Jackson, Brian Burns, and Curtis Samuel aren’t going anywhere. There will be holes, hard decisions, and a lot of change, but the core of the team is one of talent and relative youth.

There are perennially bad teams like Cleveland Browns, Washington, and the New York Jets. They are bad for years because their ownership makes bad hires, approves bad contracts, or moves on too quickly from good hires. Sometimes they do all of this in the same season. These are the teams that take years to rebuild and even then only see success in brief windows. The Panthers are not currently in a position to be considered one of their peers, even as they are also not in a position to be considered their equals on a football field.

They don’t need to be broken down to be built back up. The players they are returning next year are enough to start a good team. They just need new leadership and a common degree of health.