Thus ends another season. A year of innovative offenses chewing up yards and spitting out points is, of course, defined by the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever. It’s defining play was a record long punt, because football is weird and nothing in this game is constant. Well, nothing except for the Patriots. The gravity of their success is difficult to watch. I don’t mean to infer that their wins are of remarkable import or serious nature. I mean gravity in the sense that the Patriots function as close as you can get to a law of nature. When you drop an apple, it falls on another winning season and/or Super Bowl appearance and/or Super Bowl victory for Tom Brady and Bill Belichik.
The Panthers are a part of their dynasty only because historians often make footnotes of those peoples conquered during an empire’s rise. The Patriots get to celebrate their dynasty because history is written by the victors, a status and a privilege the Panthers have never known. They have never written their own history. The end to their season, and how fans feel about it, always has to wait for other teams to finish playing.
We can write for weeks leading up to the end of a season about why the Panthers didn’t make the playoffs, or got bounced early, or came up just short. But, because football is weird and nothing is constant, the final word has to wait for some other franchise to make history. The story is never complete without all of its context. Then we can say at least the Saints didn’t make it to the Super Bowl; at least the Patriots didn’t win again; at least the Falcons lost in an all-time fourth quarter collapse.
This year there are no good guys left. The evil empire has extended its reign and we have to talk about the Panthers season in the context of other teams’ successes again. The Falcons, in spite of their recent struggles, still have a potent offense. So do the Saints, in spite of Drew Brees’ antiquity. The Bucs have put together an on-paper fantastic coaching staff —now is the time for Jameis Winston to succeed, if there is ever one. The Rams and the Chiefs, in spite of their losses to that team, will probably continue to dominate the NFL and rewrite records throughout the 2019 regular season.
In the face of all of this, the Panthers have lost Julius Peppers, who was still one of their best defensive linemen at the age of 37. They will lose Thomas Davis, who more than earned his playing time last season. Their Safety situation is entirely uncertain, with both Eric Reid and Mike Adams set to hit free agency. There is also the part where Adams turns 38 before the draft even starts. They do not appear poised for the kind of defensive success that won the Super Bowl last night. Not in 2019.
On offense, the Panthers have a quarterback who is recovering from his second surgery on his throwing shoulder in three years. They have a star tight end who has broken his foot twice in as many years and will probably soon have to stop growing his legendary win-streak beards to hide the gray. Cam Newton was injured enough to need those surgeries in part because the last Left Tackle worth mentioning for this team was Michael Oher. It is also telling that no other quarterback was capable of playing an entire game behind the most recent Panthers' offensive lone. That's all before they lost an all-pro Center who cut his teeth snapping the ball for Jake Delhomme. Ryan Kalil was as close to a constant as this —or any— franchise will ever know.
Even if the team can put a defense on paper, how can anybody expect this offense to keep up with the rest of the league? The answer to that is simple: because football is weird and nothing is constant.
Newton has said, both publicly and directly to Ron Rivera, that his shoulder is already better than he expected. Any chance of the Panthers writing their own story in 2019 starts with his health. There is a chance that he will be throwing by training camp. That would be invaluable in helping with the second most visible problem with the Panthers passing game last season. Newton had no chemistry with his young targets.
DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Ian Thomas are all poised for breakout seasons in 2019. The ability to practice with their quarterback will make all the difference for them. The ability for that quarterback to make a throw deeper than seven yards —the most visible problem with the 2018 Panthers passing game— will make all the difference for the season as a whole.
The potential for star power and fireworks still lies within this team. The legends that Panthers fans were raised with may have finally retired, but they don’t leave behind a team that is entirely barren of talent. The holes in the roster on the offensive and defensive lines are few enough that they can be at least patched in free agency and the draft. There won’t be a pro bowler at every position, but Chris Clark and Efe Obada proved last year that you don’t have to be a world beater to be part of a winning effort.
A successful off season, meaning a well-run draft and smart spending in free agency, leaves this team a lot closer to their 6-2 start from 2018 than it does their 1-7 finish. Add in a healthy Newton —fingers crossed— and the Panthers become a team that only really have to worry about the fact that football is weird and nothing stays constant. They could be prepared for everything else.