Column: The Panthers may already be buried

New Orleans Saints kicker Wil Lutz (3) celebrates after kicking the game winning field goal in the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. The Saints won 41-38. (Bill Feig/AP Photo)

There have been plenty of surprises this year in the NFL, but not many could have seen this one coming. The Carolina Panthers have been hit with a serious Super Bowl hangover this season, and they didn’t even win the thing. Carolina has a 1-5 record entering their bye week after a 41-38 loss to division rival New Orleans on Sunday afternoon, and they sit squarely in last place in the NFC South.

After a 15-1 regular season last year and an MVP award for star quarterback Cam Newton, it seemed like the sky was the limit as they headed for a showdown in the title game with the Denver Broncos. They lost 24-10 as the Broncos’ defense stole the show with a dominant day, but the future still seemed quite bright in Carolina. With Newton’s playmaking ability and a tough defense in tow, the Panthers seemed quite poised to continue their success.

That hasn’t been the case, not at all. Carolina bounced back from an opening night loss in Denver by routing San Francisco, but they have lost their next four games since then. Three of those four losses came to their divisional opponents in Atlanta, Tampa Bay and New Orleans, while the fourth came to Minnesota, which has appeared to take over the mantle of the NFC’s most feared team.

Maybe the Panthers could have shaken this off a few weeks ago, or even a week ago. Maybe they still had their mojo. But the loss to the Saints was one of those outcomes that really makes you think that all hope is lost. It’s time to write the obituary, because the Panthers’ season appears to be dead.

Carolina lost 41-38 to the Saints at the Superdome in New Orleans. They scored plenty of points against the Saints, but out there everyone does.

No, what was really unsettling about the Panthers’ performance was the continued ineptitude of a defense that was extremely stout just one year ago. That defense allowed 322.9 yards and 19.2 points per game last season, and this season it’s allowing 371.5 yards and 29.3 points per game. Those statistical drops have moved them from the league’s top ten to the league’s bottom ten in both categories.

When the defense is that unreliable, it puts the whole team under even more pressure. Newton, who has taken criticism for failing to comply with media postgame before, sleepwalked his way through a press conference after losing to the Saints, skipping questions and giving the same boring answers to the questions he did answer. Then he shuffled away from the podium, looking both defeated and dejected.

Newton is not the problem, although his attitude probably isn’t what the coaches and management wanted to see. The blame does lie with that defense, which has struggled at every level. Sack numbers are down, as both the star defensive tackles and young outside rushers have failed to provide an acceptable pass rush. That puts more pressure on the linebackers, normally the team’s strength, but even Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have failed to plug the leaks sprung down the field like they usually do. They’re still great players, but they can only do that much to help the winning cause.

By far the weakest aspect of that defense has been the secondary, which is an important unit to build up if a team wants to succeed in the pass-happy NFC South. Say what you will about cornerback Josh Norman, but he has been quite good this year in Washington, and Carolina’s decision to let him walk as a free agent this past offseason looks worse each and every week. It was a financially-driven decision, and based around the schematics of the defensive game plan, but it looks poor regardless.

The young defensive backs that the Panthers have moved into the lineup to replace Norman and other departing veterans have not been successful, as Carolina has allowed 282 passing yards per game. This isn’t an easily fixed problem. The pass rush may eventually spring to life, or at the very least the coaching staff will find ways to generate pressure by blitzing, but this secondary is very shaky. There simply isn’t enough talent back there.

If Carolina can claw its way back to relevancy, and doesn’t throw in the towel on this season, they have dug themselves quite the hole. At 1-5 through six weeks, they are tied for the worst record in the NFC, although they only sit a couple of games out of a wild card playoff spot. Taking back the division looks to be an insurmountable task, as they have already lost to all of their divisional rivals and Atlanta, in particular, looks to have sprung up as one of the league’s strongest teams.

And as a first place finisher last season, the Panthers have a tough schedule to contend with. They have already faced some of their most difficult challenges, but there are no easy games remaining on the docket. Not that any team can be considered an easy game for this team, which has yet to play a complete game this season.

It may be too late to chalk it all up to a slow start. The 2016 iteration of the Carolina Panthers is seriously flawed, and that may not change. Arguably the league’s best team last season has been one of the league’s worst this season, and they look to be out of time, and answers.

Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering football and men’s basketball. He can be reached via email at He tweets @tylerskeating.