After waltzing to Super Bowl 50 on a magic carpet ride that saw them rampage through the regular season with a 15-1 record, the defending NFC champions are already fighting for their playoff lives after stumbling out of the gate to a 1-3 start. Under the current playoff format, which dates back to 1990, the Panthers are the eighth Super Bowl participant to start the season 1-3 or worse the following season — and only the 1996 Dallas Cowboys rebounded to make the playoffs. To make matters worse, only eight teams since 1990 (6.3 percent) have made the playoffs after a 1-4 start.
Now, I’m sure Rivera wishes that he could open up the medical cabinet and find the remedy for the Panthers’ ailments, but the truth lies in the tape — and the All-22 Coaches Film doesn’t paint a pretty picture. To be frank, Carolina looks nothing like the rock-solid squad that obliterated opponents with a high-octane, smashmouth offense and a suffocating defense that thrived on takeaways and splash plays.
The Panthers entered the 2016 season with a streak of 32 consecutive games over 100 rushing yards — the longest such stretch since 1976. Since that streak came to an end in early October, they have been held under the century mark five more times. Lead back Jonathan Stewart turned back the clock for a season-high 132 yards in Week 15, but has otherwise averaged a problematic 3.6 yards per carry. Due nearly $6 million in 2017, Stewart will be a 30-year-old back with too much mileage under his belt, diminishing speed and a lengthy injury history.
Whether or not Stewart is retained, general manager Dave Gettleman has to place a priority on finding his successor. Scat back Fozzy Whittaker is limited to change-of-pace duty and kickoff returns, while 2015 fifth-round pick Cameron Artis-Payne has yet to crack the rotation. It’s past time to add a dynamic playmaking element to this backfield.
Interestingly enough, Benwikere admitted to having some conditioning issues Sunday. He said that the Falcons would take Jones out of the game and ask whichever receiver replaced him to run a deep route against Benwikere. Then, they would put Jones back in and run the same thing, allowing the All-Pro receiver to get a step on the tired cornerback.
“I kind of put that on film,” Benwikere told the Observer. “So obviously they’re going to come out, they’re going to run a deep ball and then they’re going to send another receiver in to run another deep ball. And then they’re going to have their star in and throw to their star.”
Brown was out of football last season after stints with the Giants, Colts and cheap jerseys and Raiders. He started 19 games for New York between 2012 and 2014 and spent part of the 2011 offseason with the Panthers before reuniting with the team this week.
A seventh-round pick by Oakland in 2010, Brown was added to provide veteran depth behind safety Kurt Coleman and third-year backstop Tre Boston.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettlemen and head coach Ron Rivera did not attend the LSU pro day on Wednesday, where a slimmer Fournette had an impressive workout, but the club did send its offensive coordinator and running backs coach, among other coaching staff members, to the event.
Fournette, the No. 1-rated RB on NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock’s board, has long been mentioned as a good fit for the Panthers — he’s a power back who can take some of the burden off of Newton and pair with Jonathan Stewart to give the club a nice running back tandem. Carolina might not get a chance to pick Fournette, though, unless it trades up.
Peppers began his career with the Panthers as the No. 2 overall pick in 2002. After compiling 81 sacks in eight seasons in Carolina, the pass rusher spent four years with the Chicago Bears. After being released, Peppers almost returned to the Panthers in 2014 before the Green Bay Packers swooped in to snap up the veteran, where he spent the past three seasons.
Even at 37 years old, Peppers has plenty left in the tank. In a rotational role with Green Bay in 2016, Peppers compiled 7.5 sacks and was one of the Packers’ best pass rushers. He compiled 25 sacks the past three seasons playing as an outside linebacker.