Monday was a sad day around Bank of America Stadium.
Instead of beginning the process to prepare for battle with Seattle Seahawks for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers were busy cleaning out their lockers.
It marked an early end to a season which saw the Panthers win 11 of their last 12 games to capture the NFC South. A nice accomplishment for the team and coach Ron Rivera, especially considering their 1-3 start.
Unlike in the previous two seasons when Carolina was 2-8 before cobbling a few wins together at the end, Rivera transformed himself into “Riverboat Ron” just as the executioner was donning his robes and sharpening his blade.
This shift in philosophy was a welcomed change to the “dull and boring” offense under John Fox and his offensive coordinators Dan Henning and Jeff Davidson. However, will this be enough to make the playoffs a regular destination rather than a rare occurrence.
Tasked with the duty to keep giving Rivera a roster capable of making the postseason is general manager Dave Gettleman. He will look to keep core players like free agents left tackle Jordan Gross, wide receiver Brandon LaFell, safety Mike Mitchell, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and kicker Graham Gano around without breaking the bank.
The main target for Gettleman to re-sign is defensive end Greg Hardy, but that will not come cheap. The team will have to walk the fine line of opening the checkbook to keep Hardy or watch him walk away like Julius Pepper did to join the Chicago Bears a few years ago.
It took countless draft picks and free agent signings before Carolina found a player to match Peppers’ output in Hardy. And paired with Charles Johnson on the other side, the Panthers have an outstanding one-two punch along their front.
As nice as it would be to have Hardy and Johnson dragging down quarterbacks for seasons to come, there are a few areas of need Gettleman has to also address, the main ones being in the secondary and at wide receiver.
For the majority of the season, the no-name group of defensive backs have been able to hold their own. However in a division which features Drew Brees and his receiver corps in New Orleans along with Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and main targets Roddy White and Julio Jones, the secondary will have to be upgraded. Otherwise, the Panthers could be staring at four divisional losses.
While the Panthers will have to do a better job defending the pass, they will also have to find another receiver to complement Steve Smith. This has been an area of concern pretty much since 2010. Carolina gambled and won with Ted Ginn Jr., not only as a returner but a receiver as well. The problem is he is a free agent just like LaFell.
Also is Gettleman willing to bet his job on two players with a combined 364 catches in 11 NFL seasons. Probably not.
Rivera and Gettleman have to feel good about the Panthers’ chances to take another step towards a return to the Super Bowl next season with the team they have assembled, but the pair will have to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors and not take any steps back.
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.