Carolina Panthers

Panthers coaches, front office have jobs on the line in Year 2 under David Tepper

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Panthers 25th Anniversary

A look back on 25 years of Panthers football, and a look ahead to the 2019 season.

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The Carolina Panthers are calling this “The Silver Season,” which wraps a pleasant layer of nostalgia around their 25th year of NFL operations.

A more appropriate name would be “The Significant Season.” That phrase doesn’t have the same ring to it, and it’s not going to be part of the Panthers’ latest branding. But it does more readily conjure up the importance of a year that could mark the end of an era.

Neither coach Ron Rivera nor general manager Marty Hurney are in the “produce-or-else” category this year. But it’s more critical for the Panthers given that they suffered a 1-7 implosion over the second half of 2018. Another losing season in 2019, and I just can’t imagine owner David Tepper — who has said repeatedly that winning is what matters to him above everything else — will stand pat at coach or GM.

Tepper bought the team in 2018, he’s not used to losing, and I don’t think he would take well to a second straight year of it. I would expect Tepper to fire both Rivera and Hurney if this team goes 6-10 or worse. With that outcome, the Panthers would have missed the playoffs three times in four years.

It may never come to that, though; the Panthers have some major talent. They have a real chance to make everyone wearing black and blue happy.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) makes a reception in front of head coach Ron Rivera (left) and general manager Marty Hurney. McCaffrey, entering his third NFL season, was drafted in the first round by Hurney in 2017. David T. Foster III

This is the rare Carolina team to actually feature three franchise-level players: linebacker Luke Kuechly, running back Christian McCaffrey and quarterback Cam Newton. That’s a triumvirate most NFL teams would salivate over. You absolutely can’t waste the precious few years you get with a group of frontmen like that.

Bandwagon jumpers?

And yet things have too often gone sour since Denver exposed the Panthers’ offensive line in the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, 2016, and blasted Carolina, 24-10. The Panthers had won three consecutive NFC South division titles entering that game; they’ve gone 0 for 3 since. Carolina has also missed the playoffs in two of the previous three years and lost in the first round of the 2017 postseason — the year the Panthers did make it.

So all is not well in Panther Land. Newton, as tough a customer as they come in terms of taking a hit, isn’t as able to shake them off as well at age 30 as he did at age 22. He’s had two shoulder surgeries in the past 28 months, and he played less than one quarter of a single preseason game in August before sustaining a mid-foot sprain that immediately sidelined him again.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) and tight end Greg Olsen (88) talk with team owner David Tepper during training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg in August. David T. Foster III

Still, it could be worse — Newton hasn’t pulled an Andrew Luck and suddenly retired. He is supposed to start in Week 1 despite his foot injury Aug. 22, which could have been much more serious. And No. 1 has been incredibly durable if you consider his entire career, missing only five games in eight years. He’s (relatively) healthy, although people are worried about both the quarterback and the offense.

“People are jumping off the bandwagon before we’ve even pulled out of town here,” tight end Greg Olsen said with a smile Tuesday.

The continuing questions about Newton’s health, though, lead into the biggest question I have about this team. That’s the offensive line, which has looked unimpressive in limited work in the exhibition games. Newton got sacked twice in only 11 snaps in the preseason. If he gets injured again, neither Kyle Allen nor Will Grier look ready to lead the Panthers to the playoffs.

So, basically, Newton can’t get injured again — not if the Panthers are going to be playing in January.

Newton certainly doesn’t want to get injured — his contract expires following the 2020 season. Another good season in 2019 would mean that Newton will come due for a massive payday — likely the last huge cash bonanza of his career. But a season that ends in injury or in the NFC South cellar will make the Panthers or any other possible suitors think twice.

Ron Rivera (left) and general manager Marty Hurney speak at a press conference before the 2019 draft, in which they selected edge rusher Brian Burns in the first round. David T. Foster III

A back-loaded schedule

On defense, the Panthers have added a dynamic rookie in edge rusher Brian Burns. But their defensive line has some age on it now and needs to prove itself once again (the Panthers in particular would like to get more from Dontari Poe).

Kuechly and Shaq Thompson will fly all over the field making tackles. But the secondary will be put through the wringer every week, starting with Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams (the defending NFC champions) at home Sept. 8 and continuing until the final regular-season game Dec. 29 against the ageless Drew Brees and New Orleans.

The Panthers’ early schedule through the end of October looks manageable. Then it’s back-loaded with four games in the final seven weeks against division foes Atlanta and New Orleans, which, along with Carolina, will likely be the chief contenders for the NFC South. So from mid-November on, life gets hard.

But all of it feels important. Critical. Significant. This is a Panthers team holding tight to the side of a mountain, and it’s getting cold; it can’t stay in place for much longer.

A significant climb — or a catastrophic fall — is coming for the Panthers.

There’s only one way to find out how it all ends.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.