You could likely win a bar bet or two with this trivia question: Name the only current NFL franchise that has never had back-to-back winning seasons.
The surprising answer for many is the Carolina Panthers, who have this perception – especially among local, hardcore fans – of being this successful team.
Historically, the Panthers are far from it.
They are the very definition of mediocrity, record-wise. In 23 years of existence, Carolina is 192-192-1 after going 11-5 this season and losing to New Orleans in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs on Sunday.
The Panthers are 183-184-1 in regular-season play, 9-8 in the postseason, capping more than two decades of being average.
And the fact that the franchise has never been able to sustain success, to go just two straight years with a better than .500 record, is proof of a team unable to build a consistent winner.
Things have gotten better recently. Even with all the tumult of last summer and during this season, Carolina made the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons and tied the Saints for their sixth division title.
Three times in the past five years the team has won 11, 12 and 15 games, but the other two seasons were a six and seven-win record.
How does a team go through that stretch and not have back-to-back winning records? Remember the 2014 squad that had a late surge to get into the playoffs despite finishing 7-8-1.
Credit this year’s team for playing through the kind of dysfunction that would swallow many teams.
Team president Danny Morrison resigned last spring and was never officially replaced. General manager Dave Gettleman’s gruff approach did him in, and he was fired just days before the training camp opened.
That, along with his interim replacement being Marty Hurney - the guy who was fired to make room for Gettleman in 2013 - might have been the first sign of owner Jerry Richardson’s instability.
Long a reclusive figure who shunned the media almost completely since he brought pro football to Charlotte, Richardson was the guy who fired his two sons and potential successors a few years back.
While Hurney was compliant where Gettleman was hesitant (giving aging stars Thomas Davis and Gregg Olson revamped contracts), Carolina played well on the field.
A midseason trade of top receiver Kelvin Benjamin was odd, especially when injuries depleted the wideout corps, a factor that stood out in the playoff loss to the Saints.
And “As the Panthers Turn” continues. Richardson is out as owner after allegations of misconduct that includes several instances of sexual advances and a racial slur in the office severe enough that at least four employees were paid off to keep quiet, according to published reports.
The NFL is investigating, and that’s never a term you want attached to your team going into the offseason.
Two days after the Panthers gave coach Ron Rivera two more years on a contract that now runs through 2020, he fired the main core of his offensive staff, coordinator Mike Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey.
So the Panthers head toward the offseason and draft preparations with no owner, an interim GM who may or may not be back and no offensive coordinator. And probably no defensive coordinator most likely as well, as Rivera believes he will lose Steve Wilks to one of the vacant head-coaching jobs around the league.
What a mess.
The Panthers showed this year they could play through adversity and should be applauded for a fine season, but all the upheaval upstairs and in the coaching staff can easily take a toll down the road.
A very good defense is aging, and the likely new coordinator comes in knowing that unit is one Luke Kuechly concussion away from big trouble.
The offense just doesn’t have big-play talent around Cam Newton. The addition of Christian McCaffrey helped the passing game, but he showed little ability to be an effective runner out of the backfield. Jonathan Stewart and his bulging contract are likely gone, and the receiving corps needs to be rebuilt.
Newton is an incredible athlete, the best running QB in the history of the game and has shown he is a clutch player who wins games in the fourth quarter.
He is also a way too inconsistent passer with poor fundamentals and mechanics who apparently is too stubborn to work on his flaws.
Newton wins games despite poor statistics, and by the numbers he ranked worse than average as a passer. Over the last nine regular-season games this season, he threw for 183 yards or less seven times.
This offseason is the most important in the team’s history, with a lot of decisions to be made, especially who will own and direct the franchise.
The Panthers should be credited for winning 11 games amid the mess, but the future looks uncertain. What doesn’t seem uncertain is it is likely you can keep winning that bar bet for awhile.
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