Tepper, Panthers a long way off from sustained success

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper has repeatedly said that “long-term mediocrity” is not acceptable for his NFL franchise.

But right now mediocrity doesn’t sound all that bad for the Panthers.

Since Tepper purchased the franchise from founder Jerry Richardson for a record $2.3 billion in the summer of 2018, the Panthers are 22-42 with four straight losing seasons. Carolina is sitting at 5-11 for the third straight year with one game remaining, so Tepper’s goal of “sustained success” has thus far eluded him.

Tepper once told reporters that every time the Panthers lose he’s in a “(crappy) mood.”

Can you imagine what he’s feeling right now?

More importantly, you have to wonder how much patience the hedge fund billionaire — who is used to winning in the business world — has left with coach Matt Rhule and his staff. Rhule is 10-22 as the team’s coach, but still has five years remaining on a seven-year, $62 million contract.

Tepper has not responded to interview requests about Rhule’s future, but it’s expected some changes are coming — whether it is the head coach, some of his staff or personnel.

Carolina has a strong talented defense to build around, but its offense has been a complete mess — a reflection on the team’s horrendous offensive line and poor quarterback play.

Rhule made the understatement of the year Monday when he said the team needs to make a “true investment” in the offensive line after giving up seven sacks for the second straight week in a 18-10 loss to New Orleans.

The Panthers haven’t selected an offensive lineman in the first round since taking Jeff Otah 19th overall in 2008, and it’s been nearly two decades since they invested a top-10 draft pick at that position, taking Jordan Gross eighth overall in 2003.

The Panthers currently own the sixth pick in the 2022 draft heading into Week 18 with a chance to move up.

The quarterback situation is a little more tricky.

Sam Darnold is under contract for more than $18 million next season, while Cam Newton will be a free agent. Neither has done much to inspire any faith that they can be the quarterback of the future here.

It’s expected Tepper will make a major play for a veteran quarterback this offseason.

“I think the bottom line is that everyone is not playing good enough,” Darnold said Sunday. “We’re just not playing good enough to win games, simple as it is. We just have to continue to make adjustments and get ready to go down to Tampa and go get a win.”

In any event, it should be an interesting offseason as Tepper looks to change to the direction of the franchise.

WHAT’S WORKING

The Panthers have lost 11 of their past 13 games and six straight, so it’s hard to say much of anything is working particularly well. The defense was able to keep them in the game against the Saints, but faded in the second half — as has been the case for the better part of the season.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Pass protection. Darnold and Newton have not been good, but it’s hard to imagine any quarterback succeeding behind a makeshift offensive line. Carolina has allowed 18 sacks in the past three games, including seven in each of the past two weeks. The Panthers have allowed 50 sacks this season, fourth most in the NFL. Because of the lack of protection, the Panthers have virtually no downfield passing game and the passing is comprised almost entirely of short passes underneath the coverage.

STOCK UP

RB Chuba Hubbard. The rookie is far from explosive, but he’s getting better. He ran for 55 yards on 17 carries and scored Carolina’s only touchdown against the Saints. He also caught three passes for 13 yards. Those are not gaudy numbers by any stretch, but Hubbard is getting a wealth of experience that he otherwise would not get if Christian McCaffrey weren’t hurt. That could pay dividends for Carolina down the road.

STOCK DOWN

In-game adjustments. The Panthers have done well on early possessions, regularly scoring on their opening drive. The problem has been sustaining that success as the game progresses and making in-game adjustments to how defenses are attacking them. Sunday was a perfect example as the Panthers scored a field goal and a touchdown on their first two possessions while racking up 132 yards. However, the Panthers managed a combined 46 yards on their final eight possessions and failed to score.

INJURED

The Panthers played Sunday without cornerback Stephon Gilmore and left tackle Cam Erving because of injuries, while top pass rusher OLB Haason Reddick was held out because he didn’t clear COVID-19 protocols.

KEY NUMBER

3 — Average yards per play on offense against the Saints.

NEXT STEPS

The Panthers will close out the season on Sunday at Tampa Bay, a team that Rhule is 0-3 against since taking over as coach.

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