The Carolina Panthers ended the season with a 33-14 win over the New Orleans Saints to finish at 7-9. Here's a recap of the season and what's next:
Season grade: Below-average -- The Panthers had high expectations for a run at the Super Bowl and appeared to have the talent to do it after a 6-2 start. Everything was clicking. Then it all fell apart. A seven-game losing streak ended all playoff hopes and raised speculation about the futures of coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney. Owner David Tepper, who has made it no secret that his first, second and third priority is to win, has decided to stick with both, multiple sources told ESPN.com on Friday. Rivera said before the finale he was "truly disappointed" because the Panthers had opportunities to win down the stretch and make the playoffs. "That's probably one of the things I've struggled with, knowing that I think we're better than our record says, but at the end of the day, you are what your record is."
Season in review: Quarterback Cam Newton was playing, in his own words, the best football of his career 10 games into the season. He had adjusted smoothly to offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system. He looked like an MVP candidate, and the Panthers were in a strong position to make the playoffs. Then Newton's right shoulder became an issue to the point that he couldn't throw the deep ball, and it affected his timing with short passes in clutch situations. The Panthers finally shut him down for the final two games after a 12-9 loss to New Orleans that made it painfully clear that Newton's shoulder was a major issue. That also ended all realistic playoff hopes. The mantra since Newton was chosen with the first pick of the 2011 draft has been "As Cam Newton goes, so go the Panthers." When Newton couldn't go at an elite level, the dreams of a Super Bowl run went away.
He said it: "I wish I could say what the injury is, because I really don't know what it is, either. No matter how much you push, no matter how much you ice, anti-inflammatories you take ... trust me, I did it. Acupuncture, massages, it's not been a time a night went by I didn't have some type of work done on my arm. We just don't have the strength. ... You can rub magic dust on it, you can go to this person, go to that person ... you just come out, and it's still the same." -- Panthers quarterback Cam Newton after the loss to New Orleans on his throwing shoulder.
Key offseason questions
What is in store for Ron Rivera? The coach is three years removed from taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl. He's a two-time NFL Coach of the Year, so there's good reason for Tepper to stick with him. But this season's collapse and a failure to put together consecutive winning seasons in any of his eight seasons should have Rivera on a short leash next season. Players' refusal to quit under him despite adversity was the biggest positive from this season. "I feel pretty good about it," Rivera said Friday when asked about his future with the team. "My intention, and everything I've been doing, is working toward the future, and we'll go from there. My conversations with the owner have been all positive."
Just how serious is Newton's shoulder injury? Surgery doesn't appear necessary at the moment. But if that becomes an option, and even if it doesn't, the long-term impact has to be concerning. Carolina hasn't drafted a quarterback since Newton in 2011. It is time to invest a draft pick or money in free agency -- or both -- in finding a short-term and possibly long-term solution. It's doubtful the Panthers can lure a top free agent such as Nick Foles or Teddy Bridgewater without the guarantee of a chance to start because if Newton returns to full health, he is the starter -- at least under the current coaching staff. But can the Panthers trust Newton's shoulder? That is the biggest question entering the offseason.
What are the other big roster moves at play? An option at quarterback aside, the Panthers desperately need a young edge pass-rusher. Future Hall of Fame end Julius Peppers, 38, likely has played his last game. End Mario Addison is 31, and his production has dropped. The options in free agency are limited because of salary-cap space, so the draft may be the best option. Carolina also must decide whether to bring back Thomas Davis. The 35-year-old outside linebacker wants to return, but whether he can accept a greatly reduced role and lower salary will be among the issues. The Panthers also have big decisions to make on the offensive line. Center Ryan Kalil is retiring, and the left tackle spot could be up for grabs if Matt Kalil, who spent the season on injured reserve, isn't brought back. Devin Funchess, who came into the season as the No. 1 receiver, has lost that role to first-round pick DJ Moore. The organization appears to have moved on with no intent to re-sign Funchess. As solid as this roster is with young, dynamic playmakers around Newton, there are a lot of holes to fill.