The Carolina Panthers kept dropping as the month of December hit, their record standing at 5-7 with little hope for a postseason appearance. With a record of 1-3 in November, it appeared that Head Coach Matt Rhule was completely losing the locker room, and after December like he’s lost the whole team.
However, if we’re getting into what happened in December of 2021, we have to look back at how past Panthers coaches handled adversity, stay competitive, how their teams would finish the season, and Keep Pounding.
The John Fox Panthers
In the first season with Fox as head coach, the team won 4 of last 5, finishing strong at 7-9. They improved upon their prior record of 1-15. In year two, Carolina was on top of the league at 8-2, but lost three in a row, including an overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The “Cardiac Cats” then went on to win the next three games in December to finish 11-5, and won all three games in January, including an iconic divisional round overtime finish and in-route to the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance.
In 2010, Fox was fired after being unable to fix a struggling second-round rookie quarterback in Jimmy Clausen. Unfortunately for Fox and the Panthers, Clausen wasn’t going to succeed anywhere and has become an infamous bust. He led them to a 2-14 record, with at least one of those wins in December. So a new era was coming to Charlotte, with Coach Ron Rivera and intriguing Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton being drafted with the first overall pick. One could be intrigued to wonder what Fox could’ve done with Newton instead of Clausen and potentially not been fired.
Record in December & January: 52 Games: 32-20 (61.5% winning percentage)
The Ron Rivera Panthers
The first season with Rivera on the sidelines and Newton under center got off to an ugly start at 1-5, but close losses with strong performances by Newton gave fans something to cheer about. The team got to the bye week at 2-6, lost two games, and at 2-8 went on to win four of six to finish 6-10. Cam Newton would become the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year. After a struggling start to the season, Ron Rivera took chances and led like a general on a mission to keep the motivation in the building. The Panthers finished the season 5-1 and retained Rivera for another year.
In 2013, Carolina started the season 1-3. Then something snapped. All of a sudden came a top 2 defense, solid play from the run game with true leadership, execution, and determination at all levels as everything came together. Carolina was more motivated by their leadership than ever before to get it together and put themselves back on top of the league. The Panthers won the NFC South by winning eleven of their next twelve, four of which divisional games in December. The next year, the Panthers went through a lot of personnel change and had a very rough 2014, falling to 3-8-1 before the ‘Cardiac Cats’ finished strong with a record of 7-8-1, winning every game in December and sneaking into the playoffs as NFC South champions.
The peak year for the Rivera-led Panthers was 2015. The Panthers had a Super Bowl appearance, an MVP quarterback in Cam Newton, a top-ranked defense. Rivera won coach of the year.
Rivera was fired in 2019 after multiple quarterback changes, questionable personnel management decisions, and injury issues plaguing the team.
Record in December & January:
47 Games: 28-19 (59.5% winning percentage)
The Matt Rhule Panthers: In two seasons, Rhule hasn’t kept the motivation level high enough for players throughout the season to improve on the many issues that have impacted the team. As the losses build, so does the lack of effort.
Rhule won 11 games in his final year at Baylor. In two years in the NFL, Rhule still hasn’t surpassed that number.
The Panthers have had four consecutive losing seasons (22-41), the past two under Rhule (10-21), without showing any sign of improvement.
Even when the Panthers couldn’t start off well, Fox and Rivera were able to get the team to be competitive late in seasons and fight for playoff spots that they had no business getting. It didn’t matter if they still had a chance or not. With Rhule, you don’t see any of that. The Cardiac Cats are long gone.
Record in December & January:
8 Games: 1-7 (10% winning percentage)
Since 2020: 1-7 Rhule
Since 2018: 2-14 Rivera/Fewell/Rhule
Since 2011: 29-30 Rivera
Since 2002: 62-53 Fox
The Carolina Panthers’ 2021 point differential (-76) this season is a full game’s worth less than it was in 2020 (-52) with a game still remaining.
Panthers owner David Tepper brought in Matt Rhule after his success at Baylor to attempt to build a winning culture.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of evidence to say he’s done the opposite.