CHARLOTTE — When Panthers head coach Frank Reich was asked how to explain the inexplicable, he began by saying the responsibility fell on him as a head coach and then to the leaders in the locker room.
When you walked into a library-quiet Panthers locker room after a 21-13 loss to the Vikings, four of those men were huddled in the corner, with Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Justin Houston, and DeShawn Williams talking amongst themselves about an unexpected fourth loss in a row to start the season, a turn of events none of them envisioned a month ago.
So Reich was asked, naturally so, whether he feared his message would fall on deaf ears with a lack of results.
"I don't; I mean, it can do that. Everybody knows that. I mean, we all know that can happen," Reich said. "What stops that from happening is the quality of individuals in the locker room and the coaches. So, it's not easy, it's hard, you have to fight against it."
Reich was clear that as the boss, it's ultimately on him. But in referring to captains and leaders like Burns and Brown, he also acknowledged the people who will have to make those changes manifest.
"I believe that's what these guys will do," Reich said. "I believe they're made of the right stuff."
They might be, but at the moment, they're running out of ways to describe how this is happening.
"Man, honestly, you can't get too down on yourself," Burns said, knowing plenty of people are willing to do that for them. "You know what I'm saying? I guess at a certain point in time, you've got to man up, you know? And that time has been well overdue.
"So I, I don't have much to say."
It would be natural for there to be a sense of exasperation by those guys on defense because they did most of what could reasonably be expected of them. The pass-happy Vikings changed tactics, running the ball 23 times and only attempting 19 passes.
When starting cornerback Donte Jackson left in the first half with a shoulder injury, the Panthers were without both starting corners from the opener since Jaycee Horn was on IR with a hamstring issue (along with starting linebacker Shaq Thompson).
Nevertheless, they held the Vikings to 1-of-8 on third downs and only 139 passing yards. They picked quarterback Kirk Cousins off twice, leading to 10 of the 13 points the Panthers scored (seven of them directly when Sam Franklin Jr. took an interception back 99 yards for the score). Justin Jefferson scored two touchdowns but had just 85 yards receiving.
If you offer them that before the game, they'd feel pretty confident in the result.
"Yeah, I would have with the confidence we have in the room, the guys that we have," CJ Henderson, suddenly the team's top corner, said. "But yeah, it's definitely tough. Those guys are getting the reps; those main guys have been here for a while. It's hard for the young guys to come in and step up.
"But we have confidence in everyone to maintain and keep the standard, keep us in these games."
Without Jackson for most of the game, the Panthers were covering an explosive passing game with Henderson, Troy Hill (signed the week before the end of the preseason), D'Shawn Jamison (claimed off waivers from the 49ers after initial cuts to 53), and practice squad call-up Dicaprio Bootle at cornerback. And while the Vikings made their own decision to run more (and it worked), those backup players performed well.
And yet, they're 0-4, staring into trips to Detroit and Miami, which have two of the most potent offenses in the league (the Dolphins lead the league and are averaging 37.5 points per game after dropping 70 on the Broncos last week, while the top-10 Lions are averaging a mere mortal 26.5 points per game after dropping 34 on the Packers this week).
This is not for the timid of heart.
Jackson was downcast in the locker room, and not just because of physical pain. (He said he was trying to get rehab his shoulder enough to play next week.) He's been here a while, so his perspective is among those players who have seen the most.
"I've been here when we couldn't turn it around, and I've been here when we turned it around," Jackson said. "So the biggest difference is just staying together and believing in each other."
Asked if he's seen any signs that wasn't the case, he shook his head.
Reich talked about the need to balance long-term planning with the importance of producing now (and he's tired of talking about the long-term plan at the moment), and that's a pass the Panthers are trying to figure out how to navigate.
"It's just seeing the bigger vision," Henderson said. "We're on four right now, but, you know, it's a long season ahead. If you keep pushing at the right path and continue trusting our process moving forward, we'll be good."
That could be true at some point. Sunday afternoon, they were left with the now-familiar feeling of explaining one away that was close to being the one they needed.
But close was not close enough.
Burns was asked how these losses were weighing on him personally, and he also shook his head as if searching for an answer.
"It's not good, . . . not good," Burns said. "I've been through it. You know what I mean?
"So, not good."
View all the action from the Panthers' game against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4.