CHARLOTTE – What could have been ...
For many of the Panthers clearing out their lockers Tuesday, you can bet it was difficult to get those words out of their heads.
Heck, it was the first thought that crossed tight end Greg Olsen's mind when the team buses were welcomed home from the Super Bowl on Monday night.
"Pulling in was kind of bittersweet," Olsen said. "The fan support has been amazing all year. Even though we lost, they cared enough to come out on a chilly night. At the same time, you just think about what could have been – what that reception would have been like if just a handful of things went the other way. A bittersweet moment."
Check-out day was bittersweet in its own way. It's one last day with teammates; a chance to sign jerseys that will be lifelong keepsakes after an unprecedented 17-2 season.
But the bitterness of that second loss – a 24-10 defeat against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 – that bitter taste lingers.
"It's tough. This is going to be a tough one to swallow," center Ryan Kalil said. "Proud of the way my guys fought all year long, but disappointed to come up short there."
Added Olsen: "We're very disappointed. That's not how we envisioned the game going. I watched it, and you feel worse after you watch it. This notion that they suffocated us and we couldn't do anything – go back and watch the tape, see the plays that were there to be made. That's the tough part to swallow."
The Panthers need a break. They need time to regroup, time to rest, time to clear their minds. The pain from Super Bowl defeat is undeniable, but so too is the pride in what was accomplished: A 14-0 start, a third consecutive division title, an NFC Championship.
"Just looking back on the journey we had together," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said, "it's something all of us will remember."
There is a lot to look back on and a lot to look forward to. The 2015 Panthers were so close to the ultimate prize. The 2016 Panthers, a group that will come together in due time, will be primed and ready to chase it again.
"The future is bright here," Olsen said. "We pretty much have our whole crew coming back – there is no reason to think that we can't be even better next year."
View photos of Panthers players as they clean out their lockers and head into the offseason.