CHARLOTTE – The annual scene that played out in the Panthers' locker room Monday has been likened to the last day of school – players cleaning out their lockers while exchanging autographs, handshakes and hugs with each other.
That's not the way offensive tackle Chris Clark, experiencing his 11th clean-out day but his first with the Panthers, sees it.
"The last day of school, you're ready. You're out of here," Clark said. "Here, it's not like that.
"You don't want to end it this way."
Two months ago, when the Panthers were 6-2, they would have assumed that if the regular season ended with a blowout victory over the Saints like it did Sunday, that wouldn't be the end of the road.
Instead, Carolina's 33-14 victory ended a seven-game losing streak that left the Panthers among the seven 2017 playoff teams not returning in 2018.
"It hurts to think about what could have be if we had made one more play, fought a little harder," defensive tackle Kyle Love said. "But it is what it is, and what we have do now is look toward next year."
That's the message that head coach Ron Rivera delivered during the final team meeting of the season after his team missed out on the postseason for just the second time in six years.
"That was the theme of the meeting I had with the players today – moving forward and talking about the things we have to do," said Rivera, who is set to return for his ninth season as Carolina's head coach in 2019. Rivera encouraged the young players in the room to spend the offseason becoming better pros.
"It's a good group of young men," Rivera continued, "and it speaks well of this locker room that they came out and competed, fought and played well from the beginning to the end."
The reality is that not all of the players taking part in the final team meeting of the season will be around for the first meeting of the 2019 offseason. Center Ryan Kalil and perhaps others will call it a career – whether on their terms or not – while some other players will end up with other teams when the dust settles on NFL free agency.
Love and safety Mike Adams are among a long list of players who have been with the Panthers more than one season that have expiring contracts.
"I definitely want to play again; there's no question," said Adams, who wrapped up his 15th NFL season Sunday. "It's always weird, this last day, and sad at the same time because you don't know what to expect in the future for anybody in here.
"We've got a lot of free agents. Like I said at the beginning of the season, this team will play together just one time. There will be different faces in this locker room next year."
Different faces, but all with the same goal.
"Everything will focus on us moving forward," Rivera said. "We had a little bit of a spell where we just didn't get it done. That's the frustrating part, and the evaluation process will start with me and looking at the things that I could have done better to help us – especially during that stretch.
"When you get into a stretch like that, all it takes is one positive thing, and we didn't get it. That was disappointing. But I was really pleased with the effort they gave continually throughout the season."
View photos as Panthers players clean out their lockers as they mark the end of the 2018 season.