Strickly Panthers: The difference a year can make in NFL

PHILADELPHIA – One of the countless reasons the NFL is so popular is its unpredictable nature from week to week but also from year to year.

In 2013, the Panthers experienced the fun side of that. This season, it's been exactly the opposite.

One year after Carolina improved by five games to go 12-4, they now stand at 3-6-1 following Monday night's lopsided 45-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

"It's not a good feeling. We want to win," left tackle Byron Bell said. "Everybody wants to talk about what we did last year, but this is not last year's team. This is a new team.

"This was a rough game for us all, but we've got to stay together and keep pushing. We've got to continue to grow and learn to play with one another."

Initially this season, the Panthers appeared to pick up where they left off last year. Carolina won the opener at Tampa Bay with quarterback Cam Newton out of action and then won the following week in convincing fashion against a Detroit Lions team that has lost just twice all season.

Since then, over a long two months, the Panthers are 1-6-1.

"Last year was good, but it's not last year. Every year is different," defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "We're not thinking about last year. We're thinking about now and what is wrong with us and what we need to do to correct things."

The Panthers suffered significant offseason turnover along the offensive line, at wide receiver and in the secondary. But those losses don't seem to fully explain the mounting losses in the standings.

Jordan Gross' retirement led to changes up front, but the new unit was more than adequate the first two games this season. Since then, injuries have decimated the group, though it was back within one player of full strength Monday when the Panthers tied a franchise record by allowing nine sacks.

At wide receiver, Carolina released Steve Smith, but Kelvin Benjamin is pushing for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year – he had two more touchdowns against the Eagles – and the group, overall, has been comparable in production to the 2013 receiving corps.

In the defensive backfield, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell left via free agency and signed lucrative deals elsewhere, but the secondary wasn't the primary reason the Panthers' defense ranked second in the NFL last year. The front seven set the tone, and that group returned all of its top performers from last season – until defensive end Greg Hardy was placed on the exempt/commissioner's permission list after the second game.

"We know we have the pieces. We know we have the talent," linebacker A.J. Klein said. "We have the same core group of guys, and we're running the same type of scheme. We've been a little bit injury-riddled, but we're starting to get guys back. Really, there's no excuse for us to not play at a high level."

The Panthers clearly aren't playing as well as they did last season, but neither is the rest of the NFC South. Had Carolina won Monday, the Panthers would have found themselves back in first place at 4-5-1.

"It does give you some hope, but we're running out of time, quite honestly," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I've got to coach better, the coaches have got to coach better, we've got to practice better, and more importantly we've got to play better. And we've got to do it together as a team.

"That's the only way you're going to win football games. We've got to play as a team, work as a team and get better."

As wonderful as last season was, it makes the travails of this season that much tougher to take. If the Panthers weren't coming off a postseason appearance, the prospect of getting into the playoffs no matter their record would seem a lot more appealing.

Then again, the successes of last season are part of the reason no one in the locker room is giving up on this season.

"We obviously aren't playing our best football, but we still control our own destiny," Klein said. "We've just got to stick together."

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