Any loss is tough. A close loss is even more devastating because of the amount of heartbreak it causes not only to the team but to the fans as well. Just ask the Carolina Panthers (1-3), who found themselves leading late in the game against both a division rival and an unbeaten team, only to let them drive down the field and watch helplessly as they kicked the game-winning field goal.
Such was the story with the Panthers' game against the Atlanta Falcons (4-0), who came into this game as severe underdogs and somehow managed to keep pace with a very talented team and almost escaped with a win. Give credit where credit is due; the Falcons have a talented group of players with an impressive balance of talent amongst its young and seasoned veteran players.
Of course, when you look at Carolina's roster one would notice the amount of talent is as equally impressive.
So, why the inconsistency on game day? Why can't this team put it all together?
On the surface, they have a very talented offense. Their quarterback is one of the young and talented phenoms of his generation, they have a stable of running backs who are so talented the backups can start for other teams and their receivers are beginning to emerge as quality targets without having to lean on veteran captain Steve Smith.
The offensive line is comprised of proven veterans, including two Pro Bowlers and promising young talent trying to establish themselves on the team.
Defensively, the one bright spot about a porous line was the quality of production by the ends. The linebacker unit is one of the most talented, if not one of the deepest in the league. The secondary is comprised of an underrated veteran in Chris Gamble, a talented rookie from an FCS school and two safeties who have shown flashes but have not been without their flaws.
Regardless, when the season started there was no reason to doubt this young Carolina team would not only improve upon last year's record, but make a deep playoff push. The optimism was so profound that center Ryan Kalil went as far as taking out a huge ad in the Charlotte Observer predicting a Super Bowl championship at the end of the season.
Open mouth, insert foot, Mr. Kalil.
Barring a miraculous turn of events, the Panthers may be gearing up for another top 10 pick in next April's draft. For all the talent they have on their team, the Panthers just cannot seem to put it altogether when it matters most.
Compare the roster the team fielded last season and the one of this year. On paper, it seems as though this year's squad is considerably more talented than last season's team. Yet, Carolina finds itself three games below .500 and just as many games out of first. This wasn't supposed to happen.
The worst possible scenario after four games was to be 2-2; a record they almost reached had it not been for a collapse in the final minute of a very close, hard-fought game with the Falcons.
Which brings up the next point; Carolina cannot close out games.
This was a problem stemming from last season and has seemingly lingered into this year. Carolina would either have the lead at the half or late in the game, yet be unable to secure the win. The reasons behind these shortcomings have ranged from turnovers to deviating from the game plan.
The latter being stated, the attention is focused on the coaching staff.
One area of concern amongst the Carolina faithful has been the questionable play-calling not only from Ron Rivera, but his coordinators as well.
Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has felt the brunt of the criticism as many feel compelled to complain he is being “too cute” in his play selection and should stay away from the option and trick plays that have been the staple of Panthers football since 2011.
However, despite the complaints and criticisms, if this team is suppose to be talented, then the aforementioned issues shouldn't even be a concern. That's just it; this Carolina team isn't that good. Yes, they are talented, but as a team they are inept at taking advantage of their strengths and exposing the weaknesses of others.
They aren't that good.
While Cam Newton had a decent game against Atlanta Sunday, there is no denying he is slumping. The moments of sulking and ill-timed celebrations have taken center stage while his on-field production and his confident swagger have all but disappeared.
It's one thing to have a struggling second-year quarterback, but to have one that seems to be having a difficult time growing and improving on all levels is a recipe for disaster.
Kalil and Jordan Gross were supposed to lead the youngsters Byron Bell and Amini Silatolu on the offensive line but have struggled themselves. Running lanes are few and far between, they cannot provide adequate pocket protection and they have committed penalties which have killed big plays for the Panthers.
They are not as strong and cohesive as thought when they entered camp this past summer.
Then, we have the defense. It seems as though everyone on this side of the ball is a liability. The level of talented players that was supposed to turn around this unit has been subpar at best. Aside from some new names, there have been no signs of being different from last year's version.
Defense wins championships, and these guys cannot do enough to either keep Carolina in the game or allow the offense to pad a lead—something which has been a rarity this season.
Is there really a need to talk about special teams? It seems as though Joe Adams isn't as special as many thought when he was drafted this past spring. The only bright side of the special teams unit has been Justin Medlock; despite the fact he hasn't had many field-goal opportunities.
This will not be Carolina's year. That is, if they continue to play the way they have the first month of the season. Their schedule will only get harder, and considering the losses they have suffered already—a severe blowout and a heartbreaker—it's hard to fathom them rebounding and salvaging their season.
When will Carolina finally get their act together?
The Panthers have a great team. They just aren't good right now. This is a problem that starts from the front office and ends on the field. The coaches need to make better decisions, and the players need to execute better on both sides of the ball.
There is no “I” in team, and while it's commendable that many guys in the locker room were taking blame for the loss in Atlanta, they need to concentrate their efforts on working together and preserving the win.
Carolina has the pieces to be great. However, in order for that to happen, they must put it all together. Otherwise, much like the Atlanta game, the team and its fans will be subject to endless frustration and heartbreak.