After losing five of its first six games to start the season, Carolina never pieced together the hot streak that would have pushed them back into contention in the NFC playoff race. The Panthers were then officially eliminated from playoff contention in Week 15 -- only to be joined on the postseason sideline by the Denver Broncos.
Despite becoming the first Super Bowl teams since 2003 to miss the playoffs the following season, the Broncos and Panthers organizations still boast the front office leadership, veteran coaching staffs and talented core of players to inspire faith in their potential for a return to 2015 heights with a few adjustments.
Let's examine three offseason priorities for the Carolina Panthers:
1. Solidify the offensive line: The Broncos and Panthers aren't alone in their failure to cobble together an adequate blocking unit. Poor offensive line play has shipwrecked multiple would-be Super Bowl contenders, including the Cardinals, Vikings, Bengals and Colts. After Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware ransacked the tackle tandem of Michael Oher and Mike Remmers in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers neglected to add depth in the offseason. When Oher went down with a concussion that ultimately ended his season in late September, Remmers was exposed as a deficient stand-in on Cam Newton's blindside. The woes didn't end there, as Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil landed on injured reserve and guard Trai Turner was forced to play out of position at right tackle.
Assuming Kalil returns to full health, the interior is in fine shape. The tackles, on the other hand, represent a problem area. Oher intends to continue his career next season, but the Panthers certainly need a fallback plan. With Remmers due to reach free agency, it will be interesting to see if Carolina targets a stud left tackle early in the draft, pushing Oher to the right side.
2. Rejuvenate the rushing attack: The Panthers entered the 2016 season with a streak of 32 consecutive games over 100 rushing yards -- the longest such stretch since 1976. Since that streak came to an end in early October, they have been held under the century mark five more times. Lead back Jonathan Stewart turned back the clock for a season-high 132 yards in Week 15, but has otherwise averaged a problematic 3.6 yards per carry. Due nearly $6 million in 2017, Stewart will be a 30-year-old back with too much mileage under his belt, diminishing speed and a lengthy injury history.
Whether or not Stewart is retained, general manager Dave Gettleman has to place a priority on finding his successor. Scat back Fozzy Whittaker is limited to change-of-pace duty and kickoff returns, while 2015 fifth-round pick Cameron Artis-Payne has yet to crack the rotation. It's past time to add a dynamic playmaking element to this backfield.
3. Kickstart Cam Newton 2.0: While Sean McDermott's defense steadily improved throughout the season, Newton's offense clearly regressed. His 45.3 completion rate since Week 11 is the third-lowest by any quarterback in a six-game span since at least 1991, per NFL Research. Those struggles can be partially attributed to the injury-ravaged offensive line and unreliable wide receivers -- particularly Kelvin Benjamin's inability to separate from coverage. Still, Newton shoulders blame for poor mechanics and the resultant scattershot ball placement.
Coach Ron Rivera envisions the offense evolving around Newton as he becomes a "different style of player." The transformation will be toward a more disciplined pocket passer and away from a heavy dose of designed QB runs. Steelers franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was tasked with a similar conversion four years ago, as the organization asked him to become "more of a cerebral player and not just a physical wonder." Similarly, the Panthers will focus more on quick passes, sprint-outs and rollouts to take advantage of Newton's athleticism and strong arm while keeping him out of harm's way and allowing him to build confidence with easier completions.
"We want him to last 10 more years," Rivera explained this week. "We have to find ways to change. We have to find ways to protect him and for him to protect himself. Part of his evolution is learning how to survive."