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Ed Hardin: A season comes to a fitting end, and now comes the reckoning for Carolina
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Ed Hardin: A season comes to a fitting end, and now comes the reckoning for Carolina

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CHARLOTTE  On a dreary Sunday at the end of another dreary season, the Carolina Panthers as we knew them ceased to exist.

A 42-10 loss to New Orleans was the final act of a franchise now entering uncertainty.

Playing with fire in the rain, the Panthers left foundational running back Christian McCaffrey in the game long enough to make some history, then took a knee.

Photos: New Orleans Saints 42, Carolina Panthers 10

When we all meet again, after an offseason of great change, what will the team look like? A lot depends on the health of franchise quarterback Cam Newton and Carolina’s spot in the draft.

The loss left the Panthers with a top 10 slot for the April draft, and there’s a decent chance Carolina could get one of the top quarterbacks coming out of college.

The truth is, that won’t be nearly enough.

Aside from McCaffrey and linebackers Shaq Thompson and Luke Kuechly, no one is assured of a job next season. Thus, the offseason shopping list is a long one.

Carolina needs a coach, a general manager of some sort, a new scouting department, at least two defensive tackles, a cornerback to replace free-agent James Bradberry, a tight end to replace likely retiring Greg Olsen and as many offensive linemen as the new scouts and front-office personnel can find.

In a word, the Panthers need a new culture.

Franchise owner David Tepper has spent much of his first year here redesigning Carolina’s financial situation and management structure. He will now turn his attention to redesigning the team’s product.

Speculation is that he wants to shake up player evaluations, modernizing the process with the use of analytics to find specific player types according to data research. As boring as that sounds, there’s a cutting-edge quality to it. But there’s also an old NFL truth that when a team replaces a coach, there’s a three-year period of adjustment.

Tepper doesn’t seem to be a three-year kind of guy.

Nothing he saw today suggests there’s any salvaging of this team, which fittingly ended its season with two injured quarterbacks and Kyle Allen throwing an interception in the end zone on the final play of the year.

“We didn’t finish the second half of the season, the last eight games, very strong,” interim coach Perry Fewell said.

Carolina was 5-3 before losing the last eight games of the season, giving up a league-high 237 points in that long slide.

“There’s a lot of guys that care,” Fewell insisted. “There are a lot of fans who care. The organization cares.”

It sure didn’t look that way.

Tepper was so fed up with things that he fired Ron Rivera before the holidays and basically left the team to die in the rain.

The interview process will heat up now. Word is that former Packers coach Mike McCarthy has been approached along with New England assistant Josh McDaniels and possibly Stanford’s David Shaw and Baylor’s Matt Rhule.

Whoever takes the job next, he’ll be far behind in his own division. New Orleans is not going away.

Next year, Carolina will play a last-place schedule against the AFC West (on the road at Kansas City and Los Angeles Chargers) and the NFC North, with road games at Green Bay and Detroit.

Nothing else is certain.

Indeed, everything is uncertain.

When we meet again, maybe the sun will be shining for the Carolina Panthers. When this season ended, it was pouring rain into an empty stadium and onto a team with no identity.

The end couldn’t come soon enough for Tepper or the fans, whether they cared or not.

Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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