The Panthers are a 63-yard field goal and a franchise-record comeback from a three-game losing streak, a 2-4 record, a floundering season and pitchfork-wielding fans demanding that Ron Rivera be fired for ending Norv Turner’s country music career by bringing him back for a 33rd NFL season.
Yes, the line that separates the NFL’s charmed season from its many charred ones is that fine. Just ask the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles (3-4), who seemingly passed the torch of charmed seasons on to the Panthers (4-2), but not before setting their own season ablaze in Sunday’s fourth-quarter meltdown at Lincoln Financial Field.
“I’ll be honest,” said Rivera, “winning covers up a lot.”
Rivera spoke those words after Graham Gano kicked his walk-off 63-yarder to beat the Giants three weeks ago. He could have said the same thing Sunday as the Panthers came back from a 17-0 fourth-quarter deficit.
Trailing 10-0 at the half, the Panthers were a mess. They had 5 net yards passing.
Clearly, the modern spread game had whizzed past poor, 66-year-old Norval, the Panthers offensive coordinator. His last job, as Vikings offensive coordinator, had ended two years earlier when his resistance to making changes to accommodate a decimated offensive line led to his abrupt resignation seven games into the 2016 season.
Turner spent last year out of coaching for the first time since he was Dan Fouts’ backup at the University of Oregon in 1974. He was traveling the world with his wife. He co-wrote a country music song — “Things I’ve Never Done” — with Stephen Ray, the son of former 49ers and Lions coach Steve Mariucci.
Then Rivera raised some eyebrows when he hired Turner to replace Mike Shula and update the league’s 28th-ranked passing attack. Critics argued the move was too comfortable in that all it did was send Carolina back up the same Air Coryell coaching tree that bore them one of the league’s more outdated offenses.
Rivera spent four years as Turner’s defensive coordinator in San Diego. When he got the Panthers job in 2011, he hired Turner understudy Rob Chudzinski as his offensive coordinator. When Chud got the Cleveland job in 2013, Shula was promoted from quarterbacks coach to maintain continuity in the system.
For three-plus quarters Sunday, Twitter’s pitchfork posse had all the ammunition it needed to do the easiest thing in sports: Blame every play that doesn’t work on the offensive coordinator.
Then Turner’s offense scored 21 points in about nine minutes as the Panthers won 21-17. Cam Newton completed 16 of 22 passes for 201 yards and two TDs in three possessions.
Suddenly, the Carolina offense wasn’t being compared to the time Jimmy Clausen had minus-5 net yards passing at halftime of the Atlanta game in 2010.
Suddenly, Turner was adjusting wisely to a no-huddle attack, albeit a tad late perhaps.
Suddenly, that two-point conversion was a well-designed play that hid the smaller Jarius Wright in a trips formation.
Suddenly, that 14-yard end-around touchdown run by Curtis Samuel was a genius quadruple-option look in which Newton faked a handoff to C.J. Anderson, showed option right with Christian McCaffrey and flipped the ball to Samuel running the other way.
Suddenly, McCaffrey was involved as the first option on third-and-2 — getting wide open for a 22-yard swing pass when Wright ran a route designed to alter the linebacker’s coverage angle — and as a distracting decoy at the goal line on the winning touchdown.
And, suddenly, Newton is a former league MVP with a chance to win another. He’d sure get Turner’s vote after standing firm against two would-be tacklers and completing a pass to convert fourth-and-10 with 2:06 left.
“I haven’t been around a guy like him with his ability to keep things alive and make big plays,” Turner said.
Before Sunday’s game, Newton was 0-15 when trailing by 15 or more points.
“This,” Rivera said, “can be one of those statement wins.”
He’s right. Winning covers up a lot. Even Jimmy Clausen comparisons and 5 net yards passing at halftime.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org