Slow starts are nothing new for the Carolina Panthers under Ron Rivera, but the sixth-year coach hoped his team was past them.
The Panthers will drag a 1-3 record into tonight's game against the Bucs, another 1-3 team that — like Carolina — is expected to be missing several key starters on both sides of the ball.
The difference? The Bucs were not picked to be much more than a potential wild-card team in coach Dirk Koetter's first season, while many expected the Panthers to vie for another Super Bowl berth. Rivera included.
"I started this year with the challenge of wanting to get back. And I still have that. I also think (there's an) additional challenge now of where we are," Rivera said. "I'm not happy with where we are. I'm disappointed with myself and things that we can be. I think we as a football team can most certainly be better, but we'll see what happens."
The Panthers will try to right themselves without four injured starters, including quarterback Cam Newton. The reigning league MVP will miss his third game in six seasons as he deals with post-concussion symptoms stemming from a fourth-quarter hit during last week's 48-33 loss at Atlanta.
Carolina also will be without running back Jonathan Stewart, left tackle Michael Oher and No. 1 cornerback James Bradberry. In addition to the injury hits, the Panthers jettisoned starting corner Bene Benwikere five days after they became the first team in NFL history to allow a 500-yard passer and 300-yard receiver in the same game.
With the mounting injuries and Rivera saying the team was "retooling" five weeks into the season, this game feels like a turning-point moment for the Panthers.
Since the NFL adopted the current, 12-team playoff system in 1990, 27 teams have made the postseason after starting 1-3 or worse.
Only 12 teams since the 1966 merger have overcome a 1-4 start or worse to make the playoffs, although Kansas City and Houston did it last season.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said he doesn't view the Bucs game as a crossroads.
"We're just focused in on making sure we win this football game, by any means necessary. We don't really get caught up — with it being this early in the season — about being a fork-in-the-road type situation," Davis said. "We just know that this is the next opponent up and this is a game we have to win."
The Panthers started 1-3 or worse in each of Rivera's first three seasons before playing better down the stretch. The 2013 team rattled off 10 victories in a row after its 1-3 start to claim the first of three consecutive NFC South crowns.
Several players last week said this season feels more like 2014, when Newton missed two games against Tampa Bay because of injuries and the offensive line struggled to protect him.
That team started 2-2 before going two months without a win, but rallied to win its final four and capture the division with a 7-8-1 record.
Tight end Ed Dickson said the Panthers' veteran core won't let this season go off the rails.
"We're not going to fold up the tents at all. That's where you get to two years ago when we lost six, seven games straight and then turn around," Dickson said. "You go through a bad slump. You go through injuries. Injuries happen in this league. What happened to our quarterback - things like that happen. What happened to Bene, they wanted to go in a different direction."
The Bucs are dealing with their own injury concerns.
Tampa Bay listed five starters as doubtful, including three-fourths of the defensive line, running back Doug Martin and tight end Luke Stocker. No. 2 running back Charles Sims also is doubtful.
So the Panthers will get no sympathy from Koetter, who was asked last week if he'd prefer facing Carolina at its best with a healthy Newton.
"I'd like to beat them, however possible," Koetter told Tampa reporters. "That's what I'd like to do."
Tampa Bay lost to the Panthers twice in 2014 when Derek Anderson filled in for an injured Newton.
Both were low-scoring games in which Anderson took care of the ball (no interceptions) and took what the Bucs' defense gave him. Anderson threw a total of three touchdown passes in the two games, but his longest completion was 26 yards.
Not surprisingly, he threw to tight end Greg Olsen (24 combined targets) and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (21 targets) a lot. Olsen, a two-time Pro Bowler, was the Panthers' leading receiver in each game.
Anderson said the Bucs' scheme and his read progressions will dictate his throws.
"It's not like I'm going to come out and just throw it to Greg. It's looks, it's play calls," he said. "I don't go to the line of scrimmage saying, 'Oh, I've got to throw it to Greg every time.' "
The Panthers have struggled to run the ball in the two games Stewart has missed with a hamstring injury. That task will be harder without Newton as a running threat on zone-read plays or scrambles.
Koetter said the Panthers' offense is "totally different" with Anderson behind center.
"They're not going to run their quarterback runs, they're not going to run the option. They're going to be more of a traditional NFL offense," Koetter said. "And let's face it, Cam's the MVP of the league. Taking him out, that's like to a lesser degree us taking Doug Martin out."
Newton's status for next week's game at New Orleans is uncertain. Rivera said Newton is progressing in the concussion protocol, but is yet to do any of the noncontact drills that are part of the process.
Newton will be watching as Anderson — as well as other backups who have been thrust into starting roles — try to keep the season from taking another turn south.
"That's how we've been able to be who we become — by having guys step up in time of need. And this is a time of need for our football team," said Davis, the Panthers' longest-tenured player.
"We have starters that are injured. We have guys that have lost their jobs. So it's important for us to rally around each other. I don't expect this week or this year to be any different than any past year."