This season was supposed to be about the Carolina Panthers taking the next step.

Instead, they've gone backward, and that's gone beyond quarterback Cam Newton and all the question marks that suddenly surround him.

The Panthers were flirting with the fork last week. After getting their guts ripped out in a one-point loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, we're ready to call this thing.

Around the League will stick a fork in teams that no longer have any chance to make the playoffs:

32. Kansas City Chiefs
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Cleveland Browns
29. Carolina Panthers
What went wrong In truth, Newton's statistics aren't far off from where he was last season at this time. This is an issue of expectations, and the assumption that Newton would only get better with a full offseason under his belt.

That hasn't happened, and his body language and postgame press conferences have made him a target for media that smells blood. Case in point: On Sunday, Fox commentators buried Newton for not running over to thank Louis Murphy after the wide receiver recovered Newton's fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.

The commentators -- Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa -- weren't exactly wrong. But it still showed the scrutiny this guy faces on a weekly basis.

The Panthers aren't 1-6 solely because of Newton. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil went to injured reserve three weeks ago with a foot injury. Linebacker Jon Beason soon joined him. Running back D'Angelo Williams barely plays, openly discusses his potential to be traded and represents the worst contract the team ever handed out.

Speaking of which, a series of bad decisions cost Marty Hurney his gig as general manager. This is a team without a rudder right now.

What went right Carolina staying quiet?
Panthers coach Ron Rivera doesn't expect anyone on the team to be traded before Thursday's deadline, Dan Hanzus writes. More ...
On balance, the Panthers' defense has improved, particularly since the Week 6 bye. They're allowing less points and total yardage. They're getting better pressure on the quarterback, and they're the second-least penalized unit in the NFL. They hit on their first-round draft pick in Luke Kuechly, who has played well since taking his rightful spot at middle linebacker.

The pass rush made life hell for Matt Ryan in Week 4, then sacked Jay Cutler six times in the first half alone Sunday.

This unit isn't far from being a strong point.

What still matters Newton unquestionably remains the future of this franchise, and the season can be salvaged in a big-picture sense if the Panthers can get their quarterback to start feeling better about himself and the operation. Moving away from the zone-read attack was a good start.

This also is a team that shouldn't forget how close it was to being 5-2. With some smarter play and a dash of luck, the Panthers would have road wins at Atlanta and Chicago. This is your classic "Good Bad Team." Coach Ron Rivera has his critics -- and feel free to question his strategy -- but the Panthers play hard.

What changes are coming? A bad record, combined with a new GM, usually means bad things for the head coach. Rivera needs his Panthers to finish strong, and even that might not be enough to keep him gainfully employed.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is 76, so don't expect a rebuilding process rooted in patience. The backfield needs a makeover, and Newton could use some more playmakers around wide receiver Steve Smith, who's not getting any younger.

The Panthers can go in one of two very different directions. Handle with care.

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