Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers aware that Super Bowl runners-up rarely return

“Wait ’til next year” has long been the rally cry for fans whose teams fell short of a championship.

But next year hasn’t been kind to the Super Bowl runner-up.

It’s been 23 years since a team that lost the Super Bowl made it back the following season. The Buffalo Bills became synonymous with Super Bowl futility in the early 1990s, losing four consecutive years.

The ’93 Bills were the last Super Bowl runner-up to return to the game the following year – a fact that a reporter mentioned to Panthers coach Ron Rivera last week at the NFL annual meetings in Boca Raton, Fla.

Rivera, who found motivational chips to play throughout the Panthers’ 15-1 regular season in 2015, perked up last week when he heard about the curse of the Super Bowl loser.

“It’s a challenge. And I think you may have just given me my next challenge as we go forward – something people say we’re not going to be able to do and we can’t do because it hasn’t been done,” Rivera said. “Why don’t we try? Seriously, that’s the way I look at it.”

Rivera was a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears team that won 15 regular-season games and steamrolled through the playoffs for a Super Bowl title. The ’86 Bears went 14-2 and looked to be on their way to back-to-back championships.

But behind the tough running of former South Carolina running back George Rogers, Washington beat Rivera’s Bears 27-13 in the divisional round to end Chicago’s hopes of repeating.

There are a number of reasons why only two teams besides those Bills squads – the 1974 Minnesota Vikings and 1987 Denver Broncos – went back to the Super Bowl a year after losing it.

Not the least of which is the emotional hangover inherent in enjoying a dominant regular season only to have the rug pulled out from under you on the world’s biggest stage.

Nearly two months after the Panthers’ 24-10 loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50, general manager Dave Gettleman still hasn’t brought himself to watch the game.

“I will eventually. But not yet. It’s hard,” Gettleman said last week and the annual meetings. “You’re devastated. You’ve got 125 people, 150 people working their asses off and you’re this close. And then, wham! It’s hard. It sucks.”

Gettleman compared it to pageant contestants who have to remain on stage until the winner is announced.

“There’s two gals there. Then they announce who the first runner-up is. Just imagine you come in second,” Gettleman said. “Coming in second sucks.”

Ask quarterback Cam Newton, whose distaste for losing was on display for millions to see when he sulked his way through his post-Super Bowl press conference in Santa Clara, Calif.

Newton’s reaction makes it fair to question how the reigning league MVP will bounce back from the toughest loss of his career.

“Knowing him,” Rivera said, “he’s going to savor it as his driving motivator.”

A look at several other potential stumbling blocks for the Panthers on the way to Houston, site of Super Bowl 51:

▪ The Josh Norman situation.

Norman’s contract standstill appears to be headed toward a dark place, to borrow one of Norman’s favorite expressions. The Pro Bowl corner and the Panthers are nowhere close to a long-term contract, and Norman has yet to sign the franchise tag the Panthers put on him March 1.

The tag is worth a guaranteed $13.95 million for 2016, but Norman and his agent want the security of a long-term deal. Norman doesn’t have a ton of leverage: If he doesn’t sign the tag by Week 10, he’ll miss the entire season and won’t have made a dime from the Panthers.

Gettleman said last week he’s not worried about Norman’s contract situation becoming a distraction. But Norman, who’s looking for a deal in the neighborhood of $16 million a year, applied public pressure on the Panthers during a couple of national TV appearances last week.

“I can’t report if I haven’t signed anything so I don’t feel as if I’m at the point where I’m ready to get back to working right now,” Norman told NFL Network.

Missing OTAs and minicamp won’t necessarily set Norman back from a skills standpoint. But it would be a bumpy start for a team that had remarkably little drama during its Super Bowl season.

▪ Luke Kuechly’s shoulder/Kelvin Benjamin’s knee.

Two of the Panthers’ key players are coming off surgeries. Both Kuechly (torn labrum in left shoulder) and Kelvin Benjamin (torn ACL in left knee) are progressing well, according to team officials.

But the Panthers can’t afford to have either player suffer a setback in his recovery.

Carolina was able to overcome the loss of Benjamin last season until the Super Bowl, when Jerricho Cotchery had three drops and the rest of the receivers (with the exception of Philly Brown) had a hard time getting open. Benjamin is a big-time weapon, particularly in the red zone, who has Newton’s complete trust.

The Panthers won three games early last season when Kuechly was sidelined with a concussion. But they wouldn’t want to go without Kuechly, whose pick-six vs. Seattle’s Russell Wilson was the playoffs tone-setter, for a long stretch in 2016.

▪ Tough road ahead.

The Panthers will play a first-place schedule for the third consecutive season, and will load up on frequent flier miles in the process.

Carolina has three West Coast trips (Seattle, Los Angeles, Oakland), as well as a Super Bowl rematch at Denver. The Panthers will face six teams that made the playoffs last season, including their seventh game in five years against the Seahawks.

After the Panthers’ only other Super Bowl appearance, they went 7-9 in 2004 and missed the playoffs. Such a slide seems unlikely with this group, which boasts the MVP, an elite defense and playmakers on both sides of the ball.

The Panthers still look like the team to beat in the NFC South, although it’s tough to envision another 15-win regular season given the slate of opponents. (The NFL will release its full schedule, with times and dates, next month.)

But there’s a reason why the 1972 Dolphins are the only team in the past 43 years to win the Super Bowl a year after losing in the game.

Rivera told his players after Super Bowl 50 they could find inspiration in the Broncos, who beat the Panthers two years after getting crushed by the Seahawks in the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl.

But despite what the past 23 years might suggest, Rivera isn’t conceding anything in 2016.

Rivera said several players, principally Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, indicated they’ll have a better sense of what to expect if there is a next time.

“It’s like, ‘OK, we get it. We know what it’s like to be here. We understand.’ Now all of a sudden the great unknown is no longer the great unknown,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to get past where we were and get back to where we need to start from.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson