Underneath the smiles, 1-11 Panthers frustrated with losing

TAMPA, Fla. -- Carolina Panthers interim coach Chris Tabor spent the week telling players to have fun over the final six games.

On the surface, his message seemed to be getting through.

The locker room was upbeat and full of smiles in the aftermath of head coach Frank Reich's firing on Monday. There was hope Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be the start of something that could carry over into next season.

But underneath the smiles lurked the frustration of a one-win season in a year when the NFC South was there for the taking with the division-leading Atlanta Falcons at 6-6.

For outside linebacker Brian Burns, arguably the leader of the locker room, that frustration erupted in the second half of Sunday's 21-18 loss that left Carolina 1-11.

He got shoved while officials debated whether Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans scored on a 75-yard catch on the first play after the Panthers had taken a 10-7 lead. Burns said later that his anger meter was at "10'' after a Tampa Bay offensive lineman "said something he shouldn't have'' in the second quarter. So when he got shoved, he exploded and took a swing that landed on the helmet of Bucs guard Cody Mauch.

But the frustration that led to Burns' first ejection at any level is lurking in most Panthers players.

Even quarterback Bryce Young, who doesn't let much bother him.

"We're human beings,'' Young said. "Of course, no one is happy with how things have gone. We're all competitors. ... For all of us as a team, regardless of what the outside world may think, each game is huge for us. We all have that mindset.

"So yeah, I can't lie and say it's not frustrating. But ultimately, that's not what permeates through the locker room. It's the desire to want to do better, the desire to grow and the desire to want to play for each other.''

Controlling that frustration is tough. Burns admitted it was a mistake to lose his cool, but others understood.

"He's one of the elite players in the league,'' defensive end Derrick Brown said. "It's tough. It doesn't get no easier when you're losing every week.

"Burns works his ass off every day. He's doing what he's supposed to do and being in the building.''

Cornerback Jaycee Horn, who shares the locker next to Burns at Bank of America Stadium, agreed. He sensed the frustration building in Burns, who is also dealing with contract extension talks being at a standstill.

"Everybody's frustrated,'' Horn said. "We had conversations about it, but we don't harp on it too much or hang our heads down.''

Burns spent about 10 minutes with his head down and in deep thought after talking to reporters on Sunday night.

"They fought,'' he said of his teammates. "I'm proud of the team. I'm proud of how we fought. We didn't give up. Fought to the end. I just wish I didn't make that mistake. I would be out there with him.''

Tabor feels for the players. As much as he wants them to have fun, he understands how tough a season like this can be.

"I love those guys, I do,'' he said. "I'll jump in a foxhole with those guys any day of the week. I feel for them. Losing stinks, and it's hard, and it's frustrating.

"But at the same time, you can handle things two ways, and that's what we talk about. You can either handle it with character, or you can handle it with compromise. So which one is it going to be? I like our guys, so we'll just keep working.''