The bad vibes for the Carolina Panthers started in a season-opening loss at Denver, where Cam Newton got banged around and Graham Gano missed a field goal that would have avenged the Super Bowl 50 loss.
No one expected the Panthers to flirt with a perfect season as they did in 2015. But not even the biggest Debbie Downers would have predicted a 1-5 start for a team boasting the league MVP and a former Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Luke Kuechly.
It’s as if the Panthers have been walking around in a haze through the first half of the season. Newton has retired the dab, and the secondary’s Thieves Avenue identity could well be replaced by an “Under Construction” sign.
Cam says the uncalled hits he’s absorbed have taken the fun out of the game. And – save for a festive locker room atmosphere after a victory over Arizona on Halloween weekend – the thrill seems to be gone for most of his teammates as well.
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Losing will do that.
The Panthers (3-5) have eight games left to make a run and rediscover fun. Maybe it’s time for Newton to dust off the dab.
Three things we have learned
▪ The Panthers miss Josh Norman’s swag as much as his coverage skills. We knew there would be a dropoff in the secondary without Norman taking away half of the field. But the group often has played without energy, although nickel back Leonard Johnson has brought some juice.
▪ The offensive line goes as left tackle Michael Oher goes. This was obvious when Oher – according to a source – played with concussion symptoms against the Vikings and gave up three sacks and had a holding penalty. It’s been reinforced as the Panthers have struggled with protection while Oher’s missed five games in the concussion protocol.
▪ Cam Newton has looked like his 2014 version much of the season, holding the ball too long, throwing off his back foot and looking uncomfortable in an oft-collapsing pocket. When Newton gets time he can carve up a secondary, as he did at New Orleans in Week 5. But time has been a rarity.
Numbers that matter
4 The Panthers have used four different starting cornerback combinations this season, with rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley finally starting together last week at L.A. Carolina used three CB combos in 19 games last season, including the postseason.
4 Cam Newton took four shots to the head in the second half of a season-opening loss at Denver. Those prompted NFL and NFLPA reviews to determine whether the Panthers followed the proper concussion protocol (they did) and set the tone for a season full of unflagged hits on the reigning league MVP.
91 Of the 92 teams that started 1-5 since the NFL expanded its playoff format to 12 teams in 1990, 91 failed to qualify for the postseason. The 2015 Kansas City Chiefs were the outliers.
Five areas for improvement
▪ The Panthers went from the league’s best takeaway team in 2015 to one of the worst. A resurgent pass rush and more big plays from the ageless Thomas Davis should help.
▪ Injuries have slowed (or stalled) the development of the first two draft picks – defensive tackle Vernon Butler and cornerback James Bradberry, who returned from turf toe last week. Butler has eight games to keep his rookie season from being a wash.
▪ Carolina’s on pace for 40 explosive plays (10 yards-plus) in the run game after finishing with 63 in the regular season in ‘15. Fullback Mike Tolbert has been a non-factor and Newton has looked reluctant to run at times.
▪ Graham Gano missed a field goal or extra point in each of the Panthers’ 3-point losses, including a 50-yarder that would have beaten Denver in Week 1.
▪ The Panthers have to figure out a way to shore up the protection while Oher remains out. If that means keeping a back or tight end in to block, so be it.
They said it
“It’s not like we’ve played a bunch of slappies out there.” – Ron Rivera on his team’s 1-2 start, which included losses to Denver and Minnesota.
“It’s really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe. And enough is enough. I plan on talking to Commissioner (Roger) Goodell about this. And I don’t know what I have to do.” – Newton after Cardinals DT Calais Campbell hit him below the knee and wasn’t penalized.
“We’re sitting here 3-5. Our division’s playing well. It’s hard to chase, but we’ve just got to worry about our business. We’ve got home games coming up in a row. We’ve got our chance to get back to .500, catch our breath and make a run.” – tight end Greg Olsen after the win last week at L.A.