The Carolina Panthers’ 2017 season has started to turn south. And on Sunday, quarterback Cam Newton seemed powerless to stop it.
That is a scary thing for the Panthers (4-3), who have built so much of this team around Newton’s unique skill set. But Newton couldn’t get the Panthers into the end zone even once during a desultory 17-3 loss to the Chicago Bears. He didn’t even look all that athletic, getting juked out on an interception return for a touchdown by Chicago safety Eddie Jackson. He looked nothing at all like his “Super Cam” persona. Instead, this was “Very Human Cam” – two interceptions and zero touchdowns.
Very Human Cam is like the understudy for the Broadway play who keeps getting lots of time on the stage because something has gone wrong with the star.
Very Human Cam had already made appearances in 2017 against Buffalo (a 9-3 victory for Carolina despite the Panthers not scoring a TD) and New Orleans (Newton had three interceptions and was pulled in the fourth quarter of a 34-13 Panthers loss). Then Super Cam returned with a flourish for Carolina’s road wins against New England and Detroit.
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It is now hard to tell which Cam Newton is going to show up on a given Sunday, and that is a frustrating thing if you are a Panthers fan. Sunday’s second half was boring and scoreless – we might as well have been watching a soccer game.
Yes, Newton’s offensive line is a mess and he was sacked five times Sunday. Yes, his wide receivers haven’t caught a pass of 45 or more yards all season, as the deep ball continues to die a slow death in the Carolina offense. Yes, he needs more help.
But the quarterback still had his chances for points Sunday and couldn’t convert them. Newton missed open throws to Kelvin Benjamin and Christian McCaffrey that could have resulted in big plays. When Chicago did blitz, Newton didn’t make the Bears pay often enough.
‘There’s no excuse’
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera gave Newton a mixed review.
“I thought he had his moments,” Rivera said. “The pitch wasn’t his fault. That ball should have been caught (by Curtis Samuel). And then the ball ricocheted in the air, again, not his fault (on his first interception). He moved us, but unfortunately he didn’t put the ball in the end zone again. I give them credit. They played a heck of a defensive game.”
Newton was not particularly forthcoming after the game as to what his exact mistakes were.
On the tipped pass to Benjamin that resulted in Jackson’s second TD: “The ball just shot up in the air and it was an interception.”
On the misfire to McCaffrey: “Just a bad throw.”
On if the Bears defense did anything to catch the Panthers off guard: “No sir. Those two turnovers hurt us and we just couldn’t seem to get our footing back.”
As for the overall mood of the Panthers, Newton said: “Disappointed. There’s no excuse not to come in and find a way to win this football game. We squandered that opportunity, but I’m not feeling sorry for myself, nor do I expect anyone else to.”
Get bitter or get better
Because the Panthers offense was so poor, it also squandered a really good performance by its own defense. Playing without middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina’s D set a franchise record by allowing only five first downs. Chicago rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky sustained four sacks and threw only four completions.
Those sorts of numbers will usually win you a game as a defense, but not if your offense is scoring only three points. The Panthers have problems with offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s unimaginative play-calling, the injury-ransacked offensive line and Samuel being force-fed into the offense before he seems ready.
But Newton has glossed over such problems before simply by making one huge play after another with whomever is out there. It is what the Panthers rely on him to do and why they signed him to a contract in excess of $100 million – because he has shown, repeatedly, that he can do it.
So now is the time, as the saying goes, to get bitter or get better. Because the NFC South is a relatively even division this year, the Panthers at 4-3 remain just a half-game out of first place and still have lots of time left to salvage things. To inject a little perspective, Carolina was 2-5 at this point last season and tottering far more than this.
A victory at Tampa Bay Sunday would still put Carolina at 5-3 at the season’s midpoint.
“We will – and have to be – better,” Newton promised.
And the Panthers still can be.
But if Very Human Cam keeps popping up every couple of weeks, there’s no chance of that.