Carolina Panthers

Three inches per carry: What has happened to the Panthers running backs?

On a night when “Keep Pounding” had to turn into “Keep Passing” yet again for the Panthers, one question above all else remains for the Carolina offense:

Where in the world has the running game gone?

For the second straight week, Carolina’s attempts at running the ball with its tailbacks on Thursday night in a 28-23 loss to Philadelphia were almost ridiculous in their futility.

“A team that’s heavily favored to run the football – that’s who we are,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said after the game. “That’s Panthers football.”

Not Thursday it wasn’t. Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers’ all-time leading rusher, wound up with fewer yards at the end of the night than at the beginning. He had eight carries for minus-4 yards. Christian McCaffrey was barely better, with four carries for 8 yards.

In all, the Panthers tailbacks had 13 carries for a total of one yard. The running backs averaged slightly less than three inches per carry Thursday night. Put it another way, and their average carry gained about the length of a business card.

And because of that, on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 on Carolina’s last series of the night at the Eagles 48 with 80-plus seconds still remaining (but no timeouts), the Panthers felt compelled to throw two passes rather than banging the ball ahead for a single yard and extending a drive that absolutely had to end in a touchdown.

Both passes fell incomplete – one was tipped and Newton threw the ball too low for McCaffrey on the other – and the game was suddenly over.

Newton had 71 of 80 rushing yards

The awful statistics were not the running backs’ fault alone, of course. The offensive line has proven pretty effective at protecting Newton in the pocket, but it never seems to steamroll anybody. Where are the holes? Last week Carolina’s victory over Detroit came despite the Panthers gaining only 28 yards on 28 carries.

Said coach Ron Rivera Friday after watching the Panthers-Eagles film: “We were just flat-out missing blocks.”

Another part of the issue: The Panthers aren’t burning anybody with deep throws. Without a legitimate deep threat at the moment – rookie Curtis Samuel is trying but hasn’t caught one yet – the safeties creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage and there are simply too many defenders to block.

Only Newton – who ran 11 times for 71 yards Thursday night and scored on a gorgeous 16-yard touchdown run – made the Carolina rushing numbers look somewhat respectable. But having your quarterback gain 71 of your 80 total rushing yards is fool’s gold, even when he’s as talented as Newton is.

Stewart had one of his worst games ever as a Panther, not only rushing for negative yardage but also fumbling away a well-thrown short pass that turned into an Eagles interception inside the Carolina 20 and, ultimately, a touchdown for Philadelphia.

“We’ve got to find ways to get him going,” Newton said of Stewart.

“We have a lot of things to look at,” Rivera said. “We really do.”

3 rushing TDs, all by Newton

They better look fast.

Through six games, Carolina is still 4-2 and still off to a good start, with a long off weekend and then a bad Chicago team on the road coming up next.

But the Panthers only have three touchdowns running the ball and Newton has all of them. That’s a problem.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly suffered another concussion Thursday night, and judging strictly from past Kuechly concussions that could mean a multigame absence.

In other words, the Panthers offense is about to be under more pressure than ever because the team’s best defensive player is out. And just it can’t all be about Newton throwing the ball – he threw a career-high 52 passes Thursday night – and also running it, too.

At their best, the Panthers can’t be just Superman. It’s got to be more of a Justice League situation, with Newton getting far more help. The return of injured center Ryan Kalil would be nice, too.

If the offensive line and the running backs don’t get it together, this season will turn south. And it will slide downhill a lot faster than three inches at a time.

Running on empty

Three Panthers running backs carried the ball Thursday night in Carolina’s 28-23 loss to Philadelphia. Their totals:

Player: Rushes-Yards

Jonathan Stewart: 8-(minus-4)

Christian McCaffrey: 4-8

Fozzy Whittaker: 1-(minus-3)