The haters will call the radio talk shows Monday, send emails and leave voicemails for reporters saying the Carolina Panthers can’t win big with quarterback Cam Newton.
They have part of it right: The Panthers can’t win big with Newton … with the way they’re constructed at the receiver position.
There was a lot to dissect in the Panthers’ 31-26 loss to New Orleans in the NFC wild card game in the Superdome.
The Panthers’ red zone struggles.
The intentional grounding call on Newton that stuck the Panthers (11-6) in a third-and-23 hole with 24 seconds left.
The big hit that Newton took earlier in the fourth quarter that required him to get checked for a concussion. (He says the problem was with his eye and he was cleared to return after one play.)
All those played a part in the Panthers’ third loss to the Saints (12-5) this season. But they miss the bigger picture: Newton needs more weapons at the wide receiver position.
Newton didn’t say that after the game.
But that’s been the case since the Panthers cut Steve Smith in 2014. It was case when they traded Kelvin Benjamin in October. And it was painfully apparent again Sunday.
“I’ve just got to be better. I’m not going to take the coward way and point somebody else out. I feel like plenty of times this year it was up to me. I do believe I am the leader of this team and the team goes as I go,” Newton said.
“The fact that we’ve got talented guys on this team at the receiver position, at the running back position, at the line position, offensively, I feel like as a whole it still starts with me.”
Of course, it starts with Newton. And there’s no hiding from the fact that Newton followed his MVP season of 2015 with the two worst seasons of his career in terms of passer rating.
And it’s not as though the Panthers are devoid of any offensive firepower.
Tight end Greg Olsen and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey both caught touchdown passes and finished with 100-yard receiving days. McCaffrey’s 56-yard catch-and-run was what everyone’s been waiting to see from the No. 8 overall pick all season.
The Saints also had two guys go over the 100-yard receiving mark, and both of them were receivers. Michael Thomas seemed to get open and come up with a key catch whenever Drew Brees needed one, and Ted Ginn killed his former team with an 80-yard touchdown catch seconds after Panthers kicker Graham Gano missed a chip-shot field goal.
Devin Funchess did some nice things after taking over for Benjamin as the No. 1 receiver at midseason. And he played the last several games with an injured shoulder.
But Funchess doesn’t get open like Thomas does and seems best suited as a No. 2.
On that third-and-23 that followed the grounding call, Newton lofted a pass toward the end zone for Funchess, who didn’t seem to attack it aggressively.
“It was high and I lost it in the lights. And then when I found it again, I tried to stop and go back to the ball,” Funchess said. “I swept my hands over and didn’t have enough time to put my hands down.”
On fourth-and-23, no one picked up blitzing linebacker Vonn Bell – including Newton, who was hit from his blindside and dropped for a 17-yard loss that was the final offensive play of Jerry Richardson’s tenure as owner.
An offseason of transition
Newton reiterated that he has a “really good relationship” with Richardson, and he also talked about how tough it was knowing the locker room will look different next spring when the team reconvenes for offseason workouts.
The Panthers started the transition process at receiver last offseason when former general manager Dave Gettleman drafted McCaffrey and Ohio State speed receiver Curtis Samuel with the first two picks.
That transition continued under interim GM Marty Hurney, who dealt Benjamin to the Bills to try to get more speed on the field. And while the Panthers lost a pair of fast wideouts when Samuel and Damiere Byrd both went down with season-ending injuries, this receiver reboot needs an injection of star power – either through the draft or free agency.
Another weapon might have helped when the Panthers kept running out of steam in the red zone.
Four times the Panthers got to at least the Saints’ 21 – three times driving inside the 10 – and had only four Gano field goal attempts to show for it.
“We just spotted them too many there at the beginning with not being able to score in the red zone. Going 0-for-3 there – we only got six points – that was the difference in the game,” Olsen said.
“We moved the ball pretty much at will the whole game. We just struggled in the first half in the red zone and that turned out to be points that we kept chasing.”
A telling possession
The Panthers’ second possession was emblematic of their red-zone issues.
With the Panthers’ defense getting quick stops on the Saints’ first two drives, the offense started a long, methodical drive that was a study in the tortoise-vs.-hare debate.
The Panthers’ longest play on the drive was an 11-yard catch by Kaelin Clay, the wideout who was traded to Buffalo in September and brought back in October after the Bills waived him.
Clay’s a great locker-room guy with terrific speed. But he wasn’t good enough to stick with the Bills, who showed against at Jacksonville on Sunday they’re no offensive juggernaut.
A few plays after his third-down catch, Newton came back to Clay with a laser in the end zone – and he dropped it. No. 2 tight end Ed Dickson had an earlier drop on the same drive.
This isn’t to pick on Clay, who should get a chance to win the punt return job next year.
But the Panthers were relying on two receivers in the playoffs – Clay and Brenton Bersin – who didn’t make the team out of training camp.
‘We came here to win’
Newton finished with a personal playoff-high 349 yards on 24-of-40 passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
To his credit, Newton did not blame the loss on the grounding call. He also wasn’t biting on a post-game question about giving his team a shot at the end of the game.
“I think that’s where we go wrong. We didn’t come here just to get a shot. We came here to win. That’s what we didn’t do,” Newton said. “I kind of caught a sense of a lot of people just being satisfied with just being in the playoffs.”
Hurney and whoever else ends up making the personnel decisions this winter can’t be satisfied, either.
They need to spend Richardson’s or the next owner’s money getting Newton some more help.