As the Carolina Panthers begin the second half of their season Sunday with a home game against Kansas City, here are five things I can’t believe about the team’s 2016 season that are totally true – and one thing I do believe must change if the Panthers are going to make any sort of second-half run.
The five things I can’t believe:
1. This team started 1-5. From 15-1 to 1-5? I saw it, and I still don’t quite understand it. You can’t pin the blame on one thing, although the pass rush, the secondary and Graham Gano’s tone-setting miss in the final seconds at Denver were all contributors. But a 1-5 start, for a team that was returning nine Pro Bowlers as well as a healthy Kelvin Benjamin? It still boggles my mind.
2. The focus on Cam Newton’s head. This has been the biggest story of the season so far, and I don’t mean because of those dapper hats he has decided to wear at every press conference. Starting in the first game, when officials failed to protect Newton from four brutal head-to-head shots, every Sunday has become a referendum on whether Newton is treated differently by officials and how many times he got hit in the helmet (or, in one case, below the knees).
The quarterback got so angry about it after the Arizona game that he said he sometimes didn’t feel safe and that he wanted to talk to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. That caused its own backlash, although little immediate change on the field.
In general, we have seen far less of the joyous Cam in the first half of the season and far more of the angry and irritated Cam. I, for one, miss the dab.
3. The home loss to Tampa Bay. Of the defeats the Panthers have suffered, this was the cruelest and the most avoidable. You just can’t lose to Tampa Bay in Charlotte, but the Panthers did on Oct. 10. Newton missed the game because of an avoidable concussion he sustained when slowing down just before he got to the end zone the week before against Atlanta, and Derek Anderson threw an awful end-zone interception. This was a haunting loss.
4. A 300-yard receiving game. Do you know how rare a 300-yard game by a wide receiver is in the NFL? Before Oct. 2, there had only been five of them in the league’s history. The sixth came when Julio Jones had a remarkable performance against a depleted Panthers secondary (which still insisted on covering him man-to-man way too often).
I get excited at every sports event by the prospect of seeing something I had never seen before. This I had never seen. If you put aside your Panther-blue tinted glasses, fans, you have to admit that Jones was utterly amazing.
5. That uneasy feeling. This one is courtesy from the Panthers fans I talk to. There was a sense last season that the Panthers were invincible, especially at home, where they ended up 10-0.
Toward the end of 2015, Panthers fans went to games to party. Now they go to worry, and hope that maybe a party will break out. There is an edgy uncertainty to all Panthers games now, an “oh-no-here-we-go-again” aspect to every 80-yard drive by the opposition or incomplete pass by Newton.
In other words, it feels a little like being a Chicago Cubs fan for the past 107 years did up until earlier this month.
What must change?
Now here’s the one thing I do believe but that must change: Turnover margin. The Panthers led the NFL with a smashing plus-20 figure last season, and that was a large part of that 15-1 regular-season record.
The Panthers are minus-6 in turnover margin halfway through 2016, which is poorer than all but four other teams. Kansas City, Sunday’s opponent, is the best at plus-13.
In an NFL where every team has a lot of talent (except Cleveland), turnovers are the surest indicator of which way a game will turn.
Carolina made 19 turnovers in all of the 2015 regular season but already has given the ball away 17 times this year. And with that inconsistent pass rush and a perpetually teetering secondary, its defense has been far less opportunistic. The Panthers have caused only 11 turnovers so far after grabbing 39 last season, which is the biggest reason they are 3-5.
Carolina still has the talent to go on a major winning streak. But what has to change, more than anything else, is the turnover margin.
Take it away more often and give it away less or else this season’s promise will be taken away – this time for good.