It was in Tampa, during the final game of Carolina’s awful 2016 season, that rock bottom arrived.
Think about this for a minute. Cam Newton was in the game, playing hurt and lobbing passes with a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Four offensive linemen were playing out of position. At one point, the receivers on the field were Ted Ginn, Philly Brown and Brenton Bersin.
That, my friends, was an awful offense.
And now, less than four months later, the Panthers seem determined that they will never sink to that level again.
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Other than the jarring news of Newton’s shoulder surgery in March, this has been quite the feel-good offseason for Panthers fans. It has mixed the nostalgic (the return of Julius Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn) with the new (running back Christian McCaffrey, slot receiver Curtis Samuel and offensive tackle Taylor Moton – three offensive players for Carolina in the first three picks). The Panthers have spent money by the tens of millions (hello, Matt Kalil).
But what they have shown us more than anything else is that no one better feel comfortable in Bank of America Stadium, because the times they are a-changing.
In his press conference shortly after that loss to Tampa Bay concluded, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman declared: “Maintaining the status quo will get your fanny beat.”
That’s always the case in the NFL to some extent, which is why the old cliché that the league acronym stands for “Not For Long” has such staying power. But for the Panthers, especially on offense, we have seen one sign after another that the team is determined not to let what happened in Tampa happen again.
Of course, most of what is going on is dependent on Newton becoming himself again. Did you notice he stopped signaling first downs toward the end of last season? I think he was too worn out to do so, and it also seemed somewhat silly when you’re about to finish in last place in your division.
But what the Panthers have been doing with all these moves – both in the draft and in free agency, where let’s not forget Carolina signed receivers Charles Johnson and Russell Shepard as well – is going to allow Newton space and time to return to himself.
I think the best description of what Carolina is doing may have been uttered by Ted Ginn, who ironically is no longer here himself. (Ginn left for a better deal in New Orleans; Samuel has a lot of the same characteristics, however.)
Ginn said at the end of last season about Newton, the quarterback who will enter his seventh NFL season in 2017: “I just think as we go along in this deal, as Cam gets a little bit older and you start putting the playmakers around him, it gives him a chance to sit back and create things with his arm more than his feet .... The style of the game is different – pick it up and throw it quick or throw it to the right person at the right time. I think he is transferring over to that.”
Newton was slow to accept the word "evolving" – which was Ron Rivera’s word originally – as the description for what the Panthers need to do. But that Ginn described is exactly what the Panthers are trying to set up.
The Panthers must never make Newton into strictly a dropback QB – the threat of the run is what makes him so dangerous.
But you have to play the “Let’s Run Cam on third-and-2” card very sparingly, though. It makes a lot more sense for McCaffrey or Samuel to take a three-yard quick throw into space and try to make someone miss than it does for Newton to run a sweep around the right end and get hit by three people.
As I have written before, the Panthers scored eight fewer points per game in 2016 than they did in 2015. And they lost six games by a field goal or less. That discrepancy is being addressed, again and again, during this offseason.
Not all of it will work, because not all of it ever works in the NFL. You have to build in some redundancy into a violent game that produces so many injuries.
But what the Panthers have done in the past two months – getting more exciting, more dynamic, more interesting – is almost too good to be true, isn’t it? It’s as if fans have taken over deciding who to bring onto the team’s roster.
"Yeah, Captain Munnerlyn was a good guy, let’s get him! Julius Peppers would be a neat story, so why not? McCaffrey has a better bloodline than Secretariat – sure thing! Curtis Samuel is faster than McCaffrey – let’s do it!"
It may look better on paper or a smartphone screen than it actually does on the field.
But for now, it’s pretty impossible to dislike what the Panthers are doing, so I won’t even try.
They are trying to score more and to do it in an intriguing, new way designed to protect their franchise quarterback. They may still get their “fanny beat,” to use a Gettleman-ism. Nothing is for sure yet – except that the Panthers sure aren’t maintaining that status quo.