Scott Fowler

Panthers have to fix the offense without Greg Olsen – but it can be done

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey leaps for a throw that came in too high from Cam Newton during the fourth quarter Sunday. McCaffrey would have easily scored on the play, but Carolina instead settled for a field goal. Newton later bemoaned his “missed layup.”
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey leaps for a throw that came in too high from Cam Newton during the fourth quarter Sunday. McCaffrey would have easily scored on the play, but Carolina instead settled for a field goal. Newton later bemoaned his “missed layup.” jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Nine lousy points.

For a Carolina Panthers team that has a former NFL Most Valuable Player at quarterback and high draft choices dotting most of the offensive skill positions, nine points is unacceptable.

On Sunday, though, the Panthers still managed to eke out a 9-3 win over Buffalo thanks to another great effort from the defense.

It was the first time in 20 years Carolina had won a game scoring nine or fewer points. The last time came in 1997, when the Panthers edged Atlanta 9-6 on a day when Steve Beuerlein was the Panthers quarterback, Rae Carruth was one of the starting wide receivers and John Kasay kicked three fourth-quarter field goals.

Nine points won’t get it done either of the next two Sundays, though, when Carolina takes on the rocket-fueled attacks of New Orleans and New England in consecutive weeks.

Even if the Panthers defense – currently ranked No. 1 in the NFL in both points and yardage allowed – keeps playing spectacularly, it would be unfair to expect that defense to post a touchdown-free game in those two contests.

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Kelvin Benjamin (13) was about to score but had the ball jarred loose on a big hit from Buffalo’s Jordan Poyer (21) Sunday against Buffalo. The Panthers won by a 9-3 score – their lowest-scoring performance in a win in 20 years. Bob Leverone AP

So it’s time to fix the offense – and now the Panthers have to do that without Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen.

“Missing Greg is tough,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “He just brings so much to the table.”

Olsen broke a bone in his right foot Sunday and had surgery Monday. The surgery went well, coach Ron Rivera said. A source says Olsen is expected to be back this season after missing about six to eight weeks, which would mean around early or mid-November. 

Carolina Panthers tight and Greg Olsen explains how he broke his foot during the first quarter of Sunday's home opener against the Buffalo Bills.

‘You spread the wealth around’

The Panthers’ situation on offense may not be as dire as you think without Olsen, however.

Remember how well Newton played in 2015 – his MVP year – even with No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin lost for the season with a knee injury? Newton has shown he can play well – and sometimes even better – without one of his favorite targets and so-called security blankets on the field.

And Newton is the biggest key to this offensive redo, for sure. The soft throw he missed to Christian McCaffrey that would have been a touchdown in the fourth quarter? That’s the sort of throw Newton will and must make soon, assuming he stays healthy. (Newton was still limping a little Monday after spraining his ankle – an injury the quarterback originally thought was much worse – on Sunday).

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) had his left foot twisted on a sack from Buffalo defensive end Jerry Hughes (55) Sunday. The Panthers won, 9-3, and Newton did not miss a play but was noticeably limping both Sunday after the game and Monday. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

“Missing layups like that, it’s uncalled for,” Newton said after the game, referring to the McCaffrey throw. He also said: “I’m disappointed in myself, but happy for the overall team.”

I thought Newton actually was OK for most of Sunday, throwing the ball pretty well despite getting sacked six times. He had five pass completions of 16 or more yards, and almost all of them were darts thrown through traffic. He didn’t throw an interception. He should have had a touchdown pass that Kelvin Benjamin dropped after a jarring hit. Newton’s completion percentage was 62.5, which is four percentage points higher than his career average.

“It wasn’t like we were stagnant on offense,” Newton said. “We were moving the football…. We just have to find ways to just put the ball in the last rectangle on the football field.”

“It’s not quite where we need it to be, but it’s getting real close,” Shula said Monday of Carolina’s offensive attack.

I’m not 88, and I’m not trying to be 88. You can’t replace a guy like that.

Panthers tight end Ed Dickson on teammate Greg Olsen

And then there’s tight end Ed Dickson, the second tight end in Carolina for the past four seasons behind Olsen but also a player who once had 54 receptions in 2011 for Baltimore.

“I’m not 88, and I’m not trying to be 88,” Dickson said Monday, referring to Olsen’s uniform number. “You can’t replace a guy like that…. Production-wise, 88 is 1,000 yards and about 60 or 70 receptions (in a season). It’s hard to get one guy to produce like that. So you spread the wealth around.”

Said Shula of Dickson, who will quickly assume a much larger role: “Ed Dickson is playing as good as he’s ever played for us right now.”

Despite the Carolina Panthers' win vs. the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, September 17, 2017, Cam Newton still wants to improve his performance.

Saints allow 32.5 points per game

Newton has not come close to arriving in 2017 – he missed most of the preseason and a lot of training camp, after all. But I think the train has at least left the station. And it may be scheduled for a stop on Sunday.

And while Buffalo has one of the better defenses in the NFL, New Orleans has one of the worst. Through Sunday’s games, the Saints were 31st in points allowed (32.5 per game) and 32nd in yards allowed (512.5).

FowlerOlsenCrutches
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen stands along the team's sideline during the second half Sunday. Olsen broke his right foot in the second quarter, and is expected to be out six to eight weeks after having surgery Monday morning. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

This is a team any NFL offense can get well against. This is a team that McCaffrey really should score his first NFL touchdown against. This is a team that Dickson – who coach Ron Rivera calls “more than capable” – will do just fine against.

And all that better happen, along with a better game from an offensive line that allowed six sacks Sunday. New Orleans traditionally plays a lot of games in the 30-27 score range – giving up points and scoring points in large batches. At 0-2, the Saints are the only team in the NFC South to have lost even one game. They will enter Sunday’s game desperate for a win and with a future Hall of Famer in Drew Brees at the controls as usual.

New Orleans (0-2) is the only team in the NFC South to have lost a game. Atlanta and Carolina are 2-0 and Tampa Bay is 1-0.

Nine points won’t get it done against Brees. Nineteen points likely won’t, either.

Even without Olsen, this is the sort of game where the Panthers will have the opportunity to score in the high 20s and to show that they don’t just manufacture field goals for a living. Placekicker Graham Gano is doing a great job so far this season – he’s 6-for-6 on field goals and has touchbacks on all nine of his kickoffs – but he’s not getting to attempt nearly enough extra points.

The last rectangle on the field awaits. The Panthers are more than capable of getting the ball there. If they don’t find that rectangle several times on Sunday, their undefeated September will be over.

But if they do, the train rolls on, and Carolina will be 3-0 and looking very dangerous entering a road game against New England. And that would be fun.

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