A 10-day rest. A very mediocre opponent. A chance to get well after a tough loss.
If you thought Sunday lined up all right for the Carolina Panthers – as I did – then your thinking was all wrong. The Panthers lost to the Chicago Bears, 17-3, due to an awful offensive performance and dropped to 4-3 on the season.
What went wrong? Let’s quickly count a few of the ways:
▪ Defensive TDs. Chicago safety Eddie Jackson is a rookie, but he had what he may well consider the best game of his NFL career when he finally hangs it up. Jackson had a 75-yard fumble return for a score and a 76-yard interception return for a score, all in the first half, to put Carolina in a 14-0 hole they could never dig out of. Jackson, who had broken his leg in a college game at Alabama exactly one year ago, became the first NFL player ever to score two defensive TDs in the same game on plays of 75 or more yards. That his TDs both came against a former Auburn quarterback’s offense likely added to his glee.
▪ Samuel sloppiness. Rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel gave Jackson one of those gifts when he fumbled a very catchable pitchout from quarterback Cam Newton on Carolina’s very first possession – coach Ron Rivera mentioned afterward that the fumble wasn’t Newton’s fault.
“I just lost track of the ball,” Samuel said. “I’m better than that.” Surely he is, but he hasn’t shown it so far this season. Once again, the Panthers tried to force-feed Samuel the ball on several occasions, and once again it hardly ever worked out.
▪ No killer instinct. Carolina moved the ball between the 30s for most the day, but the Panthers stalled time and again when they got into the scoring zone and never came close to scoring a touchdown. The Panthers are obviously missing tight end Greg Olsen and they still don’t have a deep threat (Ted Ginn Jr., meanwhile, was catching seven passes on seven targets for 141 yards for New Orleans Sunday). The Panthers’ running game improved some, but they still could hardly ever run the ball when it mattered (including a critical fourth-and-2 Newton couldn’t pick up on a quarterback draw.
▪ A bad day from Cam. Newton tried to force an early ball to Kelvin Benjamin that got tipped, intercepted and returned by Jackson for his second TD. The old “throwing it too high” problem cropped up once again for Newton. And then midway through the fourth quarter Newton made a bad decision to throw to a well-covered Christian McCaffrey, resulting in his second interception.
▪ No forced turnovers. The Panthers defense actually played very well considering defensive captains Luke Kuechly and Kurt Coleman were both out. It stoned the Bears for most of the game – Chicago had only five first downs. The Panthers defense gave up only one field goal and had four sacks.
But for the sixth straight game – the longest streak in Panthers franchise history – the Panthers could not come up with an interception, this time against Chicago rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. To be fair, Trubisky attempted only seven passes – the sort of number you used to see a college wishbone team throw in the 1970s – as Chicago coach John Fox realized his defense was going to win this game for him as long as his offense didn’t mess it up. So there weren’t a lot of opportunities.
▪ Coaching. You could argue with a number of offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s play calls – there were too many to list here – but the force-feeding of Samuel continues to be problematic and so does the lack of the deep ball. Coach Ron Rivera also decided to punt on 4th-and-13 from Chicago’s 38 early in the fourth quarter and down by 14 points, showing the sort of conservatism that gets you nowhere in a game in which the Panthers so desperately needed points.
▪ Offensive line injuries. Once again, Carolina had to patch it together with bailing wire and duct tape as center Ryan Kalil didn’t last through the first quarter before his neck injury put him out again. Guard Trai Turner also left the game with a knee injury. Left tackle Matt Kalil also left the game but later returned. Newton was under pressure almost the entire game.