Scott Fowler

Panthers’ problems keep multiplying, and you can pick, pick, pick, pick a reason

Cam Newton: I take this personal

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton takes this loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers personal and says he has to play better.
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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton takes this loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers personal and says he has to play better.

The Carolina Panthers have turned into a bad football team – a “bless their hearts,” stumbling, bumbling, crumbling hot mess.

When you find yourself in a big hole, you first put down the shovel. But the Panthers just keep digging — it is the one thing they are good at right now. They made it halfway to China Sunday, in a 24-17 road loss to Tampa Bay that was worse than it sounds.

The number of the day was “four.”

The defeat made it four losses in a row for the Panthers. Cam Newton, the star quarterback who said four days before he was playing the best football of his career, threw four interceptions.

Newton looked like a rookie again Sunday. In fact, the only other time Newton has thrown four interceptions in a single game was as an NFL rookie in 2011.

Newton said he ran off the field in “embarrassment” after having four possessions in the fourth quarter to try and score a tying touchdown — only for the offense to fail four times.

Meanwhile, tight end Greg Olsen suffered yet another serious foot injury and may well be done for the season (and maybe, sadly, for his career). Head coach Ron Rivera had to field multiple questions about his job security in his postgame press conference.

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Yes, it was that kind of nasty afternoon, where the Panthers had a chance for steak and wound up eating dirt sandwiches.

When asked about what happened on a particular interception, Newton said: “It’s sad, because I don’t even know which one you’re talking about.”

That was unusual. Newton had been averaging only 0.64 interceptions per game in 2018 and was posting career-best numbers in both completion percentage and quarterback efficiency.

But Newton was remarkably inefficient Sunday, allowing a journeyman Buccaneers safety named Andrew Adams to pick him off three times.

Adams, in his third NFL season, tripled his previous number of career interceptions in one day. A former undrafted free agent, Adams was out of football when he joined the Bucs in late September after they had several defensive injuries. Newton, always generous around the holidays, gave Adams the sort of day even Adams couldn’t really picture.

“You definitely dream about interceptions,” Adams said. “But three in one game? Not really.”

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‘Do not ask that’

Rivera sounded understandably stressed after the game. He refused to answer questions about a CBS Sports report that quoted anonymous sources saying that owner David Tepper was getting “antsy” and thinking about major changes in the organization if the Panthers continued to lose.

“I am not going to address that question,” Rivera said when asked if he was concerned about his job. “Do not ask that question again, please.”

And, later: “As far as I’m concerned, unless Mr. Tepper puts his name on it, I think everybody needs to just calm down. … If anybody has a question, I think they should ask Mr. Tepper.”

(A Panthers spokesman said Tepper wasn’t going to comment on the issue.)

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Rivera and company better get it fixed. No one knows exactly what Tepper is going to do, but he’s certainly a billionaire with a lot of big ideas.

If the Panthers lose their final four games, too, I don’t see Rivera and his coaching staff surviving an eight-game losing streak.

If the Panthers manage to squeak out a win or two in the final four games but don’t make the playoffs — and that’s the most likely scenario now — then what?

The question of whether the coach survives — or general manager Marty Hurney, for that matter — has to be asked at this point.

For all of Rivera’s success — and he has coached Carolina to four playoff berths in the past five years — he never has been able to change that one dubious statistic for the Panthers. In nearly 24 full seasons, the Panthers have yet to post back-to-back winning records

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) is sacked by Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (90) during the second half Sunday. Newton was sacked three times and intercepted four in the Buccaneers’ 24-17 victory. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

‘It hurt us bad’

Panthers fans, can we agree that the playoffs are a pipe dream at the moment? Carolina looks far more likely to sink into a top-10 NFL draft pick in 2019 than to end up as an NFC wild card.

“It hurt us bad,” Newton said of his inaccuracy Sunday, part of which was caused by getting hit just as he threw two of the four interceptions. “We really needed this game.”

Carolina is 1-5 in road games as it heads to Cleveland (4-7-1) next Sunday, followed by home games against New Orleans and Atlanta and then a season finale at New Orleans.

Could the season pivot on its axis one more time? Sure it could. I once saw a Panthers team that was 3-8-1 somehow win its way into the playoffs under Rivera in 2014.

But these Panthers don’t have a lot of cards left to play. They have a sore-shouldered quarterback who just threw four interceptions, a defense that has been unreliable enough that Rivera is now chiming in on the defensive calls, and an undisciplined team that drew 104 yards worth of penalties against Tampa Bay (5-7) on Sunday.

They will have to win it with the guys they’ve got, and that hasn’t worked out well for a solid month.

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I can’t see Tepper making the sort of shocker move like Green Bay did Sunday when the Packers suddenly fired Mike McCarthy a month before the season ended.

But really, none of us know exactly what Tepper is going to do, and we shouldn’t pretend to. If Carolina keeps losing, Tepper’s call on Rivera and Hurney will be the toughest decision so far of his fledgling ownership.

All of that could be avoided if the Panthers got it turned around, of course.

But after the Panthers play Sunday, this looks a lot more like a team that’s going to finish 6-10 than one that can finish 10-6.

You can’t fix a hot mess in a hot second. The Panthers are in deep trouble.

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