Scott Fowler

Here’s how the Panthers could return to Super Bowl next year and win it

One of the Panthers’ keys to returning to the Super Bowl: Sign Josh Norman to a long-term deal or place the franchise tag on him.
One of the Panthers’ keys to returning to the Super Bowl: Sign Josh Norman to a long-term deal or place the franchise tag on him. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Cam got his comeuppance.

So now what?

I have three thoughts on what the Panthers must do to return to the Super Bowl next year and win it. But first let’s talk a little about Cam Newton’s performance on and off the field Sunday night.

The Panthers quarterback had the worst loss of his career Sunday night in the Super Bowl in Denver’s 24-10 win over the Panthers. Newton not jumping into the pile to try to recover his fourth-quarter fumble that sealed the game for Denver was embarrassing.

Then Newton compounded his on-field errors with a sulky news conference. He abruptly walked out in less than three minutes after answering 13 questions – with 11 of those “answers” going three words or fewer.

It was not a good look. Not for a supremely talented player who wants to be a role model to kids. It was a regression to the days of “Mr. Mopeyhead,” as Panthers coach Ron Rivera once called Newton earlier in his career.

The first Super Bowl I covered was 25 years ago and remains one of the most dramatic ever. Scott Norwood barely missed a 47-yard field goal for Buffalo in the final seconds. A championship rode on that kick, and the New York Giants won 20-19 because Norwood missed it.

Then Norwood spent a full half hour answering questions about the worst moment of his own career.

That’s the way a pro does it. No one wants to answer questions after you just lost the biggest game of your life, but that’s part of why you are paid millions to play a kids’ game. Newton’s teammates certainly didn’t want to be interviewed either after Sunday night’s beatdown, but no one else petulantly walked out of a press conference.

The 10 points Carolina scored in the Super Bowl was the fewest the Panthers had scored all season. They scored 13 in their other loss, to Atlanta.

So don’t make excuses for Newton on this. Don’t try to blame the NFL for putting Denver defensive back Chris Harris nearby in another press conference. Newton handled his disappointment poorly, and he is correctly getting hammered for it.

It’s not a huge offense. It happened. Let’s move on.

Cam’s most important answer

The most important three-word answer Newton gave in that press conference was the first one: “We’ll be back.”

And Carolina may well be back. Newton is 26. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is 24. They are two of the best players in the NFL, and they are both signed to long-term deals.

Some oddsmakers who already have set odds for who will win the 51st Super Bowl have already proclaimed Carolina as a slight favorite (Seattle is the second choice; New England and Pittsburgh are tied for third).

So how does Carolina get back to the Super Bowl and then win it?

1 Draft an offensive tackle early. Pro Football Focus, the independent analytics website, said that right tackle Mike Remmers allowed three sacks and seven quarterback hurries Sunday night. It was a horrible game for Remmers. He was also unfairly tasked too often by coaches with blocking Denver Super Bowl MVP Von Miller one-on-one.

How could Carolina not have devoted two blockers to Miller on every single play after realizing early how badly Remmers would struggle? I just don’t get it.

As bad as Newton seemed, PFF actually graded him out higher than any other Carolina offensive player. Receivers dropped four Newton passes. His lone interception glanced off Ted Ginn’s hands. Newton was sacked six times. If he were any less athletic, it would have been 10.

‘We dared him to throw’

2 Upgrade the wide receiving corps. Denver has three very good cornerbacks. The Broncos loaded up the tackle box to stop Carolina’s running game and dared the Panthers wideouts to beat them one-on-one.

Too often, those wideouts just could not do it (and tight end Greg Olsen couldn’t, either). Here’s where the return of Kelvin Benjamin for the 2016 season will help Carolina considerably.

But is that really enough? Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman needs to look hard at finding a better No. 2 receiver to pair with Benjamin and using Ginn, Philly Brown and Devin Funchess at Nos. 3 and 4.

Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn was targeted the most of any player in the Super Bowl. Newton threw at Ginn 10 times, completing four for 74 yards and having one glance off Ginn’s hands for an interception.

What Denver’s Harris said in a postgame interview was true: “We knew that if we got the lead, it was over. Our defense is too good. They weren’t going to be able to come back. We knew Cam couldn’t travel 80 yards on us. We dared him to throw. The game plan was, can you throw on us? Me, [cornerback Aqib] Talib and [Bradley] Roby. We knew he couldn’t throw on us.”

Actually, Newton could – but he needs more targets.

3 Keep Josh Norman. Carolina’s secondary got iffy late in the season after a bunch of injuries, but Norman was Carolina’s best cornerback by a long shot. He’s about to become a free agent. Ideally, the Panthers will sign Norman to a long-term deal. If not, they must place the franchise tag on him and rent him at a very high price for another year. You simply can’t let Norman walk away for nothing.

Ultimately, the Panthers said all season that they loved to dab and dance and take sideline photos, and that if a team didn’t like it, all it had to do was stop them.

Denver stopped them, all right.

But the Panthers are still extremely talented. And if they handle this crushing disappointment the right way, they will be back.

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