The truest sentence Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton uttered in his postgame press conference Friday night was only six words long.
“We are not that good yet,” Newton said.
Absolutely true. On Friday night in a 19-17 exhibition loss to New England, the Panthers’ first-string offense looked nothing like the offense that led the NFL in points scored in 2015 and produced the league’s Most Valuable Player in Newton. It instead looked just like the offense that got whipped in the Super Bowl by Denver seven months ago. The same thing is about to happen again on Sept. 8 in the regular-season opener at Denver if Carolina doesn’t improve.
Newton and the first-teamers had 10 drives Friday night in the closest mockup to a regular-season game Carolina will get before facing the Broncos.
Five of those 10 drives produced a punt after a three-and-out series. Two ended up in Newton interceptions – one was his fault on a decision that came too late and one was more about bad spacing by two receivers that resulted in a tipped ball. If Newton’s quarterback rating of 25.1 had counted, it would have been lower than any QB rating he has had in the 84 regular-season and playoff games he has ever played for Carolina.
None of Newton’s 10 drives produced a touchdown. Ten drives, three points. Forget those two late TDs scored by the Panthers’ third-teamers that made the score sound more palatable. This was worse than that.
The offensive players were singing from the same mournful hymnal afterward.
“It’s just eye-opening,” Newton said.
“It was an eye-opener,” offensive guard Trai Turner said.
“This game right here was an eye-opener,” wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said.
OK, it’s clear the Panthers’ eyes are wide open now. What will they do about it?
Newton: ‘No need to panic’
In terms of worrying, if 10 is “Here comes a 6-10 season” and 1 is “There’s nothing to worry about at all,” I’d put the Panthers at a “4” right now. I thought the first-team defense was mostly fine Friday night, and the team sustained no huge injuries in training camp. But Carolina also doesn’t yet look like a team going back to the Super Bowl.
Coach Ron Rivera has been concerned about overconfidence and complacency throughout the offseason, fretting that the Panthers may subconsciously live off that 15-1 season too long. If that has happened, it shouldn’t anymore. This fake game against another elite NFL team still provided a real slap in the face.
“There is no need to panic or press the panic button,” said Newton, who actually should have had one TD pass but had a perfect throw at the goal line dropped by Ed Dickson. “But for us, we do need better production from everybody, including myself. There were times in the game where I forced certain things where I shouldn’t have. I just have to be more mature and have more understanding of the offense.”
To match the first-team’s offensive production in those 10 drives Friday night, let me offer three points:
1. The Wi-Fi issue has to get solved.
No, for once, I’m not talking about the Wi-Fi in Bank of America Stadium. From the anecdotal reports I received from a number of fans Friday, it was excellent.
I’m talking about the Panthers and their pre-snap adjustments. It’s not all on Newton – five of his passes were dropped Friday, including one to Ginn that should have gone for 30 yards – but a lot of it is. He’s going into his sixth season now. He knows a 13-for-29, 100-yard performance with two interceptions is never going to get it done for Carolina in a regular-season game. On Friday, he never caught New England’s defense in an obvious mistake and made the Patriots pay for a long gain.
“With the style of offense we run, we’ve just got to be on each other’s Wi-Fi stronger than we have been,” Newton said. “It’s been a lackluster performance with the communication part. And when that happens, if you already (are beaten) pre-snap, then the success rate is going to be extremely low.”
2. The second-most indispensable player on the offense is tight end Greg Olsen.
The most indispensable, of course, is Newton. But without Olsen – held out as a precaution because of back spasms Friday – Newton doesn’t have the guy who converts one third down after another in tough circumstances.
Without Olsen, the quarterback locked in on Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess too often Friday, and the results weren’t pretty. Olsen’s back is supposed to be OK. Assuming it is, the offense will be substantially improved with No. 88 back on the field.
3. A stinker of a game like this can actually be good for a team.
If it makes the Panthers bear down more in practice and truly understand that no points carry over from last year, it can help. If I were Rivera, I would play the offensive starters for a series or two Thursday night against Pittsburgh just so those starters get the bad taste out of their mouths from this one. (Rivera said Friday night he hadn’t made that decision yet – sometimes he sits all the starters out in the final preseason game.)
“We will be better from this,” Newton said. “I’m glad it happened. I’m not glad we lost but I’m just glad that we had an understanding of ... we are not that good yet. We will be better.”
The Panthers must hope so.
Because as good as New England is, the Broncos are better.