This sounds obvious, but we are no longer living in the year 2015.
The Deflategate scandal has finally died down, and the Patriots are 3-0 even though Tom Brady hasn’t played a single snap. Jim Tomsula, Tom Coughlin, Dan Campbell, Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer are no longer head coaches. The rest of the NFL seems to realize that the calendar has turned.
Somebody just forgot to tell that to the Carolina Panthers.
Carolina’s 2015 season was magical. After a slow two games to start off the season in which they narrowly defeated the lowly Jaguars and Texans, the Panthers began to gain tremendous momentum and never looked back. Week in and week out, Carolina would go into games confident the opponent had absolutely no chance in stopping their dynamic offense or outsmarting their sensational defense. The result? A regular season that featured just one loss and plenty of blowout wins. The Panthers 2015 regular season was, in a word, easy.
But its 2016 now, remember? Three games into the 2016 regular season and Carolina already has twice as many losses as the previous year. Dropping a week one game on the road against the defending Super Bowl Champions is one thing, but getting utterly dominated by the Sam Bradford led Minnesota Vikings is another. The eight (eight!!!) sacks of quarterback Cam Newton should send a message to the Panthers: We’re not in 2015 anymore. The yellow-brick road to the Super Bowl that presented itself to Carolina last year has disappeared.
Now, this is not to say that Panther fans should start hitting the panic button. Carolina’s had a penchant for slow starts in the past. The 2013 squad started off at 1-3 before rattling off 8 straight wins en route to a 12-4 record and a division win. 2 early season losses are by no means a death sentence.
There are, however, a few concerning trends that are starting to rear their ugly heads. The offensive line has been gashed by the talented defenses of Minnesota and Denver, leaving Newton a sitting duck in the pocket. Cam hasn’t been as sharp either, as he’s tossed 5 picks on the season (he threw just 10 all of last season). The most concerning trend has to be the disappointing state of the Carolina defense. Minnesota and Denver are very good teams, but the forte of each is their defense. Offense isn’t either team’s strong suit. Despite this, Carolina’s defense, usually a formidable force, has been picked apart by the extremely mediocre duo of Sam Bradford and Trevor Simien. When the Panthers start to face off against more talented quarterbacks, like divisional foes Drew Brees or Matt Ryan, they will have to tighten up if they want to have a chance of winning.
The good news? It’s week 4, and all of these issues can be corrected. Michael Oher is out this week with a concussion, which gives the Panthers a chance to see what they have in last years draft pick Daryl Williams. If Williams performs well, look for him to start getting more snaps than right tackle Mike Remmers, who’s been consistently bad this year. Along with Remmers, the Panthers o-line has under-performed. Trai Turner and Ryan Kalil should be one of the best interior duos in the NFL, but the aging Kalil has struggled this year with penalties and Turner has dealt with some nagging injuries. Those two should return to form sooner rather than later.
The defense will improve too. The Panthers still have the best linebacker corps in the league. Shaq Thompson, Thomas Davis and Luke Keuchley give Carolina a dynamic look that isn’t paralleled in the NFL. Additionally, the rookie corners have held their own in their first few games of professional action. James Bradberry looks like he could be a special player at the NFL level, and if Daryl Worley continues his positive development, he has the chance to be an integral part of the team down the line. This is a unit that is basically the same as last years, minus Josh Norman. The leaders of the defense, Luke Keuchley, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson, have almost certainly voiced their dissatisfaction with the defense’s performance to their teammates. Carolina will show up to this weeks game against Atlanta fired up and ready to show the NFL they are still a force to be reckoned with.
As for Cam Newton, his performance hinges more on his offensive line and wide receivers than himself. He certainly needs to improve his play, last week he held the ball too long in the pocket, resulting in sacks. However, his teammates need to help him out more. The offensive line has been bad in pass protection, leaving Newton under duress on the majority of his throws. Newton’s wide receivers need to step up as well. Devin Funchess has been a complete non-factor, Ted Ginn Jr has continued to drop passes, and Kelvin Benjamin, while spectacular in weeks one and two, was about as useful as a brick wall in the Panthers latest contest. Cam has proven he has otherworldly talent, but despite what his Superman moniker suggests, he can’t save the Panthers by himself. Carolina is talented in just about every position, they just have to play to their ability.
The most important thing for Carolina moving on is escaping the Super Bowl Hangover. The success the Panthers experienced last year will not translate to this one, and the players have yet to fully realize that. It’s hard for a team to adjust to a new year after a Super Bowl appearance, snapping back from football’s highest stage to the same level as the other 31 teams. Furthermore, the frustration of a 1-2 start will only heighten the effects of the hangover.
This weeks game will not decide the rest of the season for Carolina. The Panthers have the ability to rebound from a 1-3 start and still make the playoffs, so we’re about 2 losses away from the panic button. This isn’t to say a victory over Atlanta wouldn’t be hugely important. Not only would Carolina gain an early lead on the division, but a boost in momentum and general team morale would be hugely welcomed.
Carolina has an extremely talented and capable team that as of now seems to be in a bit of a funk. The players need to realize that this 2016 season simply won’t be the cakewalk that was 2015. The way Carolina prepares for and plays in games needs to change before they can expect to get on the same kind of roll they were in last year. Until then, the Panthers will have to fight week in and week out for a victory, quite unlike 2015.