The Panthers are in the midst of a horrendous Super Bowl Hangover. Off to a dismal 1-4 start filled with boneheaded mistakes and poor play, Carolina simply isn’t the same team they were in 2015. The Monday Night Football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the latest example of Carolina’s sharp decline in performance just months after they were playing the best football in franchise history. The team has been ravaged by injuries and forced to put inexperienced players in key positions, but there is no excuse for a team to fall this hard and this fast. Monday night was a game the Panthers should have won, plain and simple. Carolina was given countless breaks from the Buccaneers and the Ryan Leaf of kickers Roberto Aguayo, and yet they threw their opportunities away by committing four turnovers and failing to convert on third down. However, the loss was not entirely Derek Anderson’s fault, who threw two interceptions, including one with his team inside the 5 yard line. It was not entirely Kony Ealy’s, whose face mask penalty on the Bucs final drive gave their struggling kicker a more makeable attempt. It was not entirely Graham Gano’s, who missed a field goal that would have potentially left the game tied at the end of the fourth quarter.
Cam Newton should shoulder much of the blame for Carolina’s loss. He didn’t even play, and yet Newton probably cost Carolina a victory during a stretch where they sorely need one. Cam had to sit out of the contest because of a concussion he suffered the previous week in a demoralizing loss to Atlanta. The injury was completely avoidable, suffered on a designed quarterback run for a two-point conversion in which Newton slowed up before reaching the end zone, leaving him susceptible to a completely legal hit by Falcon’s linebacker Deion Jones. The hit sparked a league-wide debate over the Panthers’ use, or perhaps overuse, of their quarterback in the running game. More importantly, though, were the questions raised about Newton’s maturity, a recurring theme over the course of the young star’s career. The game in Atlanta was an absolute thrashing, the most lopsided loss Carolina had suffered in over a season. Cam was defeated, pouty and uninspired before the hit even occurred. He looked lethargic and nonchalant in the pocket, the exact opposite of what Carolina needs him to be.
Newton’s concussion occurred because of a selfish and flippant decision. Rather than simply running the ball at full, or even half speed, Cam decided to walk into the end zone, seemingly showboating in a game that Carolina was down 18 points. With that choice, Cam put a target on his back and was left with stars in his eyes. The unnecessary nature of his injury requires that the blame be put squarely on Newton. There’s no excuse for a lack of hustle, especially when the player is such an important part of his team. Being one of the team captains, Cam is expected to be a standing example for his teammates and embody the culture the team is striving for. In his refusal to simply finish out a play, Newton failed to live up to this standard.
He also cost his team a win. Backup quarterback Derek Anderson is a good #2 option, but there’s a reason Carolina wants Anderson pacing the sidelines and not Newton. The Panthers badly need their leader to be on the field; Newton is the Panthers’ spark plug, their engine and their source of inspiration, the single most important player on the roster. Without Cam they are bland and lacking identity or uniqueness. Newton brings Carolina an edge, one they desperately needed Monday Night against the Buccaneers but didn’t get. Derek Anderson failed to register a score but was able to turn the ball over three times with one of his interceptions occurring inside the 5 yard line during a drive that should have won the Panthers the game. Anyone in their right minds would be willing to bet good money that Newton finds the end zone on that series.
Cam’s maturity has progressed from a disastrous rookie year, but it still isn’t where the Panthers need it to be. Last year, Carolina was able to ride a tremendous wave of momentum to 17 total wins, and when Cam is winning, he’s happy. Starting off this year with four early losses does not sit well with him, but he needs to learn to cope with defeat better or Carolina will become obsolete in a division that is currently dominated by the high-flying Falcons. His emotions have already gotten the better of him in two games (the loss to Minnesota to a lesser extent), and was the reason he was unable to suit up against Tampa Bay.
Newton needs to realize just what he means to his team. Hopefully the loss to the Buccaneers sends a message to him, that the Panthers are relying on him more than ever. In years past, he’s had a top 10 defense on the other side of the ball that’s been able to cover up mistakes and keep the team in games when the offense wasn’t clicking. For whatever reason, this’s not the case in 2016. Carolina will be more reliant on their offense to be a dominant force and cover up deficiencies from their suddenly porous defense. The coaches and players will look to Newton to spearhead this attack. In order to do this, the quarterback will have to stay healthy, keep a level head and just play football the way he’s capable of playing. If Cam’s not in the game, the Panthers have virtually no chance of winning, especially against opponents tougher than the Buccaneers.
It’s time for Newton to step up and take ownership of this team before it’s too late.
On a more positive note…
I think Panthers fans are tired of hearing all the negativity that surrounds a 1-4 start. It’s good to recognize your team’s weaknesses and understand what is going wrong, but since watching, reading, and talking about football shouldn’t be a tortuous thing, it’s good to take a break and look on the bright side of life as a Panther fan. Here are a few things for Panther Nation to be happy about.
Carolina’s second year back stepped in for the injured Jonathan Stewart admirably, carrying the ball 18 times for 85 yards and two touchdowns. He ran with toughness and tenacity, giving the Panthers hope as they move forward in the season. When Jonathan Stewart is gone, perhaps in the next few seasons, Artis-Payne will the the lead back for Carolina. This game was the best of his career, and is a performance that shows what he’s capable of doing.
Fresh off a shellacking at the hands of the Falcons, the Panthers defense responded by only allowing 17 points to Tampa Bay. Sure, Roberto Aguayo spotted them a few points, and the Buc’s offense isn’t exactly a force to be reckoned with, but it was hugely important for the Panthers to at least hold an opponent under 20 points, something they hadn’t done all year. Corner Daryl Worley gave up a touchdown to Mike Evans, but other than that, he played fairly well. Luke Keuchley was his usual stellar self, and safeties Tre Boston and Kurt Coleman were pretty good. They were, however, unable to force a turnover, something that will need to happen next week against New Orleans for the Panthers to win.
The Injury Bug
Everyone’s least favorite bug has finally decided to give the Panthers a bit of a break. Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart returned to practice this week. Those two players figure to be the center points of the Carolina offense moving forward, and the Panthers are a much better team when one of those guys play. James Bradberry, now the team’s number one corner, is listed as questionable but would give the secondary a huge boost should he return. Defensive tackle Vernon Butler and left tackle Michael Oher still look doubtful to suit up versus the Bucs.
After watching the Panthers go 15-1 last year, 1-4 seems more like 1-400. But, it’s important to remember than anything can happen and that Carolina is nowhere near missing the playoffs. This is a talented and experienced team, and one that will turn itself around sooner or later. The Panthers still have the ability to be a dangerous playoff team. Do not count this team out. Some more good news? The Kansas City Chiefs started last season on an awful 1-5 slide, but were able to turn it around and finish at 11-5, making the playoffs. As I said, anything can happen. Do not accept defeat.
The most reliable player on the roster not name Keuchley, Olsen showed once again that he’s a top tight end in the NFL. He caught 9 passes for 181 yards on Monday, and leads all tight ends with 516 yards on the season. However, the most impressive thing about Olsen’s performances week in and week out is that he almost never sits out an offensive play. Whether it’s making acrobatic catch or doing the dirty work in the trenches, Carolina is always able to trust number 88. He’s unselfish and a true team player, just as enthusiastic about blocking for a run play as he is outrunning defensive backs. It’s players like Olsen that win games, and as long as he’s on the field, Carolina has a fighting chance.
However, it’s what Olsen does off the field that should make Panther fans most proud. He’s a stand up citizen and a great father. His charity, Receptions for Research, has provided help for families of children suffering from congenital heart disease and donated money to assist in the fight against cancer. Greg Olsen will go down as one of the greatest players and people not only in Panthers history, but the entire history of the NFL.