True Panther fans have been through a lot. They’ve witnessed their team suffer through brutal seasons; 2010 saw Carolina win just two games, and in 2001, only one. They’ve never experienced back-to-back winning seasons, and until 2014, had never seen their team win the division in consecutive years. They’ve experienced highs. Names like Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, Sam Mills, Mushin Muhammad and Julius Peppers will bring smiles to the face of any fan. They’ve experienced lows (Rae Carruth, need I say more?). The course of 22 years of existence has been a roller coaster filled with elation and frustration. Yet, despite all of this, the 2016 season might be the most frustrating time Panther fans have ever had to experience. Its far from over, but a 1-5 record fresh off the best season in franchise history is, obviously, less than ideal.
This Panthers team is almost a mirror image of the one that won 17 total games in 2015. In fact, on paper, they might even be a little better. The loss of Josh Norman certainly hurts, but the Panthers have invested three draft picks into corners that should fit well schematically in the Panthers defense. After all, the star of this unit should be the front seven, and Carolina was able to retain Charles Johnson and add even more depth to the line with the addition of first round pick Vernon Butler. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers have the exact same offense as 2015, only with the re-addition of star receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Cam Newton is still at the helm of the offense, Jonathan Stewart is still running the ball, and Mike Shula still calling the plays. On special teams, Carolina still has kicker Graham Gano, a player that the front office has tremendous trust in, and one of the best punters in the league Andy Lee. On paper, this team should be nothing short of amazing.
On the field, they’re four games below .500 and extremely frustrating to watch.
The most infuriating thing about the slow start, and the most concerning development with the team moving forward, has been the inept state of the Carolina defense. Once formidable, the Panthers are suddenly an inviting, soft matchup for opposing offenses. Against divisional foes in the past three weeks, Carolina’s defense has surrendered a combined 1,186 yards passing. In three games. Opponents are on pace to rack up 4,512 yards passing against the Panthers this year. Last season’s defense gave up only 3,752 yards the entire season.
While the Panthers secondary has been nothing short of atrocious thus far, they aren’t the sole reason Carolina has struggled so much this year defending the pass. The defensive line, which had been a calling card for previous Carolina defenses, has been useless in generating pressure with just four rushers. The Panthers have mustered just 12 sacks this year, and only 7.5 of those have come from defensive linemen. The lack of pressure applied by the four linemen has lead to the Panthers needing to blitz more often. However, when they bring extra pressure, there are less defenders helping out the inexperienced Panthers corners, leaving the rookies in man-to-man situations that they have no chance of winning consistently. Without pressure from the defensive front, Panthers defensive backs are sitting ducks. The team leader in sacks is safety Tre Boston, with two. Starting defensive ends Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy have combined for just one-half of a a sack through six games. Ealy had looked to be on the verge of a breakout year after a dominant performance in Super Bowl 50. It hasn’t worked out that way. This is a talented defensive line, with a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in Kawann Short, two first round tackles in Star Lotulelei and Vernon Butler, and talented defensive ends like Johnson, Ealy and Mario Addison. This is what has made the demise of the Panthers defense so frustrating; the talent level is there, the performances however are uninspired.
Special teams has also haunted the Panthers through the first six games. Graham Gano has missed several key field goals, including the game-winner in week one that would have given Carolina crucial momentum as the season began. If Gano misses a few more field goals, expect the Panthers to be in the market for a new kicker. This team simply can’t afford to leave any points off the board due to kicking. Punting has been a different story, as Andy Lee has lived up to the hype after being brought in via trade from Cleveland. Unfortunately, Lee has been so good at pinning opponents inside the 10, and has punted so much, that he is probably the leading candidate for team MVP at this point in the season. This is good news for Lee, but not for anyone else. Hopefully Lee doesn’t see the field as much as he has in past weeks.
The Panthers have been decent offensively, but decent simply won’t cut it. Cam Newton and Co. have feasted against weak defenses like New Orleans and San Francisco, but struggled against tougher opponents like Minnesota and Denver, The Panthers also need Cam Newton to be on the field, and were only able to score 14 points against an underwhelming Buccaneers defense because Newton was forced to miss a game with a concussion (an injury that was largely his fault). Derek Anderson was unable to take care of the ball as Newton’s replacement, which should be expected from any former Browns quarterback. The Panthers need Newton to be smart, healthy and a leader. This season he hasn’t with any consistency.
While Panther fans were surely grateful for the bye, as it offered a chance to recuperate and take a break from the frustration, players almost certainly appreciated the opportunity to get healthy and reflect on what has been a disappointing season thus far. Injuries have derailed the team a little bit, but they’re no excuse for the types of losses that a team with this kind of potential is suffering. Nonetheless, the Panthers need a few key players to return to the lineup as they begin preparation for a post-bye push.
Cornerbacks James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Robert McClain are healthy and should give the Panthers a better chance against Arizona on Sunday than what they had to roll with last week. The combination of Zack Sanchez and Teddy Williams isn’t going to scare anybody. Vernon Butler, a key cog for the Panthers defensive line, is also poised to return after missing the last few weeks.
The Panthers now face a crucial time in the season, and they know this. In his last press conference, Cam Newton talked about the urgency of the Panthers situation, that they needed to win and win now. For the Panthers to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs, they can only lose one or two more games the rest of the season. This post bye push is going to make or break the 2016 campaign.
For the Panthers, the bye week was a chance to rev up for the rest of the season and prepare for the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. For fans, the bye was a much-needed break from what has been a frustrating 2016 season.