Led by 2011′s Offensive Rookie of the Year, quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers were a trendy pick among pre-season prognosticators for a team to make a rapid ascent to playoff contention.
Now, coming off the heels of a 36-7 drubbing at home to the New York Giants in a prime time game, people are starting to ask what’s wrong with the Panthers. Carolina sits at 1-2, with a win against the Saints and losses to the Buccaneers and Giants. This clearly isn’t the team on the rise–on the contrary, it seems to be regressing.
It would be easy to blame things on the defense. A unit that was downright terrible last season certainly doesn’t appear to be much better. The secondary can’t stop the pass–Giants receiver Ramses Barden, not exactly known as a threat, was open all night long–and the front seven can’t stop the run. The linebacking corps was supposed to be the strength of this team, with Jon Beason returning from injury and Luke Kuechly added via the draft, but it hasn’t made an impact thus far. Perhaps a lot of the blame for the unit’s struggles should lie on the shoulders of defensive co-ordinator Sean McDermott. He’s simply being out-coached in games.
The issues go beyond the defense, however. Cam Newton simply isn’t the dynamic force that he was last year. He isn’t getting the ball to Steve Smith down the field and he’s turning the ball over far too much (including three interceptions last night). It’s still too early to call it a sophomore slump, but the early indications aren’t good. Were we perhaps too hasty to crown Newton as the NFL’s next superstar? Is he feeling the pressure of those lofty expectations?
It’s not all on Newton, however. After giving running back DeAngelo Williams a huge contract prior to the 2011 season, the Panthers then brought in free agent running back Mike Tolbert and also re-upped Jonathan Stewart with a big deal. The rushing attack simply hasn’t been nearly good enough to justify the amount of money the Panthers have invested. Stewart is the key, as Williams look all but washed up, and he’s missed two the the team’s first three games with injury. Unless the Panthers can get him healthy and back on the field, the running game should continue to sputter.
The Panthers finished 6-10 last season, but they often looked like a team that deserved to have a much better record. So far this season, they look very much like a team that should finish at about 6-10.