On Christmas Day, 2015, the Carolina Panthers stood at a remarkable 14-0. Five days earlier, they beat the New York Giants 38-35, and though they won – and Cam Newton became the first player in NFL history to throw for at least 300 yards with five touchdowns and 100 rushing yards in the same game – perhaps there were signs of impending doom for the Panthers back then that most chose to ignore.
Carolina blew a 35-7 lead in that game by allowing the Giants to score four touchdowns in under 15 minutes. Next, two wins from becoming only the second team to post a 16-0 regular season, the Panthers fell 20-13 to the Atlanta Falcons with Newton playing his worst game in months. Three weeks later, in the divisional round of the playoffs, Carolina nearly blew a huge lead once again by narrowly defeating the Seattle Seahawks 31-24 after holding a 31-point lead at the half. They had an easy victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship game (though the Cardinals have also imploded since late last year) but then Newton had his worst game of the season in a 24-10 Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos.
Signs that the Panthers might be headed for a Super Bowl hangover were as loud as Cam Newton’s pants: The defense was prone to epic collapses and Newton was too easily rattled by teams that have a good pass rush, too inaccurate as a passer against good cornerbacks.
Four weeks into this season it’s apparent that not only did Carolina ignore those signs, hoping for a natural, organic improvement, but that the franchise has immediately gone from dreaming of an undefeated season to the nightmare of one defeat after another.
Following last Sunday’s 48-33 loss to the Falcons, the Panthers stand at 1-3 with their only win coming over the comically-bad San Francisco 49ers. Only four teams are allowing more points per game than Carolina’s 29.5, and their atrocious pass defense just surrendered 300 receiving yards to Atlanta receiver Julio Jones, the fourth-highest single-game total in league history.
Meanwhile, Newton’s play is up for consideration as the worst season of his career: 58% completions, six touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 80.2, which ranks 24th in the NFL, behind even that of Cleveland’s Cody Kessler. Not that it’s all his fault.
Newton’s gone from thoughts about repeating as MVP to just trying to survive to the next week; He’s on pace for a career-high 52 sacks, and while teams like the Broncos in Week 1 have been accused of targeting Cam high, even he knows that the hit he took on Sunday that sent him into concussion protocol was his own fault.
“I deserved to get hit like that, taking that foot off the gas,” Newton told the media after the game. And it’s that lackadaisical attitude that has plagued Newton for years, including in the Super Bowl with the game on the line, and after the Super Bowl with the world watching and waiting for Carolina’s leader to explain what happened.
But why does it seem like the whole team has taken that foot off the gas this year? A lot of it has to do with the moves that the team didn’t make in the offseason because they may have made the same wrong assumption that many fans and writers did a season ago: That Cam Newton was carrying this team and the rest would take care of itself.
He wasn’t and it didn’t.
The biggest stunner in free agency was Carolina’s decision to rescind the franchise tag from All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, allowing a rare commodity like an elite corner to walk away and get nothing in return – Norman even described his reaction to the move as being “sideswiped” because he never saw it coming. But even more shocking was that the Panthers waited until most of the free agents were already signed – and they didn’t have any high draft picks – so replacing him with even a decent cornerback would be virtually impossible. Carolina drafted corners in rounds two, three, and five, but it’s rare for any secondary player to be ready to start as a rookie, let alone one drafted 62nd overall like James Bradberry was.
Right now Bradberry is starting opposite of Bene Benwikere, a third-year player who had 10 starts and one interception in his career up to this point. On Sunday, Jones had six catches for 184 yards and a touchdown when covered by Benwikere and caught all three targets against Bradberry, gaining another 46 yards, per ProFootballFocus. Jones added another 52 yards against third round pick Darryl Worley; lest we forget that the Panthers play Jones twice a year.
Jones was good against Norman last year, because he’s Julio Jones, but still only gained nine catches and 113 yards over two games while being covered by him in 2015.
As a result of these risks, the Panthers are 30th in yards per pass attempt allowed and allowing two passing touchdowns per game. Up front, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short – perhaps the best player on defense outside of linebacker Luke Kuechly – has one sack in four games after totaling 11 last season. Defensive end Charles Johnson, once one of the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL, still has zero sacks.
If Newton is able to return soon from his concussion, then they will still have a player who scored 45 touchdowns a year ago, and that’s not something that the rest of the league can ignore. But Newton can’t play offensive line and protect himself, he can’t continue to be the leading rusher like he is right now, he can’t play defense and rush the passer for a unit that doesn’t have a single player with more than one sack, and he certainly can’t cover the opposing team’s best receiver. Right now, Newton is still learning how to be a great quarterback, so with or without him, Carolina has a lot of problems to solve.
Way more problems than a playoff team would have – which is not what the Panthers are this season.