Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers (1-2) looked like a JV team playing against their older brothers on the varsity squad when they kicked off Week 3 of the 2012 NFL season against Eli Manning and the New York Giants (2-1) in a prime time match-up on the NFL Network last Thursday night.
In a game that fans, players and media were touting as the biggest Panthers game in at least three years, playing in front of a national audience in the only NFL contest of the night, Carolina stunk up the joint in all three facets of the game: offense, defense and special teams.
The Panthers were not only overmatched, but they were out played, out coached, out hustled and, perhaps worst of all, outed as a team that is not quite ready to hang with the big boys in their 36-7 loss to the defending .
As Carolina's veteran All-Pro center, Ryan Kalil, said after the game, the Carolina Panthers—and the offensive line in particular—were simply "out-physicaled." Via the Charlotte Observer:
"It was a frustrating night for everybody. Really embarrassing I think – not just for us but the fans, the coaches for everybody," said Ryan Kalil, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl center. “We knew it was going to be a physical game and they just out-physicaled us from the beginning. I think the biggest thing, especially offensively, was you get in situations where you got to convert, you got to convert."
Carolina's offense, which many expected to be a top-10 unit this season after finishing fifth in the NFL in scoring in 2011, found the end zone just once for the second time in three games this season in a game that was expected to be a shootout.
After scoring just 10 points in their opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2) and seven points against the Giants, Carolina is 27th in the league in scoring this season, putting up just 17.3 points per outing in their first three games.
Is Cam Newton having a sophomore slump?
Cam Newton, last year's record-setting NFL Rookie of the Year, has thrown for more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (2) and he has already been sacked six times this season.
And if you toss out Carolina's 219-yard rushing outburst in their Week 2 game against the New Orleans Saints (0-3), last season's third-ranked running team has only managed to gain 70 yards on 33 carries (2.1 yards per carry) in their losses to the Giants and the Bucs.
Simply put, Carolina's offense has been inept this season under the leadership of their hotshot offensive coordinator, Rob "Chud" Chudzinski, who is touted as having one of the most brilliant offensive minds in all of football.
The Panthers are 1-12 when they pass the ball more often than they run and 6-0 when they run more often than they pass with Chud calling the plays—and I firmly believe he is aware of this telling statistic—but more often than not he calls plays as if he is still in San Diego with Philip Rivers running the offense.
A huge part of the Panthers' offensive ineptitude this season has to do with poor protection from their offensive line, which has also failed to open up running lanes for Newton and DeAngelo Williams in the team's two losses, but an equally large part has to do with Chud's play calling and Newton's poor decision making and field awareness early on this season.
The Panthers are now 0-12 when Newton throws an interception and 7-0 when he does not. Newton has to start taking much better care of the ball for the Panthers to have a chance against most of their opponents this season.
Entering Thursday night's Queen City fiasco, Giants wide receiver Ramses Barden had one reception this season.
Against the Panthers, he looked like a young Randy Moss, catching nine passes for 138 yards.
The Giants also got a standout performance out of vagabond running back and ex-N.C. State standout, Andre Brown, who was previously cut by a handful of NFL teams and was not even on an NFL roster in 2011.
Brown, who had two career carries for minus-1 yard entering the season, ran the ball 20 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers, starting in the place of injured running back Ahmad Bradshaw.
Carolina's defense, which held Tampa Bay to 16 points and 258 total yards in Week 1, has now given up more than 400 total yards in each of its last two contests.
They have surrendered at least 95 yards to a running back in all three games despite the addition of interior linemen Ron and Dwan Edwards, the return of star linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, and the arrival of No. 9 overall draft pick, collegiate tackling machine Luke Kuechly.
Rookie cornerback Josh Norman, who has enormous physical attributes and potential as a shutdown cornerback, has been targeted this season by opposing quarterbacks the way they targeted the undersized and over matched Captain Munnerlyn in 2011.
What is the Panthers' defense's biggest weakness?
And despite having the NFL's highest paid defensive end in Charles Johnson, the Panthers' pass rush was miserable against the Bucs in Week 1 and they failed to pressure the Giants' Eli Manning on Thursday night.
Defense is not supposed to be the Panthers' strong suit this season, but they have to do a better job at getting off the field quicker and not putting the offense behind the eight-ball early in the game, which they have done by giving up three opening-series, 80-yard touchdown scoring drives in as many games.
McDermott and head coach Ron Rivera, who coordinated the San Diego Chargers' defense before taking over in Charlotte last season, are equally responsible for Carolina's performance on the championship side of the ball, and both men will be held responsible if the Panthers do not improve defensively throughout the course of the season.
However, McDermott has a shorter leash and he needs to make better in-game adjustments and get his unit to play more cohesively if he hopes to continue reporting to work at Bank of America Stadium beyond this season.
Taken as a whole, the Panthers had the NFL's worst special teams units in 2011, ranking at or near the bottom of the league in kick and punt coverage and punt returns last season.
The Panthers drafted a punter (Brad Nortman), hired a new kicker (Justin Medlock), and brought in three special teams coverage aces this offseason in Mike Tolbert, Haruki Nakamura and Kenny Onatolu, yet poor special teams play has already contributed to both of the team's losses in 2012.
Who should return punts and kicks for the Panthers?
Though their coverage teams have yet to give up a home run in the return game, rookie punt/kick returner Joe Adams has not lived up to his hype as a field-possession changer unless you count his two lost fumbles on Thursday night—first on the opening kickoff of the second half and later on a muffed fourth-quarter punt—which led directly to 10 Giants points.
Adams, who led the nation in punt returns for touchdowns as a senior at Arkansas last season, runs too tentatively and he must overcome his reputation for mishandling the ball or else Armanti "Fair Catch" Edwards (PR) and Kealoha Pilares (KR) will reclaim their return duties in short order.
Adams needs to have a good game against the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons (3-0) in order to retain his job(s) heading into Week 5.
Carolina also blew a punt protection assignment in Week 1 which allowed Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib to block a punt and set up the Bucs' only three points of the second half.
As poorly as the Panthers' offense and defense have played in two of the first three games, Carolina's special teams units cannot afford to continue making mental errors—and all three serious gaffes were mental errors—and giving the Panthers poor field position.
Carolina's not-so-special teams need to at least keep the Panthers in games rather than putting them out of reach, or else it will be another long winter for a fan base that entered the season with high hopes.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.
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