Who are the Carolina Panthers?
Five games into the 2012 NFL season, it is clear who the Panthers are.
They are Cam Newton's team.
However Cam Newton goes, so go the Panthers, and so far this season, things have not gone well for the second-year quarterback and his team.
With 11 games left in the regular season, Carolina is already flirting with irrelevancy thanks to mediocre play by the offense in three of their first five games.
Though there is very little visible light at the end of the tunnel, their season is not shrouded in total darkness.
Those were, not coincidentally, also Newton's best performances.
But the Panthers are just as likely, if not more likely this season, to lay an egg as they are to play well.
In three of Carolina's four losses this season, Carolina's offense has simply failed to produce, scoring just two offensive touchdowns and a pair of field goals in setbacks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks.
Perhaps most disappointing is that in two of those games, versus New York and Seattle, the Panthers played without passion, without toughness and without any semblance of offensive execution in front of their home crowd.
A crowd which praised center Ryan Kalil's bold Super Bowl prediction in the preseason and which had such high hopes for the Panthers at the beginning of September.
A crowd which has been let down and which has every right to demand reimbursement by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson for every ticket, souvenir and beverage purchased while supporting and cheering for the embarrassing product his organization has put on the field in their last two home outings.
In their most recent outing on Sunday against the Seahawks, the Carolina Panthers failed to score an offensive touchdown, gained just 190 total yards of offense, garnered only 13 first downs, allowed four sacks and turned the ball over deep in their own territory while clinging to a four-point, third-quarter lead.
Cam Newton had the worst performance of his 21-game career, completing just 12 of 29 passes (41.4 percent) for a career-low 141 yards and missing a wide-open Ben Hartsock in the end zone on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 3:47 left in the game.
The pass attempt to Hartsock, which Newton one-hopped to his tight end from 15 yards away, would have tied the game at 16 apiece with only a Justin Medlock extra point needed to put the Panthers ahead by one.
Newton started the game by completing just three of his 15 first-half attempts, connecting with Steve Smith just four times for 40 yards despite targeting his favorite receiver a season-high 13 times and mostly ignoring his most reliable receiver this season, tight end Greg Olsen.
But the loss was not all Newton's fault.
His offensive line was dominated by the Seattle defensive front, DeAngelo Williams gained just six yards and fumbled once on six carries and supposed offensive mastermind Rob Chudzinski's schemes and play-calling are not fooling opposing defenses.
The only bright spots for Carolina on an overcast, Seattle-like Sunday in Charlotte were the play of the defense, particularly by Luke Kuechly and Captain Munnerlyn, and Josh Thomas' special teams brilliance in kick and punt coverage.
Kuechly notched 11 tackles and an interception in his first game playing his natural middle linebacker position, and Munnerlyn returned a third-quarter interception 33 yards for a touchdown.
Thomas recovered a Seattle fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half, and he made an impressive tackle on the Seahawks' dangerous returner, Leon Washington, for no gain after a 51-yard punt by rookie Brad Nortman.
Fortunately for the Panthers, their scheduled Week 6 bye week could not come at a better time, with the team falling deeper and deeper into turmoil with each successive loss.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera insists that the season is not lost and that they can recover from a rocky start with 11 games to go in the regular season, but at some point, reality begins to settle in.
Despite all of the team's high hopes for a double-digit-win season and a playoff bid, the fact may be that the Panthers are not ready to win despite the desire to win they have expressed off the field.
Steve Smith may have said it best after Sunday's 16-12 loss to the Seahawks (via the Charlotte Observer):
“We want to win,” Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said. “We really do. We think we have the guys in here that can win but it’s not working out. It’s not happening. … It’s a snowball effect, and the ball is getting pretty big at the end of the hill.”
But what if the Panthers do not have the players, the coaches or the front-office leadership (see: Marty Hurney) to win now?
That is the question Carolina fans and local sports talk show hosts are discussing today and have been discussing ever since the Panthers' 36-7 Thursday night Week 3 loss to Eli Manning and the Giants.
For now, at least, everyone's position is secure, and the Panthers can hit the reset button on this season within an inspirational victory over the Dallas Cowboys in front of their home crowd—and likely 20,000 or more Cowboys fans—on October 21.
The playoffs look increasingly unlikely for the Panthers after their first five games of the season, but the goal in Carolina is to build a team suited for long-term success and to begin contending for divisional and conference titles in the next two or three seasons.
However, in the NFL's "what have you done for me lately?" culture, Carolina's fans, players and coaches want the Panthers to win now, and they will not settle for mediocrity.
Perhaps the Panthers' bye-week is just what the doctor ordered, but this is their last extended break of the season.
If they do not emerge from the break a much-improved, better prepared and physically tougher ball club, the 2013 NFL draft will be all Panthers fans have to look forward to.
And it is much too early in the season to begin thinking about the draft, though a couple more successful drafts and a change in the Panthers' free-agency strategy are likely what is needed to turn this team into a contender down the road.
At least there is good news for Carolina fans heading into Week 6 of the 2012 NFL season—it is impossible for the Panthers to lose this Sunday.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.
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