After a very disappointing start to what many felt was going to be a promising season, the Carolina Panthers (1-4) are headed into the bye week in search of answers. Many critics are quick to target Cam Newton as the main reason for the team's slow start.
Declaring Newton the scapegoat for the Panthers' shortcomings would make sense. He was coming off an impressive rookie campaign which saw him take home AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and set many records.
Regardless of the accolades, Newton has a strong desire to win and has proven to take losses very hard, if not personally. He is very tough on himself when he fails.
However, football is a team sport and there is no “I” in team. Newton cannot be held accountable by himself when the team as a whole has disappointed.
So which of Newton's teammates deserve just as much blame for their pitiful start?
It is too tempting to say that everyone is at fault and the Panthers need to go through an overhaul. In fact, players like Greg Olsen and Thomas Davis have played well.
There is no reason to doubt that Steve Smith is still as competitive and playing at a high level. Even Brandon LaFell is doing a good job when given the opportunity.
While there are units on this team that have under performed this year, there are a few players that just stand out.
First Line of Protection
It is always a great feeling when you have someone on your team making bold predictions. That tells you there is confidence in the locker room. It makes you feel even better coming from a veteran leader of the team and one who has been around awhile.
That is why Ryan Kalil deserves some of the blame. It has nothing to do with his prediction at the start of the season, but rather his play in general.
Kalil is a Pro Bowl center and an established leader on the line. He has not held the line together and the unit has allowed Newton to be victimized by blitz packages resulting in loss of yards, errant throws or sacks.
Kalil isn't the only one deserving of an epic fail on the line. Jordan Gross and Amini Silatolu have been less than spectacular this season. Gross has been beaten several times off the edge and without allowing Newton time to throw, the offensive scheme gets out of sync.
Then there is the rookie Silatolu. While many will say that yes, he is a rookie, it needs to be noted that he was taken in the second round and despite the fact that he attended a small FCS school, the Carolina front office saw enough potential in him to draft him relatively high.
All three of these of men were expected to protect their quarterback, open up running room and solidify a line that really had no pressing concerns during the offseason. They are a key reason to the offense's struggles and unless they fix their problems, the Panthers will struggle to move the ball.
Triple Trouble is in Trouble
When you have three running backs who could essentially be feature backs on any other team in the league, you would feel good about your chances of not only scoring points but leading the team to victory. That is not the case in Carolina.
The running game has yet to establish its dominance and has been lackluster at best. The only upside is the 4.3 yards per carry set by Jonathan Stewart and that is when he appears in games; which is three.
DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert aren't exactly doing much of anything to instill confidence in the running game as each has proven to be an unreliable target out of the backfield and prone to fumbling.
The argument can be made that Williams has shown some bursts here and there, but even when he is having a moderately decent game, the coaching staff has shown a tendency to deviate from the run and put the game squarely on Newton's shoulders.
Owned in the Trenches
The defensive line is a mystery in itself. One day they are bringing a lot of pressure and the next they can barely get into the opponent's backfield. Charles Johnson has started to come on in recent weeks and is doing his part, but in order for the line to effectively get pressure, he needs a little help.
Greg Hardy was expected to make a huge impact on the other side but hasn't fared too well. In fact, he seems to have better success when moved to the interior.
This is still a wait-and-see type of move but the combined efforts of Johnson, Hardy, Dwan Edwards and Ron Edwards is failing to limit the opponent's running game. Through five games, the Carolina defense has kept the opposition under 100 yards rushing only once...last week against Seattle.
With any luck, this will be the start of a turnaround the defensive front so desperately needs and if Luke Kuechly remains at the middle linebacker position, perhaps they will force teams to take to the air.
Vulnerable against the Pass
Josh Norman and Haruki Nakamura have been the focal point of mistakes, and for the latter, a culprit for the Panthers' heartbreaking loss in Atlanta two weeks ago. Both are very capable defenders, but their mistakes have taken a toll on the team's chances at winning.
Norman is a young rookie and, like Silatolu, hails from a FCS school. He was named an unlikely starter and has reminded everyone that he is taking on a huge learning curve from playing at a small school to matching up with the quality receivers at the pro level.
He has been overmatched and made his share of mistakes at times, namely drawing unnecessary penalties or allowing too much space between himself and a receiver.
Nakamura looked like a great signing during the free agent signing period, having backed up Pro Bowler Ed Reed in Baltimore.
Unfortunately, he hasn't done much to make people think he can be a reliable starter and as mentioned earlier, his performance against the Falcons not only allowed Matt Ryan to torch him a couple of times but essentially put them in field-goal range to win the game.
Nakamura went as far as to take responsibility for the loss. That being said, whispers for Sherrod Martin to reclaim the free safety position are beginning to turn into low grumbles.
The secondary had its question marks entering the season. It's not all that improved and if Norman and Nakamura don't get their acts together, they will find themselves standing on the sideline.
So what does it all mean?
Anyone who wants to lay the blame for Carolina's troubles solely on Newton needs to go back to the game tape. Yes, he has made his mistakes and yes, he may be in a slump. However, there are 10 other men with him on that field that need to do their job to help win games. There are 11 more on the other side of the ball.
Twelve of them have been identified as being responsible and it's almost a certainty that a case can be made for others not named in this article.
This team is good enough to win games. They should be a lot better this year compared to the six-win team that was fielded a season ago. When everyone is doing their job and firing on all cylinders, the Panthers' chances of winning increase exponentially.
When one fails, someone else has to pick up the slack. That is why Carolina is where they are at after one month of football.
There is still time. Hopefully, the bye week will be used to identify weaknesses and allow the players to clear their collective heads and realign their focus. Everyone from Newton to the backups needs to search deep down and discover a winning attitude.
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