Grand expectations have turned into the harsh reality that the Carolina Panthers might not be ready to compete at a playoff level.
A fanbase that screamed playoffs during the offseason now just screams after a 1-4 start to the season has exposed weaknesses that seem far from quick-fix projects and more like major renovations.
It’s not easy to point towards the reason why things have gone painfully awry. There are myriad points of weakness on this roster, players that are either failing to live up to expectations or just aren’t good enough to succeed.
There are also game-plan issues, battles with injuries and a brutal early stretch on the schedule that exacerbated the weaknesses on this team and kept it from gaining any momentum.
Let’s take a look at the state of the Panthers as the team enjoys a bye week and begins preparation for a rebound in Week 7 against Dallas.
Tight end Greg Olsen is second on the team with 22 receptions and actually led the Panthers in Weeks 3 and 4 when he amassed 13 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown over that two-week period.
That trend should have carried over into Week 5, but Olsen was only targeted three times even though he ran into open spaces on multiple occasions against the Seattle Seahawks.
Not only is Olsen a more-than-capable pass-catching tight end, he’s benefiting from the Steve Smith effect. With most of the coverage focus from opposing defenses going towards stopping Smith, Olsen is being left open or mismatched to wreak havoc.
The spill-over of receptions when teams focused on Smith was supposed to help Brandon LaFell explode onto the scene in 2012, and he looked like he might just do that with a six-reception performance in Week 2.
LaFell is definitely talented enough to be that No. 2 target, but his play of late has tapered off. Whether he’s just not getting open or his quarterback and coaching staff lost a little faith in him after he publicly criticized a fourth-down call in Atlanta on the radio, isn’t the biggest point. One of the bigger needs for Carolina is a top-notch No. 2 receiver. LaFell showed glimpses of being that guy already. He now needs to string more together.
There’s a laundry list of negatives for the Panthers through five games, and it starts with the play of quarterback Cam Newton.
Is Newton trying to do too much with the football because he can feel that his team needs to be carried on his back? Is he crumbling under the pressure of an attempt to recreate his rookie, record-breaking season from a year ago?
Whatever is troubling Newton is dragging his performance down dramatically. He’s averaging almost 23 yards less per game through the air than he did last year and isn’t connecting on scoring passes with regularity. After throwing 17 touchdown passes as a rookie, Newton is on pace to toss 13 this year.
He’s also on pace to throw 16 interceptions (a slight improvement from 2011) and to fumble 15 times, which would be a ghastly degeneration from his five fumbles from a year ago.
Newton is making mistakes this year that many thought would be gone now that he had a year of experience under his belt. He looks more like a rookie quarterback in his sophomore season than he did as an actual rookie. Not only is that showing on his stat sheet, but it’s bleeding over into his mentality and the way he carries himself on the field and the sideline.
Newton has been a disappointment in 2012 after showing tons of upside last year and during offseason training programs. The Panthers can’t rebound until Newton rebounds. That’s just a painful truth.
Glass Half Full
Looking at the talent on this roster, one word comes to mind quickly: underperforming. There is so much talent—maybe not playoff talent yet, but surely not 1-4 talent either—that hope can be derived from the fact that soon, some of these players have to turn things around.
Newton has to be more of the player we saw in 2011, than what he’s showing through five games this year. Right? Smith, who had such a reemergence last season, should catch fire again soon. That’s what a player of his caliber does.
The stable of running backs—DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert—is far more powerful a unit than they’ve shown thus far. Williams and Stewart with Newton last season were one of the most feared backfields in the NFL. Stewart has been hampered by injuries and Williams is averaging less than four yards per carry
There’s crazy talent here and this offense should be extremely explosive. That’s got to turn around soon.
Glass Half Empty
What if Newton’s 2011 season was an aberration? In the grand scheme of things there isn’t much history to examine. He had one glamorous, Heisman-Trophy season in college where he led his team to a national title. Other than that, he was a junior-college kid.
It would surely set the Panthers back if that were the case.
And that’s not the only “what if” scenario. Concerns about Jon Beason’s health are real. He’s the cornerstone of the linebacker corps. Rookie Luke Kuechly showed promise against Seattle as he stepped in for Beason, but is he ready to run the middle of Carolina’s defense?
Carolina’s search for a cornerback opposite Chris Gamble is another area of concern. If that doesn’t happen—and if the safety position continues to be an area of weakness—this team could continue to tailspin.
These are all potential worst-case scenarios. Any one of them could get worse and hurt this team.
As bad as it seems right now at 1-4 entering their bye week, the Panthers can turn things around. The stretch of their next five games will speak volumes to whether this team is toast and will draft early in 2013, or can make a push towards respectability.
Carolina plays the Dallas Cowboys at home before making road trips to play the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins. The Panthers then return to Charlotte to host the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If Carolina can win three or four of those games, this season can be salvaged. If the Panthers post another five-game stretch like their first five games, it could get really ugly for this franchise.