Over the first two weeks of the 2017 season, the Carolina Panthers rode stout defensive efforts to victories over the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills. The team allowed just six points combined in those contests, and that stinginess was enough to mask the biggest problem facing them.
In Sunday's home drubbing by the New Orleans Saints, however, the dam broke. The defense faltered, allowing 34 points to the Saints. The offense, as it has most of the season, struggled in a big way. And the root of those struggles isn't at all hard to pinpoint.
Quarterback Cam Newton has not played well at all. With the offense stuck in neutral as a result and the Panthers in about as much trouble as a 2-1 team can be, it's fair to ask if Carolina's "new normal" with the 2015 NFL MVP has put the team on the road to nowhere in 2017.
Simply put, the way the Panthers are handling their dinged-up quarterback isn't working. Newton isn't getting better. He's getting worse. And as he is, Carolina's odds of challenging the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South are dwindling by the week.
While the Indianapolis Colts decided to shut Andrew Luck down until his surgically repaired shoulder has healed fully, the Panthers took a different path. Despite the fact that Newton had very few reps in training camp and the preseason, he was on the field in Week 1. Despite the fact that he's not throwing much in practice during the week, he was out there in Week 2 and Week 3 as well.
As Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer reported, head coach Ron Rivera admitted Newton's lack of practice time hasn't been ideal.
"It’s the same thing we went through through training camp. You want to shake (the rust) off. You want to get him out there," Rivera said. "But what you don’t want to do is for the arm not to have a chance to rest."
It's a similar philosophy to what the team adopted last year to get a dinged-up Newton to the finish line of a wildly disappointing season.
The problem is it isn't working one bit better this year than it did in 2016.
|Cam Newton's Struggles|
|Pro Football Reference|
After leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl two years ago, Newton's numbers were down across the board last season—at least in part because for much of the season he clearly wasn't 100 percent.
Newton isn't close to 100 percent now, either, and it shows. He's completing at least 60 percent of his passes for just the third time in his career, but that's because most of the passes are of the "dink and dunk" variety. After completing 17 of 26 passes for just 167 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions against the Saints, Newton is on pace to set career lows in yards per attempt and touchdowns and throw nearly as many interceptions as he did as a rookie.
Even worse, today's stinker came against a Saints defense that entered Week 3 allowing over 380 passing yards a game. In a Week 2 loss to the New England Patriots, the Saints allowed three touchdown passes in the first quarter.
But Sunday, the Saints looked like the "No Fly Zone," because just as he has all season, a rusty Newton repeatedly missed open receivers.
Newton himself allowed to Person last week that he's misfiring on throws he has to make.
"Missing layups like that, it’s uncalled for," Newton said. "I wish I had about two or three balls back, but that’s in every single game. You know with those balls completed, the outcome of the game is potentially different."
Per Max Henson of the team's website, Newton was singing a similar refrain after Sunday's loss:
Max Henson @PanthersMax
Cam Newton: "It's gut-check time for a lot of people, including myself. Things on the offensive side have to be better."2017-9-24 21:17:26
However, just because Newton sees the problem doesn't mean there's anything he can really do about it—especially with limited practice time during the week.
In Newton's defense, the problems in the passing game go beyond the quarterback. Newton has already lost his favorite target (tight end Greg Olsen) to a broken foot that landed him on injured reserve. Now, top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is likely headed for an MRI after injuring his knee against the Saints.
There's no guarantee that Benjamin will miss significant time, but if he does, it's just one more piece of evidence pointing toward a harsh reality for the Panthers.
The team needs to seriously consider shutting Newton down until he has a realistic shot at being effective on Sundays. Until the soreness in his shoulder subsides enough that he can put in the practice time that's so vital to establishing the offensive rhythm that Carolina has zero semblance of at present.
Is Carolina any kind of playoff contender with Derek Anderson under center? No. But here's a news flash—it isn't with half a Newton, either, any more than it was last year. NFL teams aren't stupid—they can see Newton's problems as easily as we do. They know he can't consistently challenge them downfield, so defenses are just going to cheat closer to the line of scrimmage to take away the short stuff.
This certainly wasn't the situation the Panthers wanted to be in. Not after last year's faceplant. This year was supposed to be more about a rebound to 2015 than a repeat of 2016.
But pretending the problem isn't there—that right now their star quarterback isn't a shell of what he's shown to be capable of—doesn't change the reality of the situation they're in.
The Panthers have a decision to make. Face that reality and change how they are handling Newton, or keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
That second one is Einstein's definition of insanity.