The Panthers' record of 2-6 simply doesn’t do them justice. The schedule has been difficult, and injuries have certainly hurt, but that doesn't tell the whole story.
Most of the blame for the disappointing results in the win-loss column has to do with errors that are easy to avoid, regardless of this team’s youth or how bad it was a year ago.
The following are four things Carolina can and should fix. Without these issues, the Panthers will stop just scaring teams and start beating them, week in and week out.
Carolina’s offense, currently fifth in the league in yards per game, is widely recognized as one of the most explosive and dangerous in the league. The Panthers are also fifth in passing yards per game and are now eighth in rushing yards per game after early difficulty running the football.
And yet Carolina’s just 16th in the most important offensive statistic of all—points scored, with 23.4 per game.
Somehow, despite the Panthers' ease moving down the field, they’ve scored more than 30 points only once. This team has improved in the red zone since getting only three touchdowns in eight trips inside the 25-yard line against Arizona and Green Bay, but it still hasn’t learned how to finish drives.
Anyone who thought those struggles were behind the Panthers found out otherwise against Minnesota, when a promising drive toward a game-winning touchdown backed up because of a crucial hold, then disintegrated when Olinde Mare shanked a 31-yard chip shot that would have forced overtime.
Few things hurt the cause worse for young teams learning how to win than penalties. No team better exemplifies that than Carolina, the fourth-most penalized team in the league. And it’s not like they’ve been harmless false start flags—time and again, holding calls, among other penalties, have stymied Carolina and spoiled prime scoring opportunities.
One example was a crucial hold on left tackle Jordan Gross late in the first quarter against Green Bay. Despite facing 1st-and-goal from the 3-yard line, after the penalty, that drive ended with a field goal and a lead of 13-0, instead of 17-0.
As mentioned in the previous slide, the hold against Smith late in the Minnesota game was even more costly. A crucial touchdown catch by Jeremy Shockey against Chicago was called back on a questionable offensive pass interference penalty in another narrow loss.
Few things would benefit this team more than getting rid of penalties, especially ones like those that have essentially, or literally, taken points off the board in losses to Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota.
Few special teams units have been worse than Carolina’s, and I’m not talking about Olinde Mare’s field-goal kicking. The return game has been a complete nonfactor, as Carolina’s longest kickoff return has gone for all of 31 yards and Armanti Edwards’ longest punt return covering a whopping 14 yards.
Sadly, the coverage has arguably been worse. The Panthers have already given up two punt returns for touchdowns, one each to Arizona’s Patrick Peterson and Chicago’s Devin Hester. Hester also ran a kickoff back 78 yards in the loss to the Bears.
The Panthers desperately need to make some noise of their own returning kicks and punts, or at the very least, cut down on the big returns for the opposition.
I have saved the obvious for last. While this one is neither inexcusable nor easily correctable, it's nevertheless hard to ignore.
The difficulties stopping the run really shouldn’t be surprising anybody. Before the season, the team’s run D promised to have its ups and downs. The line backing core of Thomas Davis, Jon Beason and James Anderson appeared to be a strength. But with a D-line set to consist of rising star defensive end Charles Johnson, veteran Ron Edwards, and unproven rookies and other young players next to and behind them, this front seven wasn’t exactly expected to dominate.
With Edwards’ season-ending injury in the preseason, followed by the losses of Jon Beason and Thomas Davis in Weeks 1 and 2, Carolina is badly undermanned at virtually every position in the front seven, with the exception of Johnson and Anderson at end and outside linebacker.
Rookie defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua are showing flashes, and the backups at the linebacker positions are starting to improve, but it seems like another player is injured every week. Backup linebacker Thomas Williams was the latest example of this when the team placed him on IR Tuesday with a neck injury.
Despite the attrition, the Panthers did a nice job bottling up Minnesota’s superstar running back Adrian Peterson, and if they can slow down AP, they should fear no one going forward.
An interesting possibility is the idea of Cam Newton and the offense playing keep-away. If Carolina can bleed the clock on scoring drives with any consistency, the scoreboard will put the ground game on the back burner, which is exactly what happened against Washington.
While Tim Hightower’s third-quarter injury was the biggest reason the Redskins stopped running the ball down the stretch, handoffs undoubtedly lost their appeal after three straight Panthers drives—two of which consumed at least 5:57 of clock—ended in touchdowns. If the Panthers can jump out to big leads early, they can stop the run the same way the Colts and Saints won Super Bowls in 2006 and 2009—without stout front sevens—by forcing teams to play catch up.