During the first half of the 2011 season, the Carolina Panthers defense wasn’t very good and their special teams were anything but. There was one bright spot, though: The offense was potentially turning into something special.
Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, the Panthers defense and special teams were who they’ve been, but disturbingly -- the offense took an unpleasant trip back in time to 2010.
Carolina was shutout at halftime and finished without a touchdown.
They rarely threatened to stretch the field.
At the two-minute warning, there may have been more bodies on the sidelines than in the stands.
His replacement came off the bye week preaching a philosophy of a "new season". Ron Rivera sure could use a mulligan."It is hard when you take a step back, especially after the things we had done in the first eight games," Rivera said. "To have this type of game coming off a bye, it is bewildering. It’s disappointing. It’s not acceptable, starting with me."
While the blame of the 30-3 loss may start with Rivera, there’s plenty to go around.
On offense, potent turned into inept. Gone were the big plays. Cam Newton turned into a check-down machine, and that’s when he actually had time to throw. Newton was sacked a season-high five times with four of those sacks coming on first down.
Perhaps someone with the Titans put on tape of the Panthers first eight games and noticed an obvious trend: Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski isn’t fond of running the football -- especially on first down.
Tennessee’s game-plan of blitzing on first down against Carolina’s overwhelmed offensive line put Newton in constant duress. The sacks, combined with a handful of penalties, forced the Panthers into numerous third-and-long situations. Their third down conversion rate for the game? A paltry 3-for-14.
The NFL’s fifth-ranked offense was shut down. The league’s most exciting rookie morphed into just another rookie quarterback. It was 2010 all over again.
"There’s no excuses, we just got outplayed today, simple and plain," Newton said. "This can’t happen, this is embarrassing."
That’s the word Newton used again and again in his post game press conference -- embarrassing. But early in the first quarter, before it was apparent just how embarrassing the day would be, Newton and the Panthers threatened to tie the game at 7. They drove from their own 20 yard line to the Titans 17. Then, Greg Olsen fumbled away the opportunity.
"It was just an overall pathetic effort by us. It started out early with me fumbling," Olsen admitted. "You catch a first down and you fumble and it’s unacceptable. It starts there and it snowballed on us."
Actually, the snowball started its descent down the hill before Olsen’s turnover. Minutes earlier, Tennessee’s Marc Mariani took a Jason Baker punt 79 yards, the third time the Panthers have allowed a punt return touchdown this season.
It was also more of the same for the Panthers defense, also known as an opposing running back’s best friend. The slow-starting Chris Johnson ran for a season-best 130 yards, finally earning some of that huge contract he received in September.
The phrase "offense, defense and special teams" is uttered at least 100 hundred times per season in every NFL locker room. Sunday, the Panthers were badly beaten in all three phases.
"We got pushed all over the field from the opening punt return to, pretty much, 50 seconds before the 4th quarter ended," Panthers WR Steve Smith said.
Smith, who was held to just 33 yards, did some pushing back in that final minute. A scuffle with Titans CB Cortland Finnegan was one of several chippy moments long after the game had been decided.
The Panthers played eight games previously and had opportunities to win each one. Against the Titans, a complete meltdown led by a suddenly incompetent offense, gave them no chance.
"Most of our losses this year have been where I felt like we went down fighting," Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "We went down fighting in the end but not the kind of fighting you want."