It's Monday morning, you've dragged yourself to CSR to read this column, and we thank you. I'll do what the Panthers can't-- try to reward the fans. Thank you for being long suffering, thank you for putting up with this team, and thank you for remaining passionate, even in the face of inconceivable awfulness.
The thing that hurts so much is how predictable this all is. I can't recall a Panthers team more based in emotion. When things are going well it's all hand slaps and good times, but when things turn, the Panthers completely implode-- this is what we saw against the Buccaneers.
Early on Sunday's game Carolina got down on themselves. Tampa Bay jumped out to an early lead, and through body language, on-field play, and overall mood we saw apathy-- a rare trait, and something we didn't see from the Panthers, even during the 2010 season. Arm tackling started, coverage got lazy, protection showed no bite, and nobody was running with intent.
Captain Munnerlyn changed the tone with his pick-six. From that point the apathy was gone, and the team looked like they believed again. This self-belief carried over into the second half, and when paired with some sensible play calling the Carolina Panthers looked like a capable NFL team, who could actually be threatening.
Carolina were mediocre for much of the game, and with the exception of a few moments here or there, they didn't have any business leading. However, thanks to a complete Josh Freeman meltdown, a touchdown that was denied, and an ineffective Doug Martin they stood a chance. Ultimately, it wasn't enough-- and when the defense finally couldn't stop the Bucs, the offense couldn't put them away.
Thomas Davis-- Extremely Optimistic
If there was one player on defense who left his heart on the field it was TD. Finishing with 16 tackles, and a forced fumble, he was the player who set the defensive tone; if only there was a player on offense who did the same.
Luke Kuechly-- Extremely Optimistic
The Panthers' rookie is setting up a tent here, and yet again he's been all over the field making plays. Yes, he had a few errors-- but 'a few errors' puts him head and shoulders above most of the defenders. Another week, another 10 tackles.
Kuechly tackle projection: Up to 155
Brandon LaFell-- Extremely Optimistic
Now on pace for 700 receiving yards, LaFell has proven to be difference maker on offense. He looks to be faster this year, and his route running is vastly improved. Sure handed when it matters, LaFell has found a way to be a lone bright spot in so many games this year.
Cam Newton-- Somewhat Optimstic
Based on the vast majority of the game, he probably doesn't deserve this-- but hey, at least Cam didn't turn the ball over. For almost 50 minutes, Cam Newton had a completion percentage under 45%, and made the same mistakes we've seen all year. Thankfully three big receptions (32 yards to Greg Olsen, 30 yard screen to Jonathan Stewart, 29 yard TD to Brandon LaFell) really flipped the box score, and a casual observer might even think this was one of Cam's better games. Remember, this was against the worst pass defense in the NFL.
The biggest concern I'm seeing from Newton: He's starting to get gun shy about throwing down field. Whether the coaching staff are asking him to be conservative, or this is self-imposed , we're no longer seeing the 'gun slinging' from Cam that lead to his most successful games in 2011. The inaccuracy, and interceptions were far more forgivable when they were paired with gashing deep passes, picking yards up in bunches. Newton is showing less faith throwing it up to Steve Smith, and that is killing the big play ability of the offense.
Inability to make the Bucs pay-- Extremely pessimistic
This really falls on every one. The coaches, the players, the gameplan-- everything. The Panthers led a charmed life this game, they really did. When the referees called Doug Martin's goal line touchdown as a fumble they were very lucky. With a pick six, a chance fumble call, and another INT, Carolina should have hung 30 pts on the NFL's worst pass defense, and yet they couldn't.
Offensive line-- Extremely pessimistic
Nothing more to say.
Justin Medlock-- Extremely pessimistic
Olindo Mare much? Honestly, it's the same situation all over again. Three weeks, three misses. At least this settles the decision not to go for it in Chicago, because I'm not sure Medlock could have made it.
Rush offense-- Extremely pessimistic
Part of this (okay, a lot of this) is on the offense line. However, they can't be blamed for every single offensive woe. 15 attempts for 43 yards by Stewart is bad, 11 attempts for 40 yards by Newton is bad... and 7 attempts for 18 yards by Williams is, wow.
I just want to see improvement, is that too much to ask? The defense looks worlds better than 2011, and that's welcome given how little talent they have. I could handle 2-8, heck, I could handle 0-16 if I saw Newton throwing like he did last year, having confidence in his ability, and taking strides forward. It would be easy to pair that with a new coaching staff and chalk this up to 'bad coaches misusing him', but sadly it goes deeper than that.
Newton is still regressing, Byron Bell is regressing, the run game is non-existent, the special teams are abysmal. The sole bright spot for the long-term future is Luke Kuechly, and we can throw all our hope and good mojo that a new GM and staff can develop Cam and get this back on track.
That's all we have.