First things first: I am turning against Ron Rivera. Not necessarily because of his failure to "be aggressive" and go for an extra first down or TD instead of kicking the field goal. Honestly, the Panthers' offense isn't exactly a well-oiled machine right now and pretending otherwise gets you nowhere. The Panthers' defense SHOULD have been able to stop a rookie QB from going 80 yards with no timeouts and less than 2 minutes. Unfortunately, since Rivera is a defense guy and the team has emphasized defense over offense since hiring him because that is what he has demanded, then the failure of the defense to seal the victory after the offense put him in position to win is on him. The previous week the defense played well enough to win only to be let down by the offense. This recurring theme where one side of the ball does enough to win (although to be fair, usually just enough with no room for error) but the other side gives it away has to be blamed on coaching. Yes, there are issues with personnel, but the coach A) has a role in selecting the personnel and B) has the ability to match the proper personnel with the right game situations. A consistent failure to do this, including a consistent failure to identify players that are needed to help win close games, falls on the head coach.
Second, Rivera's strategy in his first two games were lacking. Against Seattle there is this dink and dunk strategy instead of taking shots downfield even though the Panthers had absolutely no pass rush due to injuries. Even if the conservative strategy was good for the first half, they could have tried it in the second half when it was clear that Cam had time to throw the ball. But in the Buffalo game, because everyone in the NFL knew that the Panthers were going to take shots downfield because A) failing to do so against Seattle only put 7 points on the board and B) Rivera helped the other team gameplan by stating through the media that they were going to take shots down the field. But because Buffalo's best pass rushers were present, Newton was sacked 6 times and hurried/pressured/hit a lot more trying to get the ball downfield. This was the result of focusing on his own team rather than gameplanning for the opposition.
Also, the idea that the deep ball was going to be effective was ridiculous anyway. Here are the reasons:
0) Buffalo knew it was coming as was stated earlier. It was an obvious flaw from the first game that pretty much anyone could recognize, and Rivera removed any doubt with his comments to the press. It is not as if Buffalo doesn't doesn't read the newspapers or the Internet to find out clues about the upcoming game. Rivera should have stuck with the generic coachspeak non-informative platitudes, or been intentionally cagey with talk about how the Panthers need to stick with the running game (which is true), Cam needs to improve his accuracy (also true) and the WRs need to get open and hold onto the ball (ditto) and the RBs need to eliminate turnovers (again ditto) in order to make Buffalo think that they were going to stick with a game plan that nearly worked and just try to execute it better rather than telegraph to the world that they were going to try something different. As Buffalo knew - again thanks in large part to Rivera - that the deep ball was coming, they were ready for it. They dialed up heavy pressure, they matched up their best pass rusher against Carolina's weakest link in pass protection (for which Carolina failed to adjust incidentally) and they smothered WRs on downfield routes with double, sometimes triple coverage.
1) Lack of practice. Carolina ignored the deep ball with the starting offense in all the preseason games, choosing instead to focus on the running game and getting the ball to Greg Olsen. In the first game, more of the same: running the ball, targeting Olsen and short passes. Expecting to just put it in during the week on the road against a team with a very good front seven and get the accuracy, timing, protection etc. wasn't realistic. The coaches really should have stuck with a modified version of their Seattle gameplan and hoped for fewer drops. But the real problem was a flawed preseason plan that gave the Panthers no realistic plan of competing early in the season. The fault of that? Coaching.
2) Poor blocking. The vertical game requires the OL to be able to hold their blocks for a half-second to a second longer for the deeper routes to develop and guys to get open downfield. Now if you have a devastating short and intermediate passing game this isn't necessary, because the defense will try to stop the intermediate passes and the short passes + run after the catch first, and this allows the WRs to "make a move" downfield and get past the coverage real fast. The Panthers don't have this, so they need to be able to hold their blocks until someone gets free downfield, and also at times a bit longer so the QB will have the chance to give up on the deep play and go to his #2 WR or check down. Of course, this did not happen Sunday. The times when Newton wasn't hit or running for his life almost immediately, he didn't have time to set his feet to make an accurate throw. And checking down when the deep routes were covered - which is important because it can get you a fresh set of downs - wasn't an option. Defenders were coming at Newton so quickly and from so many angles that all he could do was just lob it downfield and hope for a good outcome. Yes, it is good that despite all of the throws under pressure and what amounted to throwaways resulted in balls that were thrown too long - making them uncatchable - rather than too short which often leads to INTs, especially the way that the Bills had the Panthers' WRs blanketed downfield.
3. Bad WRs. You can get away with this (maybe) if the protection is good, or if you are dominating with the running game to the point where the DBs are more concerned with run support than the deep passing game. This is little different from how some teams overcome below average blocking with excellent WRs that separate from coverage and get upfield lightning fast. But with no protection and a running game that is merely good and not dominating like Carolina, the WRs aren't going to suddenly start making plays downfield because the offensive coordinator is dialing those plays up. Look at what the Panthers have here.
Steve Smith: 34 years old and undersized. Honestly, probably better suited for the slot at this point in his career. The problem is that his being better than all the other WRs combined forces him to not only play outside but be the #1 WR. Brandon Lafell: 13 receiving yards in 2 games. Ted Ginn/Domenik Hixon: that the Panthers need so much out of players that have done so little elsewhere is precisely the point. Also, Ginn in particular is one-dimensional so it isn't as if you are exactly going to have the element of surprise or even ambiguity on your side when he is on the field and the ball is coming his way. Even better: they are battling for the 3rd WR position even though neither really has the skills for the slot in the NFL. Armanti Edwards: Yay! I've drawn an NFL paycheck for four years! How cool is that! Greg Olsen: an above average TE, but a better weapon in the short/intermediate passing game than down the field which is why he isn't an elite TE.
So, the deep ball isn't going to work, guys. The Panthers just don't have the players. The issue is finding what would work. Here's a (desperate) proposal: Start Ted Ginn. I know that Smitty and Cam are still in LaFell's corner, but they are players, not coaches. This was supposed to be the most critical stretch (avoiding starting out in a hole again) of his breakout season/contract year and the guy is almost invisible. As for the possession WR role in the offense that LaFell is supposed to play ... give it to Olsen. That way, you have 2 big play guys on the outside and Olsen to move the sticks. I know, Ginn is not a starting WR in the NFL. But neither is LaFell. That is the whole point. But with Ginn, secondaries have to respect his speed. Meanwhile with LaFell, you are left with merely hoping that today is the one day this season that the guy is going to actually make a play that matters. I am not going to claim that this will turn the Panthers' offense into a juggernaut. It might not even work. But when things aren't working - and the Panthers' offense hasn't been for two seasons - it is the duty of the coaching staff to try something different. After all, it isn't as if we are talking about benching some franchise cornerstone here, but rather moving on from a guy whose been given every opportunity for 4 years and still hasn't turned the corner. And besides, it isn't as if you won't still be able to bring LaFell back into the game in 3 WR formations (in which either Ginn or Smitty would move to the slot).
So dink and dunk (sort of, a few more yards down the field than actual dink and dunk) to Olsen, shots downfield to Ginn hoping that something happens, and getting the ball to Smith in space for some YAC opportunities. If Hixon and LaFell can contribute some how and some way (who knows, maybe LaFell would be more productive in a lesser role that better suits him) then even better. That is basically all that the Panthers have, and it would work better than what they are doing now. Not enough to make the Panthers a great or even an average offense, but probably enough to turn around their pattern of blowing close games. 14 games left, and if the Panthers produce 9 wins and 5 blowout losses in them, then that has to count for progress.