There is no escaping that Cam Newton had a bad day in more ways than one yesterday. His four interceptions were at least half his fault and his shoulder isn’t right yet. The Panthers have been giving him an extra day off from throwing every week in practice and he has responded with posting career highs in efficiency —yesterday excluded— but there was clear regression in his ability to put power and touch behind his throws as his 41 passing attempts added up against Tampa Bay. Cam has had the weight of this team on his shoulders for years and we can no longer ignore that it is getting to him.
What we also can’t do is give up on Cam. Let’s go back to Sunday morning when Cam had a career low touchdown to interception ratio or a career high completion percentage. He still completed almost 69% of his passes yesterday which is technically good. His struggles this season have come when he has been asked to throw the ball 40 times or more in a game.
He may never throw another 80 yard bomb to Ted Ginn, Jr. He may be relegated to running an offense that butters its bread within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. His success this year should slow us down from judging him off of one game. A short and intermediate Cam is a whole new Cam. If we, as fans, have given Ron Rivera eight years to figure out how to stop calling soft zones then surely we can give Cam at least one more season of trying to play with an entirely new kind of decision making.
We’ve talked a lot about tipping points this season. Each game has had it’s shares of errors; the errors responsible for a loss, the tipping points, deserve the most attention. To me, that has been the consistent errors. Typically, that comes down to coaching — either doing it wrongly or doing it poorly. Yesterday featured so many players making bad plays or getting injured that the coaches didn’t really get a chance to lose the game.
This was the first game where Newton made the mistakes that broke the Panthers chances. All year, the 2018 Carolina Panthers have been a team of mistakes and missed opportunities. Yesterday that added up to being the worst team in the NFC South. I make that qualification because they lost a football game in convincing fashion to what is probably the actual worst team in the NFC South, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Panthers fans can take solace in the fact that their team still flashed great potential while being completely unable to get out of their own way. They continued to show, as they have throughout their four game losing steak, that they are a uniquely talented team. That isn’t limited to Newton anymore, either. This offense has everything it needs short of a pass protecting offensive line.
Christian McCaffrey is a beast. D.J. Moore is both the best receiver the Panthers have fielded since Steve Smith and an actually great receiver. Curtis Samuel and Devin Funchess can excel in their roles. Jarius Wright is under contract through 2020. Ian Thomas has the makings of an impressive tight end. They should be able to manage an off day from Cam. If he plays at “game manager” level, they should be fine. Four sacks and four interceptions are obviously not that level. But no offense is going to win a game on their worst day.
The defense is similarly equipped. Captain Munnerlyn was probablythe third best corner of the past 15 years in Carolina prior to the arrival of James Bradberry and Donte Jackson. He isn’t close to cracking the starting line-up now. Mike Adams and Eric Reid are the best pair of safeties the Panthers have seen since they saw Haruki Nakamura get torched by Julio Jones and Matt Ryan. They still have generational linebackers, even if the depth chart spans generations. The difference between the Panthers and a good team is that they got older without getting better at defensive end.
The defensive line and the offensive line are the two biggest personnel issues facing this team going forward. That is two main problems for the Panthers’ management, not a thousand.
Ryan Kalil is probably retiring, Thomas Davis too. But those are individual players they need to replace, not position groups they need to overhaul. They have the draft and free agency left to address them. This doesn’t have to be a full rebuild.
David Tepper is an unknown commodity right now. What he does this season could define the franchise for years to come. It will be what we remember more than one bad loss to the Bucs.
The Panthers may be led by new faces by the time Tepper is done breaking down this season, but they won’t be a whole new team. They’ll have the opportunity to become a better team. I’m optimistic they won’t miss it.