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Monday Morning Optimist: This doesn’t have to be the 2018 Steelers game

It’ll be up to Ron Rivera to hold his team together.

Carolina Panthers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers got aggressively out coached and out played yesterday against the San Francisco 49ers. The vaunted Carolina defense allowed the 49ers to score more points than any team in that franchise since 1993. The loss that dropped them to 4-3 felt, in a lot of ways, like the 2018 loss that dropped those Panthers to 6-3 and marked the end of their season.

The 49ers scored an absurd number of points, with even their fourth string running back scoring with ease against the Panthers first string defense. The Panthers offense was hapless outside of the occasional Christian McCaffrey highlight. The embarrassing, team deflating level of loss that was suffered both at Pittsburgh and at San Francisco is a hard thing to recover from. For all their similarities, those two losses don’t have to mean the same thing. The Panthers could choose to rebound from this loss the way they did to another humiliation they suffered in 2014.

The Panthers defense can bounce back

For one thing, the Steelers plain beat the pants off of the Panthers in 2018. The 49ers used an unending campaign of misdirection and counter plays to take advantage of a specific trait of the Panthers defense—the aggressive pursuit by their front seven. Ron Rivera’s teams have never been notable for their mid-game adjustments and so that one trait, which has won several games this season, became a fatal flaw.

There are few playcallers as talented and creative as Kyle Shanahan, so the fear that this will happen again on a consistent basis is unwarranted as yet. The Panthers aggression, meanwhile, is something that should rarelybe a weakness. Most other NFL teams aren’t capable of the kind of tactical performance the 49ers just displayed.

If Ron can hold the morale of the team together then they will have the opportunity to bounce back.

Cam Newton is close to his return

That Steelers loss last season was when we really lost Cam, whether the he or the coaches were able or willing to notice it or not. The biggest reason why the loss to the 49ers doesn’t have to have the same effect on this team is because they aren’t losing their leader as a consequence. Indeed, they might be getting him back regardless of yesterday’s results.

Newton was seen on the field throwing passes during warm ups before the game. That’s no guarantee that he will be back by next week’s game against Tennessee, but it is the most visible progress we have seen from the Panthers quarterback so far.

Kyle Allen’s defenders had held onto the hope that he would retain his job over a healthy Newton because all he did was win and he never threw an interception. Now that those disingenuous arguments have been rendered moot, we can thank Allen for being a well above average quarterback. We can also acknowledge that his inability to push the ball down field is not a quality that will allow for the Panthers long term success.

Cam is coming back soon and, if nothing else, he has Allen to thank for keeping the Panthers on the cusp of relevancy during his absence.

There’s an elephant in the coaches box

The return of a healthy Newton may be the prescription to cure the ills of this offense. It may also be the proof that the Panthers have a coaching problem.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner was the reason for the renaissance of Newton’s passer rating last season, at least before his injury tanked it.

This season he has drawn a substantial amount of criticism for his situational play calling. Yesterday, he earned criticism for his game plan.

His short yardage play calls have left a lot to be desired, but he had the ready made excuse of an offensive line that was a revolving door trying to protect a back up quarterback. That excuse fell a little flat yesterday. The Panthers and the 49ers both had suspect offensive lines. Both had offenses that weren’t known for lighting up the score board.

Carolina tried to run the ball into the teeth of the best defense in the NFL and balance that with deep throws on a windy day. These throws were attempted, it should be noted, with Daryl Williams starting again at right tackle. These throws were attempted, it should be noted, by a guy who has struggled throwing anything deeper than ten yards all season.

Williams was quickly benched so that Taylor Moton could be shuffled back to the right side and Dennis Daley could take over on the left. Williams doesn't have the agility any more to be a successful tackle. Daley has at least shown some promise at the position. None of them could have been reasonably expected to hold up against the ferocity of the 49ers talented pass rush.

Allen, meanwhile, threw his first three interceptions in the NFL. But, I guess he didn't fumble. That is mathematically impressive when you add the history from his first three games this season to the six sacks he took in the first quarter of this game.

The 49ers game plan was a master class in misdirection, counter plays, and taking advantage of skill players’ speed in space. They ultimately kept the ball on the ground, and scored there, more than they aired it out. It would have been the perfect game for a team with a suspect pass protecting unit and a limited quarterback facing a top defense on a windy day. In other words, San Francisco executed the game plan that the Panthers should have.

So, yeah, let’s maybe keep an eye on Norv.

Footwork is going to become absolutely key

The Panthers have to learn how to take one step forward without taking two steps back. Right now that means making absolutely sure that Newton is as healthy as he can possibly be before stepping back into a game. A 99% Cam sits behind Kyle Allen against the Titans where a 100% Cam starts.

This is the opposite of the ethos that saw McCaffrey receiving carries in the fourth quarter while the team was down 30 points. It is one that values the franchises long term assets and it is an ethos that should make sense to Rivera, even if he does find his seat warming. The end of this season is still a long term. There are ten games left to play.

By now you have heard Greg Olsen calling yesterday “the ultimate team meltdown.” Play that clip for me in a few years and I will have trouble pinning the moment to any one of the ultimate meltdowns the Panthers have faced in recent years. Last season that meltdown, combined with a variety of injuries, derailed the whole season. In 2014, during my favorite season of all time, it didn't.

Those Panthers lost 45-21 to the Eagles at home on Monday Night Football. They lost so badly that Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden started making banana smoothies in the broadcast booth. They fell to 3-6-1 after that loss and then went 4-2 down the stretch to claim the NFC South division title.

All three losses were difficult for Panthers fans to watch. The two from seasons past saw their teams spiral into vastly different directions. At 4-3 and on the cusp of getting Newton back, the 2019 Panthers get to choose how they respond to this one. They get to choose if they still want to be contenders,