The weekend felt over before it even began when news broke on Friday that Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was heading out of town to receive a third opinion on his still ailing foot. While he wasn’t counseled towards surgery, the impression that filtered through to the media was not one of immediate optimism. The Panthers were coming off of their worst loss in a year and seemed in desperate need of a quarterback with a higher floor than Kyle Allen to keep them relevant in the 2019 NFL season.
Allen, however, took the desperation out of the situation yesterday with a solid performance against an under rated Tennessee Titans defense. It wasn’t exactly a statement win, but it was enough to show the Panthers what winning football against good defenses is going to have to look like this year.
The coaching staff allowed the Titans to remain a threat far later in that game than was wise, but Tennessee’s pulse late in the fourth quarter had little to do with Allen’s performance. Instead, the young quarterback left fans with a feeling of potential optimism. That’s miles ahead of where the team was just a week—or even a day—ago.
Allen’s limits don’t have to hold the Panthers back
Perhaps the best thing that Allen did for the reputation of Panthers quarterbacks on Sunday was win while only completing 50% of his passes. He proved that completion percentage is such a facile argument for the quality of quarterback play.
Allen had a rough enough start that many fans were worrying he truly and irredeemably turned into a pumpkin in San Francisco. He went three for 11 with and interception and two sacks in his first four drives. Many of those incompletions were wildly, sometimes dangerously, inaccurate deep shots.
But then he returned half way through the second quarter and scored back to back touchdowns. In fact, Allen led the Panthers to touchdowns on four of their next five drives. I don’t know who said what to him, but they should do it again next week.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner assisted by calling more manageable intermediate passes that Allen was able to complete with precision. He also helped himself and his offensive line out by finally stepping up into the pocket during plays instead of running into pressure. He was a different quarterback and, despite Christian McCaffrey’s huge day, he was largely responsible for the Panthers being up 30-14 over the Titans in the fourth quarter.
While Allen’s limits as a deep passer are now plain to see on weeks worth of film, his ability to keep calm after mistakes and be accurate up to 15 yards down the field are enough to build an offense around. The Panthers already need to lean more on the strengths of their receivers and backs making plays in the short passing game. All they need is enough of a threat over the top to keep the safeties from cheating up on screens and sweeps. Allen’s ability to go past the first down marker should inspire enough honesty in opposing secondaries.
Allen’s accuracy issues may prevent him from having ‘it’ in the same way as MVP-caliber quarterbacks, but that doesn’t mean it has to stop him or the Panthers from having success if they stay in his lane.
That positivity requires the Panthers staff to quit their shit
The Panthers were a weirdly missed kick by Joey Slye from having a three possession lead over the Titans with six minutes left in the game. The Titans were three different missed field goals from a recently healthy Ryan Succop from it being a one possession game in the final minutes. Once again, the Panthers took a dominant defensive performance—including a first half shutout—that lead to a commanding lead and turned it into a skin-of-their-teeth victory. They easily could have lost to a team with an average kicking game.
Ron Rivera’s defense allowed yards in chunks where they had previously been racking up tackles for loss. Turner’s offense ran the ball so hard up the gut that I thought they were going to punt on second down.
Up 16 points with eight minutes left and the Titans driving, the Panthers forced a turnover that should have left fans breathing easy. Instead, the Panthers offense managed to pull of eight plays (five runs, two passes, and a punt) across two drives that took 2:52 off the clock with only 14 yards of offense and that missed field goal to show for it. Their defense, meanwhile, allowed two ten play drives for 121 yards, a touchdown, and a missed field goal in 4:54.
We are talking about a very different game with just a few different bounces when we could have been talking about a comfortable win in which those bounces never had the opportunity to happen. I applaud the initiative shown with the Colin Jones fake punt conversion. That was a blast, but that spirit disappeared once they had a ‘comfortable’ margin over the Titans. The Panthers need to realize that no lead is safe with their fourth quarter strategy and adjust accordingly.
This defense might go down as one of the Panthers best
It has been years since the Panthers have been able to rely on consistent pressure from their front seven and a speedy secondary to put on highlight reel performances week in and week out. Rivera knew he had some changes to make after 2018s lackluster existence. The results through eight weeks show that he knew what he was doing this offseason. For all that I may criticize the man for his situational decisions, he sure as hell can coach a defense.
The Titans were held to 3-of-11 on third down while giving up four sacks and three turnovers. What’s more is that it felt like an average game. You don’t have to twist your neck or squint to see the optimistic angle of this unit. It glows from every facet.
The team leader in sacks, Mario Addison, missed the game for personal reasons and the front seven didn’t miss a step. Christian Miller, who has been a heavy rotational piece, was absent due to an ankle injury and the team wasn’t gassed in the fourth quarter. Kawann Short has been gone for awhile and won’t return this season, but Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe have rendered his absence irrelevant.
The 2019 defense is deep and strong and probably impossible to keep together for the long run. Don’t worry about that. Just tune into watch them eat opponents every week. Units like this don’t happen every year, even if cap space allows a team to keep the whole band together.
There is still a Cam Newton-shaped shadow looming
Regardless of Allen’s successes so far, the NFC is shaping up as a terrifyingly competitive division. The wild card race is so tight at the top that the Panthers have to see taking the NFC South away from the 7-1 New Orleans Saints as the easier route to the play offs.
I haven’t seen enough from Allen yet to make me think he has what it takes to hang in the kind of do or die situations that sweeping the Saints will require. But you never know.
Newton is looking more and more like he won’t be a factor down the stretch for a Panthers team whose only real question is at quarterback. Allen, meanwhile, is hopefully making enough strides week to week to meet the Panthers staff half way in producing a reliable offense.
The absence of Newton from this season could easily linger as one of the greatest ‘what-ifs’ in franchise history. That will only happen if the team doesn’t give us something else to talk about through the offseason.
The Panthers are 5-3 through the easy part of their schedule. They have the Saints twice, the Seahawks, and the Packers (next week), coming up. That reliable offense needs to show up sooner rather than later. I don’t know if defenses still win championships, but I do know that the Panthers still have a chance. If Allen can be his second quarter self from yesterday then this team has every reason they need to feel dangerous against anybody.