By Amy Lawrence
What in the world is wrong with the Carolina Panthers?
The team that rumbled to a 15-1 record a year ago now stands at 1-4 after losing to the Buccaneers on Monday night. The team that couldn’t lose at home a year ago just dropped its second game in Charlotte in three weeks. The three-time defending NFC South champs are now dead last in their division, facing long odds. Since 1990, only eight teams that started 1-4 recovered to make the playoffs, though among them, the Texans and Chiefs accomplished that feat last season.
It’s tough to call this a Super Bowl hangover for the Panthers because they didn’t win last February. They shouldn’t be complacent or satisfied, especially when their fearless leader is a self-described “sore loser.” Cam Newton can’t be thrilled with his team faltering and sputtering out of the gate, but the league MVP can’t help much until he clears concussion protocol. He’s been pummeled and knocked around all season, including eight sacks against the undefeated Vikings! The Falcons officially sent him to the sidelines as Newton meandered his way toward the end zone on a two-point conversion. That monster hit left the offense in the hands of veteran Derek Anderson.
Under Anderson’s leadership, Carolina could only muster 14 points against the Buccaneers. Turnovers were again the killer blow: Anderson threw a pair of interceptions — one in the end zone — and fumbled when he couldn’t decide between sliding and diving after scrambling for a first down. It’s easy to blame the backup quarterback for the most recent loss, but turnovers are the primary culprit for the Panthers’ early struggles. They are tops in the NFL in giveaways. Through five weeks, they’ve turned the ball over 14 times — after just 19 turnovers all of last season.
The Panthers wasted a career-high 181 receiving yards for their All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen and lost to a Bucs squad that only had a single win itself. To add insult to injury, Tampa Bay kicker Roberto Aguayo missed a pair of field goals before nailing the winner as time expired. After he misfired with 3:30 left in the fourth quarter, Carolina couldn’t pick up a first down and handed the ball right back. A demoralizing loss.
Fixing the NFC Champs is complicated. It’s not just a banged up quarterback or a plethora of turnovers. Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Stewart is also hurt, and the offensive line play is spotty. While the offense is scoring 24.6 points per game, the defense is giving up a lot more points than they did a year ago. The secondary is young and inexperienced after the departure of Josh Norman, and they haven’t found their stride yet.
The Panthers were hoping a veteran front seven could set the tone again this fall. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson spearhead what was one of the most physical, intimidating units in the league the last several seasons. Except Carolina is allowing nearly eight points per game more than a year ago. Head coach Ron Rivera believes the defense is pressing instead of staying disciplined. He points to guys trying to make plays outside the game plan, attempting to do too much.
The schedule through the first five weeks was tough with a Super Bowl rematch in Denver, the undefeated Vikings and the division-leading Falcons (to whom they surrendered 48 points and 300 yards receiving to Julio Jones). No rest for the weary, though. Up next is a trip to New Orleans to face the potent offense of Drew Brees in hostile territory. While Cam Newton ran and threw passes on Monday, the team doesn’t know if he’ll be cleared to play this weekend.
Make no mistake — it’s HARD to stay relevant in the NFL year after year. The Patriots make it look easy, but it’s not. To find perennial consistency like the Steelers, Packers, Broncos, or Seahawks, a million details must fall into place. And when you’re on top, everyone else is gunning for you.
As Olsen said Monday, “Nobody feels sorry for us.” No, the Panthers are on their own. They’ll get no help digging out of their deep hole, though they can look back at 2014 for inspiration. After limping to a 3-8-1 mark, they ran the table in December and won the NFC South. They also claimed the first playoff victory of the Ron Rivera-Cam Newton era. All hope is not lost; adversity often brings out the best in a locker room. But Carolina has no time to waste.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.