CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The only consistency among the Panthers 2-3 start is the way they have won and lost games: two blowout wins paired with three close losses spoiled by miscues and inadequate offensive play.
The Panthers’ second-ranked scoring defense has been their backbone all season and it has given them a fighting chance in every game, but this team comes and goes with its offense. Everything offensively that’s come to define its successes has also come to define its failures. Red zone execution, fast starts and running the football are the three things that head coach Ron Rivera points to as excellent in his team’s wins and equally disheartening in its losses.
“It’s a combination of running the ball, getting the ball to the playmakers and having them have success early. A lot of it has to do with success early. In both those [wins], we had success coming out in the third quarter as well,” Rivera said. “When you break those things down and find out what’s different, you look at the red zone. In both those red zone instances, we didn’t have negative plays.
“But in the games where we didn’t score touchdowns in the red zone, we had major negative things. We just can’t put ourselves behind the eight ball.”
Starting fast is probably the most important thing for the Panthers – both in the first quarter and right after the half. They’ve scored one touchdown in the first quarter and two touchdowns in the third in each of their wins, but have a combined 10 points in the two quarters in their three losses.
Rivera has talked about how important it is to engage Newton early and praised the play calls against the Vikings which put the ball in Newton’s hands to run early. When he’s hot early, he’s as good as anyone and seems to ride the wave of momentum throughout. When he struggles early or has a teammate let him down (i.e. Steve Smith dropping a touchdown pass on the first drive against the Cardinals), the confidence seems to deflate and the offense sputters the rest of the day. Newton remains streaky at this point and this team too young to rally from a slow start.
“As you can see when we’re on, we’re on,” offensive guard Travelle Wharton said. “And our biggest thing is eliminate the mistakes and continue to grow.”
There are other similarities among the wins, too – like getting receiver Brandon LaFell involved. LaFell’s caught seven balls for 160 yards and three touchdowns in their two wins. In their losses, he has just 60 combined yards on eight catches and no touchdowns.
“I don’t think it’s just when I’m in the offense,” LaFell said. “I just think it’s when Cam’s spreading the ball around and everyone’s getting the ball – Ted (Ginn), (Steve Smith), (Greg) Olsen – I think when everyone’s involved and everyone’s getting the ball and we get in a flow, that’s when our offense looks way better.”
The offense looks way better, too, when the line is keeping Newton upright. The more time Newton has the more he’s able to go through his progressions and make plays. In three losses, the Panthers have given up 14 sacks, while the two wins have only seen Newton dropped twice. There have been injuries across the offensive line that have resulted in continuity issues that, in turn, have contributed to the inconsistent efforts, but with the lineup now seemingly set, the line believes it isn’t the liability it was in the losses.
“One of the things is you correct your mistakes and not make the same mistake twice. When you’re playing football, you got to correct that, build on it,” Wharton said. “That’s what we’ve done up front, working on the little things to make us better the next time we step out.”
All the players talk about the confidence they’re playing with now after Sunday’s 35-10 gashing in Minnesota, but that was the same mantra repeated after the 38-0 bashing of the Giants and nothing changed the following week.
So why might this dominant win be different?
“It adds confidence in a sense that just knowing how close we are. If we keep working and staying focused, we’re getting there,” Wharton said. “That’s the biggest thing about football, you’re always trying to get there. I don’t think you ever get there until you’re hoisting a trophy, but you’re always trying to get better. That’s been our goal – be better than we were yesterday.”
The added confidence helps, but it’s more about accountability, Newton says.
There’s an extremely fine line between winning and losing in the NFL and Rivera’s been preaching effort, preparation and execution as the keys to keeping the ball rolling.
“It’s no tricks, it’s no magical word, no magic play that’s going to put us over the hump each and every game,” Newton said. “It’s just everyone saying ‘Hey, this is my job – ready, break!’”
Newton knows he’s part of the solution for consistency, too. Rivera said the Minnesota win was one of Newton’s top two or three games as a Panther and pointed to his 79-yard touchdown throw to LaFell on which Newton hit his third progression on the play as evidence of his maturation. Still, Newton knows there’s room for improvement for this offense to become the consistent unit they’re looking for.
“It comes down to my drops,” Newton said. “I feel as if in games I can get lax in my drops and how it can differ from three yards to five yards. Accuracy, going through reads and for me, I think I’m staying on top of that with coaching, listening to coaching and coming in here each and everyday trying to get better at that.”
It’s a now-or-never situation for the Panthers. The NFC is down and they have a chance to really jump in the standings with two of the next three games at home, and they should be favored in each. The Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons are a combined 4-12 this year. Anything less than 2-1 through that stretch and you can pretty much write this team off.
Newton talks about the edge that home field gives them, but it hasn’t shown over the last three seasons (7-11 at home). It must now.
“We have to start protecting our house,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “If we want to get where we want to go, we have to take care of home.”