Panthers’ preseason goals slipping away

CHARLOTTE, NC — It’s about time that reality settles in with the Carolina Panthers: They aren’t going to the playoffs.

At least history says the odds are now stacked so high against the Panthers making the NFL’s postseason that it will take nothing short of a miracle for Carolina to turn its 1-5 start into anything other than also-ran status come Christmas.

Only one other team has started a season 1-5 and made the playoffs, and that was the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals, which actually were 1-6 before getting hot. But Cincinnati won a poor division, as evidenced by it being shut out in its playoff game.

Carolina won’t leap frog the Atlanta Falcons in the next two months, so they’d have to earn a wild-card spot, and given the teams well ahead of them, it just doesn’t seem plausible.

The club that boasted about itself as Super Bowl contenders in July still has plenty of the pieces that fueled that confidence. The problem, however, is some of the parts – center Ryan Kalil, linebacker Jon Beason – are shelved with injuries, and the other position groupings simply aren’t playing to the level of what was expected.

“We need to go out there and get some respect,” defensive end Greg Hardy said. “I think a lot of people don’t respect us and they shouldn’t respect us.”

That’s a tall order to ask of opponents right now. Carolina went 2-14 in 2010 before posting a surprising 6-10 mark last fall. But at 1-5 and lacking the spirit that helped make last year’s team embraceable by the community, appearances are surfacing that things are not headed in the right direction.

Carolina too often strikes as a rudderless group searching for safe grounding.

The secondary has struggled all year, and while it did some nice things in keeping Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo from going off, it remains a bungling unit that has a great deal to prove.

The wide receivers have dropped too many passes. Louis Murphy was brought over in part because of his excellent hands. At least that’s what Rivera kept saying in training camp. He dropped two passes right in his hands Sunday.

The game-planning hasn’t been nearly as open as it was a year ago. Yet, the ground game has only flourished occasionally. The team has around $12 million invested in its backfield, yet it can’t sustain much of anything on the ground and flat out avoided the ground attack in one sequence inside the 5-yard-line.

And that brings us to Cam Newton. To a man, this roster said in Spartanburg no way Newton would experience a sophomore slump. Couldn’t happen.

Offensive tackle Jordan Gross said Newton came to camp no different than when he left last winter despite doing a number of commercials and seeing his popularity soar in this region. Newton even received a louder roar of approval sitting in the stands at a Charlotte Bobcats game one night than Michael Jordan did.  

But Newton is experiencing a sophomore slump. There’s no other way around it. And it’s affecting every nook and cranny of this organization.

“I don’t know, I wish I could tell you,” Newton said when asked where the team goes from here. “But I can’t speak for later on down the road, right now I can only control Cameron Newton and I am continuously going to get better and get better and get better…

“Of course, for us the big picture is making the playoffs, but for us we have to start one play at a time and make the most out of each and every play.”

In the first six games of his NFL career last fall, Newton passed for 1,857 yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. Many of the picks were part of his growth and development, and newton clearly improved that part of his game over the final 10 contests.

Through the same number of contests this season, Newton has thrown for 1,154 yards – 703 fewer – and only four scores against five interceptions.

The entire team must perform at a higher level to make something of this season, but Newton has to make it more personal and lead by example and every other manner he can muster. Instead of showing lethargic and poor body language and giving half answers to questions, Newton needs to get ticked off and show some fire.

There are 52 other guys on the roster, and second-year coach Ron Rivera said the team has no choice but to “keep pounding away.”

Those Bengals 42 years ago kept pounding away and they turned a nightmare into a relative dream. Carolina has enough talent to turn things around, even if that postseason goal must be shifted to 2013.