The Carolina Panthers have seen better days.
Through the first quarter of the season, the reigning NFC Champions are reeling at 1-3 and look nothing like the team that went 15-1 in the regular season en route to a Super Bowl run last year.
Yes, three of those losses came to teams that are a combined 11-1 to start the season, including the unbeaten Minnesota Vikings and Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, but it’s how the team has looked in those losses that’s troubling.
It’s clear the Super Bowl hangover is in full effect. So, what’s wrong with the 2016 Panthers?
Not the same Newton
First off, franchise quarterback Cam Newton isn’t playing like the reigning NFL MVP.
He has eight touchdowns and five interceptions with a paltry 80.2 passer rating and 58 percent completion percentage through four games this season. He’s also been battered and beaten more than any quarterback not named Andrew Luck. Opponents have sacked Newton 13 times and racked up 31 quarterback hits, second only to the Colts’ Luck (34). Some of those are a result of poor play from the offensive line, while others rest on Newton holding the ball too long and the receivers’ inability to get open.
To make matters worse, Newton suffered a concussion in the loss at Atlanta and it’s highly unlikely he’ll suit up on Monday night against Tampa Bay. The Panthers should sit him at least this week — and maybe longer. Linebacker Luke Kuechly missed three games last season due to a concussion.
Sign of hope: Newton has shown the ability to bounce back after a tough start. He had nine touchdown passes and seven interceptions through six games in his historic 2015 season. From there, he had 26 touchdowns and three interceptions.
‘You get what you pay for’
That was what Josh Norman said earlier this week on ESPN’s The Dan Le Batard Show when asked about how the Panthers allowed Falcons receiver Julio Jones to rack up 300 receiving yards.
In an effort to save money, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman decided to let the Pro Bowl cornerback walk in the offseason. Now, it appears we’re seeing the cost of that move. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan torched the Panthers for 503 passing yards last week and Jones had a field day against the squad’s young cornerbacks — James Bradberry, Bené Benwikere and Daryl Worley.
The performance prompted the Panthers to cut Benwikere on Friday and promote Zack Sanchez, the third cornerback Carolina drafted. I’m not so sure about that move. Benwikere has been successful as a nickel corner, and if Norman was still with the Panthers it’s hard for me to believe Benewikere would now be without a job.
But the poor pass defense isn’t all on the cornerbacks. The play at free safety has been atrocious, shown by the Panthers’ desperation on Sunday when they decided to play newly acquired Michael Griffin for 34 snaps — more than Tre Boston and Colin Jones.
Sign of hope: Barring a trade or signing a veteran, these are the corners Gettleman rolled with when he decided to let Norman go without getting anything in return. But they can only get better, right? The sooner the better. If not, there’s not much hope in this area, at least this season.
Where’s the pressure?
Heading into the season, many thought — including me — the Panthers could hide their young secondary because of a dominant pass rush. That hasn’t been the case so far this season, as Carolina has only generated nine sacks and six hits on opposing quarterbacks, ranking in the bottom half of the NFL.
Coming off an 11-sack season, Kawann Short has been as quiet as a church mouse through four games, with one sack to his credit. Kony Ealy, Carolina’s breakout star in Super Bowl 50, along with veteran Charles Johnson have yet to record a sack. The lack of a pass rush has exposed the young secondary, making one of the league’s best defenses from a year ago look very vulnerable.
Sign of hope: The talent is there. If the Panthers can get back on track in pressuring opposing quarterbacks, it only helps the young secondary. Improved play will also create more takeaway opportunities moving forward —an area the Panthers thrived in last season.
No Fun League
The NFL has cracked down on excessive celebrations this season and three losses in four games isn’t something to celebrate anyway, but Carolina is missing the swag that made the team special last season. These Panthers look lethargic, uncomfortable and sloppy.
Carolina finished last season fourth overall in Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings. So far this season, the Panthers are 21st overall. It’s never a good thing when you’re newly acquired punter is the MVP through four games. Props to Andy Lee, but Carolina’s nine Pro Bowlers from last season need to step up, get healthy, and play to their abilities.
Sign of hope: The Panthers certainly have their share of problems, but given time and the opportunity to get healthy, they are manageable. The team has been in this situation before, bouncing back from a 1-3 start in 2013 to finish 12-4. No, I don’t think it’s time to panic just yet, but if these trends continue it’s going to be a long season in Charlotte. No better chance to get back on track than against the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.