The headline on page one of the sports section reads “Be great, like 19″ and below it, a picture of Panthers’ Rookie of the Year quarterback Cam Newton sitting next to team owner Jerry Richardson in a golf cart with the Charlotte skyline as a backdrop.
The “great” and “19″ were references to Hall of Fame QB Johnny Unitas. There were high hopes in the Carolinas with the start of Newton’s second NFL campaign and dreams of sugar plums, um, playoff games dancing in his head. Instead, Panther fans may now have a case of heebie-jeebies after witnessing a lackluster 16-10 loss at the hands of the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Maybe Richardson was reaching a bit by invoking the name of Unitas, but right about now that headline in the Charlotte Observer is probably being reworked for Week 2: “Be great, like 1″––as in Newton’s uniform number. A simple return to the record-setting year of 2011 would be just fine. If he doesn’t return by the time the final gun sounds in the home opener this Sunday, don’t be surprised if someone mentions those two dreaded words: sophomore jinx.
There were a lot of records set last year, but the 23 year old didn’t want any part of the new one set on Sunday. As a team, the Panthers accounted for a franchise record low 10 yards rushing. That is not 10 for a quarter or a half but for an entire game. That was the outer shell of the egg that was laid in Tampa, because Newton isn’t the only reason Carolina is 0-1.
There was a weather related delay to start the second half, and one could surmise the lightning and thunder was coming out of the Panthers’ locker room instead of the sky. Head coach Ron Rivera was probably none too happy with the general malaise that infected his team over the first 30 minutes. After all, they were losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went 4-12, lost their last 10, allowed nearly 500 points and were last in the league against the run.
Carolina had a negative one yard rushing and was called for five penalties for 55 yards – Tampa Bay had zero penalties – and the team was down 13-0 at the half. Newton was sacked once and rushed only twice for one yard, but did more running trying to escape the constant pressure by the Bucs’ defense.
The only bright spot was the Newton to Steve Smith connection when they teamed up for three completions for 61 yards.
The Buccaneers came out with fire in their bellies and would maintain it throughout. They seemed to lose focus just once––early in the third quarter, when Newton marched his team down the field with ease––but the Bucs quickly regained their composure and kept the pressure on until the end.
Grading out the Panthers:
Offense: You cannot place the blame for this loss entirely on Cam Newton. There were many times when he seemed to lose focus and his timing was off, but the Buccaneers defense at times looked like the team that won their only Super Bowl. There was no protection up front, causing him to scramble numerous times, and the only holes they opened up for the running game were the ones they dug into the Raymond James turf. Grade: D
Offensive star: An easy pick here – wide receiver Steve Smith. After missing the final two games of the preseason with a foot infection, he was in midseason form turning in a short completion to a 32-yard romp down the sideline. He caught seven passes for 106-yards (a 15.1 average). The entire Bucs receiving corps had 138.
Defense: This was an area that was supposed to be improved, but if you saw just the opening series by the Tampa Bay offense, you might say it was worse. Josh Freeman looked Newton-esque on the drive that netted seven points, and in the half he rushed for 13 yards and threw for 122 and a TD. There were a number of penalties that hurt, like cornerback Captain Munnerlyn running over Sammy Stroughter after calling for a fair catch. It gave the Bucs a short field, which led to a field goal. There was also questionable pass interference on corner Chris Gamble helping Tampa Bay to another three points. Not enough? How about letting a 5-foot-9 rookie running back, Doug Martin, pile up 95 yards in his NFL debut? Overall, the defense was better, but still needs work. Grade: C-
Defensive star: There was little to rave about, but one player seemed to be all over the place – Dwan Edwards. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle, who was signed three days after being released by the Bills, had five solo tackles and a sack, one of two by the Panthers (Greg Hardy).
No excuses: Sure, they were kicked out of Charlotte because of the Democratic National Convention and bounced from Sarasota to Bradenton to Tampa in Florida, but wasn’t the adversity supposed to be a bonding experience? The NFC South could be up for grabs and this Week 1 loss could be hard to look back on if the Panthers miss the postseason by a game.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found onExaminer.com.