By Ted Fleming
As they now play their 18th NFL season, the Carolina Panthers were projected to do what they have done four times previously–go from having a losing record to double-digit wins and a playoff appearance. There were many in football circles that believed this would be the organizations fifth based on what transpired in 2011.
It is well documented what phenom Cam Newton did as a rookie and it was believed–no, make that expected–that it would carry over into his sophomore campaign because he would have been a year older and wiser. Plus, he had a couple of proven running backs and a potential Hall of Famer at wideout. But at 1-4, the Panthers have been a disappointment and Newton appears to have regressed instead of taking the next step in his career.
Head coach Ron Rivera said after the team’s most recent loss that he believes his 23-year-old quarterback is pressing. An understatement to be sure, only Newton is not alone. The offense in general cannot get untracked and maybe that is why the coaching staff has to take their share of the responsibility in the early struggles.
Before getting into a breakdown of why the Panthers have struggled so far, it is to be noted that the defense has, for the most part, held up its side of the bargain. They have been bumps along the way but there is little in the way of believing back in training camp that they would be the ones carrying the load entering the bye week.
Ron Rivera has been around the NFL as a coach since 1997 and got his first chance at the big chair last year. He was a rookie head coach who had a rookie quarterback that was taken first overall in the draft. They would grow together or not at all. After their first season together it seemed like a marriage made in heaven, even though the team went just 6-10.
The play calling was tailored to be as pressure-less as possible and Newton flourished as Carolina finished fifth in points and seventh in yards. The youngster looked mature beyond his years and maybe that is why Rivera thought he was ready to take on bigger and harder tasks. So far that looks like a mistake.
After the Giants debacle there was chatter, even then, that Newton was pressing and that didn’t include questions about his mental state and getting a so-called mind coach. Rivera tinkered with the play calling to alleviate some of the pressure on his signal-caller and the Panthers nearly pulled off a huge upset of the undefeated Falcons.
There are no such things as moral victories or the like because there are just 16 games to make your case for the postseason. Carolina needed a win – badly – when they hosted Seattle on Sunday and they were ripe for the picking, even though the Seahawks’ defense was ranked second in the league. As it turned out the defense that shined was that of the Panthers. It was the odd play calling that might have made Newton start pressing again.
As hypothesized here a few weeks back, the talk of the sophomore jinx has already started to rear its ugly head. It is justified but with a caveat.
A quarterback has his strengths and weaknesses. The great and not-so-greats do. But it is up to the coaching staff – the quarterbacks coach, the offensive coordinator and the head coach – to do everything possible to put him into the best position to win, the play of the defense on any particular day notwithstanding. So far that has not happened.
Rivera is a bright young coach with a bright young quarterback who should be the “Camchize.” However, if the talent is there and he is not succeeding, the lack of winning cannot solely be laid at the feet of Cam Newton.
Right now the last thing anyone should be thinking is playoffs. Don’t even bother with 8-8 because it is an excuse to be mediocre, although at 1-4, a .500 record looks awful good at this point. The only approach should be like a 12-step program where it is one day, one week at a time.
That responsibility falls squarely in the lap of Rivera because as Newton goes, so do the Panthers.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.