Carolina Panthers

Analysis: Panthers need to get out of their own way, blow chance to upset Rams

What we learned about the Panthers, Cam Newton after game 1 against the Rams

We break down Cam Newton and the Panthers after their first regular season game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Panthers lost and face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Thursday in Charlotte.
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We break down Cam Newton and the Panthers after their first regular season game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Panthers lost and face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Thursday in Charlotte.

You could blame DJ Moore. Or Joey Slye. Ron Rivera and Cam Newton deserve their share of pointed fingers, too.

Heck, go ahead and blame Newton’s helmet while you’re at it, for this coulda-woulda-shoulda first Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers had the Los Angeles Rams teed up for a season-opening upset, and instead?

Shank.

After an underwhelming performance like what Carolina just delivered, there’s oftentimes a glaring error. Something clearly out-of-whack. One player, or even a whole position group, to point to and say, “Yeah, that’s where things went wrong.” That wasn’t the case Sunday. Instead, as the Panthers limped to a 30-27 loss against the defending NFC champion Rams, practically everyone in white-and-blue deserved at least a small slice of blame.

“More than anything else, (we) missed opportunities,” Rivera said. “We had chances on third down to get off the field as a defense. We had chances on offense to score ... We should have been better than that.”

That starts at the top with Newton, who was playing his first regular-season game since arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January. Newton was ... OK. But anyone expecting a resurgent, MVP-esque debut from him was left disappointed.

Newton’s stats — he finished 25-for-38 for 239 yards passing, with no touchdowns and one interception — don’t tell the full story.

Despite scoring three touchdowns, Carolina and Newton never found their offensive rhythm Sunday. The quarterback’s ugly habit of overthrowing passes again flared up. Late in the third quarter, he overthrew 6-foot-5 tight end Greg Olsen on back-to-back plays, including a drive-killing misfire on third down that forced Carolina to settle for a field goal. That miss was emblematic in its own right, as the Panthers went just 5-for-11 on third down overall.

Far from a winning strategy against the reigning NFC champs.

“Look, we played a great team,” Newton said. “It feels like we got embarrassed, and sometimes we did ... They snuck one away, and we can’t allow that to happen.”

That’s not to say the Panthers were entirely ineffective offensively. On Christian McCaffrey’s first touchdown — he finished with two and more than 200 total yards — he took a direct snap and faked to Newton before barreling into the end zone, a gorgeous play design by offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

But that sort of offensive effectiveness was a rarity Sunday, even for all the Rams’ own offensive struggles.

To that point, the Panthers actually matched the Rams in practically every offensive category. Los Angeles had 22 first downs to Carolina’s 21, and 349 net yards to the Panthers’ 343. Both teams scored three touchdowns, and Carolina even out-gained L.A. on a per-play basis, 5.4 yards to 4.8.

Statistics can be misleading, though, considering the Panthers didn’t score on their first six offensive possessions and went to halftime down 13-3.

Newton made things worse later in the fourth quarter when he threw an interception to Cory Littleton that was returned to the Panthers’ 17, which all but sealed the afternoon’s result.

“I just rushed it,” Newton said. “You know me and Greg have a great rapport. He would be a great charades partner with me, because I know exactly what he’s thinking. At that specific time, I was just late with it.”

But not all the blame can be placed on Newton; there were plenty of other issues. The offensive line failed to properly pick up blitzes at times, allowing Newton to be sacked three times. There also was a holding penalty on Taylor Moton in the third quarter that negated a helmet-initiated hit on Olsen.

Then there was second-year receiver DJ Moore, whose propensity for gaining yards after-the-catch endeared him to the NFL analytics community as a rookie. But Moore’s need to do more Sunday proved costly, as he was involved in two of Carolina’s three turnovers.

On Carolina’s first drive, Moore caught a pass on the right sideline in Rams territory. He stopped to collect himself for a moment before diving back into two defenders, including Sam Ebukam, who promptly punched the ball out and collected the forced fumble. Moore said in the locker room that he was attempting to get down on the play, but the Rams popped it out before he was down. Regardless, that stymied any momentum the Panthers had and set the tone for the rest of the day.

“I’m not going to scold him for giving extra effort and trying to make something happen,” Rivera said. “There is also a time where discretion is a better part of valor, so he will learn.”

One of the most bizarre sequences in the entire game came two drives later and the score still 0-0. Facing third-and-7 at the Rams’ 29, the Panthers called timeout after the headset in Newton’s helmet stopped working.

“I couldn’t hear,” Newton said. “(Quarterbacks coach) Scott (Turner) is usually the person that calls the plays and who I hear in the headset, but it was disconnected ... You could see his mouth moving, but obviously you’re not hearing what he’s saying.”

That issue was unresolved coming out of the timeout, and the Panthers also incurred a delay-of-game penalty. That made it third-and-12, and a McCaffrey run the next play lost one yard. All in all, that helmet situation cost Carolina a timeout and six crucial yards of field position. Joey Slye lined up for his first NFL field-goal attempt the next play, but he pushed the 53-yarder to the right.

“Now he doesn’t have to worry about missing. He has already done that,” Rivera said. “We will just worry about him making them from here on out ... I think he is going to help us.”

Disaster struck again in the second quarter when Newton threw a would-be screen pass to Moore that was ruled a lateral. The pass was tipped, Moore failed to corral it and the ball bounced around waiting to be jumped on. Finally the Rams obliged, setting up a short field and an ensuing touchdown.

“I just knew the ball got tipped, so once it got tipped, I tried to catch it and get down,” Moore said. “But it’s just a lost play.”

On the other side of the ball, the Rams’ stable of running backs, including Todd Gurley, rushed for more than 150 yards. And for all the hype around the Panthers’ new 3-4 scheme, they hardly ran it, instead adjusting to Los Angeles’ pass-heavy offense. At times, Carolina even used six defensive backs on the field at once — only for Los Angeles to continue passing for first downs. There was also James Bradberry’s fourth-quarter interception that gave the Panthers a chance to mount a comeback, but they went three-and-out on the ensuing drive with a Newton rush (no gain), completed pass to McCaffrey (4 yards) and another overthrow of a wide-open Curtis Samuel 25 yards down the right sideline. The Panthers punted and Los Angeles scored seven plays later to make the score 30-20 with 6:37 remaining.

Even special teams fell under the umbrella of missed opportunities. Slye first missed field-goal attempt ultimately proved to be the deciding margin. But at the start of the fourth quarter, Jermaine Carter Jr. blocked a Rams punt inside the 20-yard line to set Carolina up for a short touchdown of its own.

Again, a mixed bag.

The Panthers had a chance to upset a team that reached the Super Bowl in February — and they probably even should have.

If only they had gotten out of their own way.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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