After the Carolina Panthers’ season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams, it bears repeating: This team will only go as far as Cam Newton takes it.
But Newton’s success isn’t entirely on him. It also hinges on the people around him. In that sense, the Panthers’ offensive line is just as important to Carolina’s success as anything Newton does — without them, he can’t make any spectacular throws or break off any tantalizing runs.
General manager Marty Hurney understands that, which is why he re-signed Daryl Williams to play left tackle this spring and brought in center Matt Paradis to replace the temporarily-retired Ryan Kalil. And if that wasn’t enough investment in the line, the team also traded up in the second round of April’s NFL Draft to pick tackle Greg Little. Later in the sixth round, the team also chose promising developmental guard/tackle Dennis Daley.
While Newton faced criticism Sunday for an up-and-down quarterback performance against the Rams — he threw for 239 yards and an interception with no touchdowns — it’s worth evaluating how that squares with the offensive line’s performance.
“I think we played well. I mean, obviously, there’s things we can clean up and do better,” Williams said. “Just little details, little things we can do way better and we can fix that in practice tomorrow.”
Those “little things” truly were that, if judging strictly off Sunday’s game. Newton was sacked three times, but on at least one of those plays, there was a fixable communication issue up front.
On Dante Fowler’s first sack, Williams and left guard Greg Van Roten were occupied with blocking Aaron Donald, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. But with both of them on Donald, nobody broke off to pick up Fowler coming on a stunt. Fowler promptly recorded the fastest sack of any Week 1 player.
But those plays were the exception, not the rule. The Panthers scored 27 points, after all, the most in any opener of the Newton/Ron Rivera era. The team’s 343 net total yards were also the second-most since the coach-QB tandem came to Charlotte in 2011. Running back Christian McCaffrey rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns at a 6.7 yard-per-carry clip.
All that doesn’t happen with a porous offensive line.
Paradis, Rivera said, impressed in his debut with the team.
“I thought he played well, I really did. I thought he handled things up front nicely, made the good calls,” Rivera said. “They got some pressure on us a couple times, but I really thought when you put the tape on and watch him block, watch his movement, he did some good things for us.”
Paradis said nothing Sunday was drastically different from anything he previously did in Denver.
If there was one thing to nitpick about that group, it comes back to those communication issues. Rivera spends more of his time focusing on the defensive side of the ball, but he brought up a comparison Monday about how you know when a group has fully gelled.
“When the opponent does something that the guys have to react to, I think that’s something that’s definitely an indicator,” Rivera said. “It’s the same thing you see when you’re looking at defensive players. When an offense does something, you see guys move from one spot to another without having to say a word, (that’s when) you know that they’ve gelled. They’ve been together for a while.”
Was that there against the Rams?
“No one is perfect, but we did that in the game,” Paradis said. “There were adjustments that needed to be made, and we’d make them. It’s just part of the communication you have on the sideline.”
On top of that, there are two crucial asterisks to remember when evaluating Carolina’s offense:
The first? They opened against the defending NFC champions, a team that held the vaunted New England Patriots’ offense to just 13 points in the Super Bowl. Their defense is among the NFL’s best. It’s also only Week 1.
There’s rust. There’s new terminology. There’s (real) full-speed football again for the first time in months. Hiccups happen.
The key is making sure they stay infrequent.
“As long as we’re all on the same page,” left guard Trai Turner said, “then we’ll be all right.”