Carolina Panthers

The Panthers are 0-2 and Superman is battered. What’s next? There’s no good answer

Sometimes there are no answers.

There is no one explanation for why these Carolina Panthers sit at 0-2, their season already teetering on the brink. But teetering implies that there’s still time for a a bad situation to be fixed.

Not here. Not now, at least. Not with each step deeper into the quicksand, and the sinking feeling that everything about this team could soon go under.

Premature? Maybe. But consider the evidence piling up against Carolina:

In its last 10 games dating back to last season, the Panthers have one win. One. Their former MVP quarterback hasn’t accounted for a touchdown — rushing or passing — in his last four games. Cam Newton has thrown more inaccurate passes (25) in two weeks this season than any other two-game stretch in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Against pressure on Thursday night, he went 0-for-10 and took three sacks. With Newton at the helm, this offense converted only 3 of 14 third downs, including eight straight drives without one.

What about any of that seems like a quick fix?

“Just bad ball, man,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “Penalties, missed plays, drive-killers — you’re not gonna win in this league. I said the same thing to you guys last week. It’s hard enough to win.

“I don’t know what is causing that.”

That wasn’t Carolina’s official company line early Friday morning, but it may as well have been. It came from everyone, everywhere.

“I don’t know if there’s a certain energy missing,” safety Tre Boston said. “There’s an identity and a culture that we’re used to. I think there’s guys who are on the bus, but I think around the whole team, we need to a better job of coming together, playing as one, having a swagger about ourselves.”

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Quarterback Cam Newton now has gone four straight games without accouting for a rushing or passing touchdown, the longest stretch of his career. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Swagger has never before been an issue for Carolina, especially not with Newton under center. Since he entered the league in 2011, Newton has transformed the quarterback position with both his play and his demeanor. Now?

Even he had no explanation for why the wheels on this black-and-blue bus threaten to fall off.

Newton began his postgame press conference by bemoaning the offense’s lack of execution, that “all fingers are just pointing back to me.” But when asked point-blank why the offense wasn’t able to uphold their end of the bargain, Newton said this:

“I can’t answer that question right now.”

No one can.

Some of it has to be with Carolina’s offensive line, which allowed Newton to be sacked three times and walloped many times more. When Andrew Luck recently retired from the Indianapolis Colts, he cited the lingering injuries from constant hits as one of the things that drove him from football.

Newton has taken more than 1,000 hits in his NFL career, and his injury history reflects that: Two shoulder surgeries, an ankle surgery, not to mention several head injuries, broken ribs, broken bones in his back from a car crash, and recently a foot sprain that may or may not be impeding his ability to run the football.

But we don’t know that for sure, either.

“I feel okay,” Newton said. “You’re not going to hear any type of reasons why tonight didn’t go as planned. I have to be better, no matter what physical condition I’m in, no matter what foot, shoulder.”

We do know this much: That through two games in 2019, Newton has five total rushes for -3 yards. His lone designed keep on Thursday led to a forced fumble, not surprising considering how loosely he was palming the ball. Some of that is on him. Some of it is on his blockers.

All of it is unsettling.

The Panthers now are 0-7 in games where Newton rushes two times or fewer.

Coach Ron Rivera said Newton’s foot is not inhibiting his rushing ability. “Don’t even worry about the foot,” Rivera said. “The foot has nothing to do with it.”

But fans clearly are worried, and they made their displeasure with the state of this franchise quite clear on Thursday. Boos fell down on Newton and this offense for every missed block or failed third-down attempt, as constant as the steady rain that forced a first-quarter weather delay.

Those boos weren’t isolated for Newton. They were for the offensive line, which continued its troubling trend of penalties and missed protection. They were for offensive coordinator Norv Turner, whose playcalling is becoming rebranded as “predictable” instead of “productive.” They were for the pass rush that sacked Jameis Winston three times, but not when it mattered most, and for the secondary that allowed big plays and bad touchdowns.

They were for everything.

“That’s embarrassing. I hear fans,” Newton said. “I’m not going to the deny the fact that coming off the field on third down. It’s unacceptable, man.

“You can’t blame them, but they deserve better.”

They, like all sports fans, do. These are games played for enjoyment. For entertainment. To distract from from the worries of the world, not add to them.

But what exactly is “better” for these Panthers?

Granted, these are two games. The Panthers, as they proved in 2013 when they started 1-3 and finished 12-4, could always turn this season around — at least, in theory.

That would require answers, though: About Newton’s health (or lack thereof), about playcalling and protection and the general lack of buzz that is surrounding this team.

At this point, the Panthers don’t have those answers. They don’t seem to have direction on how to find them, either.

Only questions, and more with each passing game.

“I don’t have the answers,” Olsen said. “It was brutal. I don’t know.

“I don’t have the answers.”

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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