What’s wrong with the Carolina Panthers?

An injured Cam Newton isn't the only thing troubling the Panthers this season; Sam Monson dives into the team's slow start.

| 2 weeks ago
Panthers QB Derek Anderson

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

What’s wrong with the Carolina Panthers?

A season ago at this time, the Carolina Panthers were 4-0, sitting through their bye week and preparing to win another 10 straight games before suffering their only loss of the regular season on their way to the Super Bowl.

This year, the Panthers are 1-4, last season’s MVP, Cam Newton, has suffered a concussion and missed a game—appearing for the first time to be just another mortal man and not the indestructible Superman QB he had been until this point—and the wheels are falling off the wagon.

So, what’s happened?

Well, the first issue is losing Cam Newton for any time at all. Derek Anderson isn’t a bad backup, but he isn’t going to be confused for a league-MVP anytime soon, either. Carolina dropped their most recent game on Monday 17-14 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Derek Anderson’s mistakes were probably the difference. He threw two interceptions, one of which was in the end zone when the Panthers were looking to take the lead late, and also had a critical fumble.

There’s no guarantee that Newton would have done any better, but if I was a gambling man, I’d consider it a pretty safe bet that he would have. That would have put the team at 2-3, two games back from the division lead with work to do—but not dead and buried.

Newton hasn’t been nearly as good this year as he was in 2015, which is perhaps to be expected given the MVP heights he hit during the NFC Championship run. This season, his overall grade is only 79.2, good enough for 14th among QBs, compared to second in 2015 with a grade of 93.9.


It’s difficult to overstate just how much Newton carried that offense a season ago with a makeshift group of receivers and TE Greg Olsen, but this season, he hasn’t been able to do as much of the heavy lifting, and the running game has suffered with the loss of Jonathan Stewart. That being said, they still have one of the better offenses in the league over the first five weeks, ranking eighth in yards per play, third in yards per game, and 11th in points per game. Yards per game and per play are up on their 2015 figures, in fact.

The bigger problem is the defense, which hasn’t been nearly as effective as the 2015 unit.

In 2015, only the Denver Broncos allowed fewer yards per play than Carolina’s 4.9, and the Panthers were sixth in the league in points per game. So far this season, they are allowing 5.5 yards per play, which drops them to 18th in the league in that category, and they are surrendering 27 points per game, just the 22nd-best mark in the NFL.

What made the defense so good a year ago was having an All-Pro standout at each level working back from the line of scrimmage. On the line, Kawann Short was one of the best interior defenders in football, Luke Kuechly at MLB was enjoying a Defensive Player of the Year-level season, and Josh Norman was a legitimate shutdown corner on the back end.

Those three provided the framework around which the rest of the defense could build and perform. Josh Norman signed with the Redskins in the offseason after the team couldn’t get a long-term deal done with him, and Short has been a shadow of the player he was in 2015, leaving just Kuechly performing at a dominant level, and even he has dropped from superhuman levels.

Rather than an All-Pro CB replacing Norman, the Panthers’ No.1 cornerback this season was playing in the FCS at this time a year ago, and their No. 2 was eviscerated so badly by Julio Jones in Week 4 when the team played the Falcons that he was cut the following week.

Up front, Short has just one sack and eight total hurries this season; this time a year ago, he had 12 total pressures in one less game. Short, in fact, had as much output in his first two games last year as he’s managed in five this season. He hasn’t been bad in 2016, necessarily, but we’re talking about a totally different level of impact. A year ago he was a game-changer; now he’s just the best guy in an underperforming defensive front. That’s reflected in his overall grade, which has slumped to 78.1 from 88.9 last season. That season, he was mixing in with names like Geno Atkins and Ndamukong Suh—now he’s ranked behind the Stephen Paeas and Quinton Dials of the world.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Carolina is the play of the Atlanta Falcons, who are suddenly a legitimate force in the NFC, already two games clear at the top of the NFC South, and three ahead of the Panthers with a game to the good in the head-to-head column. Carolina can almost forget about winning the division already, and needs to focus on the prospect of a wildcard spot if they have any hope of defending their NFC championship.

Newton’s return will help, as will the return of Stewart, but the offense hasn’t really been the issue this season. Maybe Kuechly, Short, and Thomas Davis, among others, can rediscover the individual brilliance that allowed everybody else to play better around them a year ago, but the secondary looks to have no obvious healing tonic. It’s stuffed full of young, inexperienced players and others that had been outperforming their career baseline last season.

We need to remember that this Panthers’ team was a significant surprise a year ago, and hadn’t been considered contenders rolling into the season. 2016 may be less of the anomaly than 2015 was, and this Carolina side may be closer to the 7-8-1 team of the season before.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • FireDG

    Elite talent masks a bad coaching staff and the Panthers have the worst group in the league by a longshot. Their front office is equally as clueless and will probably draft another defensive tackle in the first round to “fix” their problems in the secondary and on the offensive line. This management group doesn’t deserve to have an NFL team.

    • JudoPrince

      The front office has been drafting well over the last few seasons, but appeared to drop the ball in this years draft. Drafting a DT with the first pick when the team clearly needed an upgrade at edge rusher and offensive tackle. I mean how long did they think they’d get away with Oher at LT? Bradberry has looked decent so far but it’ll be a long time before the jury is out on him; not to mention they could have waited until at least the 3rd round to take him. And they gave up a valuable mid round pick to move up and draft Worley who looks absolutely lost out there.

      I’m also dismayed at the decision to cut Benwikere. Sure he had a bad game, but has had an otherwise productive career so far for the Panthers. I simply don’t get that one. He clearly outperformed his late draft status and provided quality starts for a cheap price, especially for a team with slim depth at CB. That was a knee-jerk reaction by the coaching staff that will surely come back to haunt them.

    • hasson

      talk about jumping the gun slow down man the worst in the league? you must be bitter did they not just come off a super bowl appearence? so how would that make them in any way one of the worst in the league youre crazy

  • JudoPrince

    “Carolina can almost forget about winning the division already, and needs to focus on the prospect of a wildcard spot if they have any hope of defending their NFC championship”

    Way to early to talk about not competing for a division. How many times do we have to watch the Falcons get off to a hot start after 4-5 weeks and then collapse at the end?

    • crosseyedlemon

      The slow start may actually be a blessing in disguise since championship character comes from overcoming adversity. They find themselves in a situation not unlike what the Chiefs were facing about this time last season. They have the talent to turn things around….now they just have to find the will.

  • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

    pretty sure cam is the opposite of “active” as is indicated in his status in the graphic above. he clearly was inactive last night, lol

  • G. Mo Pro

    Derek Anderson was a numbskull. His fumble was stupid. He shouldve slid or dove… really bad decisions. His INT in end zone was really bad. Just run the ball in or dont throw that risky pass. QBs need to be very smart. He was not. He threw nice passes at times, but gotta have a good head on shoulders… that is most important. Game was a mess. Undisciplined players.. i blame coaching staff on that and also players need to shoulder blame too. Certain things you just cant do and expect to win a game. Have to stay focused and play smart.