They went 15-1 last season and made it to the Super Bowl.
They got their top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back from injury and team leaders Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly may be just entering their primes.
So, naturally, everyone thought the Carolina Panthers simply would pick up where they left off last year. They would win a bunch of games, cruise to a fourth straight NFC South title and, this time, they would win the Super Bowl. It all sounded so logical and achievable.
But football doesn’t always follow logic and the Panthers aren’t playing anything like last year. They’re off to a 1-2 start.
Is it time for Carolina fans to panic?
No, it’s a little too early for that. But if the Panthers don’t improve their play and lose a few more games, then it will be time to panic.
In these first three games, there have been issues on both sides of the ball. Issues that weren’t there last year.
Take the curious case of Newton, who won last year’s Most Valuable Player award. You can’t put all the blame on one player. Especially not the quarterback because they get too much criticism when their team is losing and too much praise when their team is winning. But it’s fair to start to look at what’s gone wrong with the Panthers with Newton.
It’s not his fault, but he’s taking a beating. The four helmet-to-helmet hits Newton absorbed in the season-opening loss were a disgrace. The officiating crew wasn’t protecting Newton. Only one of the hits drew a flag and that was wiped out by an offsetting offensive penalty.
Then, take what happened in Sunday’s loss to Minnesota. Newton was sacked eight times and pressured 17 times. For the season, Newton has been sacked 12 times and hit an NFL-high 37 times.
A lot of blame should fall on the offensive line. Then, there’s the fact that feature back Jonathan Stewart has missed time with an injury. That’s a nasty combination and it might be forcing Newton to try to do too much on his own.
“There were probably a couple of times where we could have dumped the ball (in the Minnesota game),’’ coach Ron Rivera said. Sometimes we get in a position where we want to make something happen and we may press a little bit. He probably did press a little bit. It’s a guy that is competitive and wants to win. Sometimes you lose your patience and try to force stuff. There were probably a couple that he tried to make something happen instead of taking the layup.’’
The real test for the Carolina offense will come in the next three games. The Atlanta Falcons rank 30th in the league in total defense. Tampa Bay ranks 19th and New Orleans is 31st. None of those three defenses play at a level that’s anywhere near as good as Denver and Minnesota. If the Panthers can score regularly against those three teams, they’ll be all right on offense. If not, they’ll be in big trouble.
But the problems aren’t limited to the offense. The defense isn’t playing well either. The one major change from last season was the departure of cornerback Josh Norman. But it’s unfair and inaccurate to blame all the defensive problems on Norman’s departure.
Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman are firm believers that everything starts up front and the defensive line is loaded with talent and depth. But it’s not producing. Against Minnesota, the Panthers sacked Sam Bradford only twice. And those sacks game in the first half and didn’t have a big impact on the game.
“As a defensive line, you want to see those quarterbacks get scared and move off their spots,’’ Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawaan Short said. “That’s one thing we didn’t do. As far as up the middle, I’ll take credit for that. We didn’t get enough push and get that guy off his spot. When you see a quarterback back there, poised and looking through his reads, that’s not good for the defense as far as the defensive tackles. We didn’t get a good push.’’
It’s pretty obvious what the Panthers have to do to turn things around. They need to do a better job of protecting Newton and they need to get stronger pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
If they don’t do those things soon, then it will be time to panic.