Tampa, FL – The 2012 NFL season did not begin at all like the Carolina Panthers envisioned. Even before kickoff, Carolina knew division rival New Orleans had already lost its opener to the Washington Redskins and this was a golden opportunity to gain a game in the standings before the two teams meet next Sunday in Charlotte.
But nothing worked for the Panthers in their 16-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I don’t know what happened. I never expected to only rush for 10 yards,” center Ryan Kalil said. “Not quite the start of the season we wanted.” Just look at these numbers:
- 10 total rushing yards by the Panthers, tying a team record for the fewest in a game (vs. New Orleans in 2000).
- -1 yards rushing for tailback DeAngelo Williams on six carries.
- 2 third-down conversions, in 10 attempts, for the Panthers.
- 83.3 Cam Newton’s quarterback rating.
- 95.5 Josh Freeman’s quarterback rating.
All week, the Panthers practiced in dry (yet humid) conditions at the IMG Academy in nearly Bradenton. Unfortunately on Sunday, they encountered a wet track due to early rains, and a lightning storm with heavy rains during halftime (which caused the NFL to clear the stadium and delay the start of the second half).
“We just kind of got behind, had to abandon the run,” Williams said. “After doing that, we had to pass to get back in the game.”
Abandon the run? What run attack was he talking about? Receiver Kealoha Pilares was the Panthers’ leading rusher with 5 yards, gained on an pitch from Newton on a zone-read play. With Jonathan Stewart out with a sprained ankle, Williams tied his career low.
Coach Ron Rivera said the Bucs showed different fronts than they had in the preseason under new head coach Greg Schiano, the former Rutgers coach who replaced Raheem Morris.
“It’s one of those things where you prepare and prepare for the great unknown,” Rivera said. “And aIl of a sudden they show up and do some different things that you didn’t have a chance to prepare for.”
Tampa Bay showed a much more aggressive defense in the opener than they had last year…that’s the influence of the new coaching staff. If they continue to play like they did against the Panthers, the NFC South just got a whole lot tougher.
Newton, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, was 23-of-33 for 303 yards, with one touchdown and those two interceptions. The Panthers still have never won a game in which Newton has thrown an interception, falling to 0-10.
“Turnovers,” Newton said. “You can’t win a game with turnovers. I’ve got to do a better job on my part of protecting the football. I don’t know what you want me to say. No one likes losing. I think the most frustrating part is knowing that I wish I could have those two throws back. You’ve got to move on and continue to get better.”
Trailing 13-0 at the half, the Panthers’ defense came out after the extra-long intermission and forced Tampa to punt. Then, Newton and the offense started moving the ball on their first possession. He was 4-for-4 on the drive, and his last three throws were all clutch.
He hit tight end Greg Olsen for 11 yards on third-and-5, found Steve Smith for 32 yards, then hit a wide-open Brandon LaFell for a 22-yard touchdown pass on a play Newton sold with a play-action fake.
But Newton could not maintain the momentum.
He was intercepted on the Panthers’ next two series after throwing into coverage. The first interception came one play after rookie kick returner Joe Adams gave the offense its best starting field position with a 21-yard punt return to the Bucs’ 41.
Newton was looking for LaFell, but cornerback Aqib Talib deflected the ball and safety Ronde Barber grabbed the ball out of the air for the first interception. Newton was more upset with his second interception – a floater down the sideline to Smith that safety Ahmad Black tracked down.
Another piece of the puzzle that just didn’t work were the Panthers’ special teams. Last season, special teams were a major problem. All throughout the off-season, they worked to improve them through the draft and free agent signings. Unfortunately, they broke down against Tampa. The line needs to do a better job of protecting their punter. Miscommunication on the protection allowed Talib to come off the left end untouched and block rookie Brad Nortman’s punt, setting up the last of Connor Barth’s three field goals.
“It’s not one person’s fault. It’s bad communication,” said Haruki Nakamura, who was on the side where the protection broke down. “They brought us in to shore-up special teams, and up to that point we couldn’t have played any better on special teams. But when you have stuff like that happen, it’s really frustrating.”
Defensively, rookie linebacker (and first-round draft selection) Luke Kuechly said, “We were just flat. We didn’t come out with the energy we needed to. You could see a difference in the second half in how we came out. We got a quick out, and that’s how the first half needed to be. It can’t be like you’re going to feel it out and get a feel for the tempo of the game. We have to set the tempo. In every game, you have to set the tempo and make the other team play off you. We didn’t do a good job of doing that.”
“We know what we can do and how well we can play,” Kuechly said. “We just have to get out there and do it. We can’t wait until we’re down 13 and say, gee, we’ve got to start playing. We have to set the tempo now.”
After the game, tight end Olsen had an idea for what the Panthers could do with their season-opening loss. “Throw away a lot of it,” he said. Olson caught six passes for 56 yards, but seemed frustrated by the offense’s inability to generate consistency and points against the Bucs.
“Our defense did an unbelievable job of keeping us in the game and giving us short fields,” Olsen said. “It’s just bad … what can you say? You can’t score 10 points and expect to win in the NFL.”
With a new defensive coach for Tampa Bay, the Panthers had to rely on pre-season film to see what changes were being made since last season. And yet, Tampa changed their looks for the opener. “There are always some surprises with a new staff but we had some new wrinkles, too. We didn’t execute well. The first series, I had a big drop that stalled us out,” Olsen said. “It seemed like any time we got something going, we had a self-inflicted issue that stalled us out.”
Penalties and interceptions hurt Carolina. Panthers’ cornerback Captain Munnerlyn committed a huge penalty in the first quarter that just continued to give Tampa Bay momentum. Munnerlyn was flagged for fair catch interference when he slammed into Tampa Bay’s Sammie Stroughter, who was running up to field a short punt.
Munnerlyn knew he had made a mistake but felt it was nearly unavoidable because of how Stroughter ran into him trying to field the punt. “Me being a punt returner, I know guys can do that,” Munnerlyn said. “When I was running, I was like oh, no. I knew I was running too fast and I couldn’t slow down. I tried to jump out of his way. Returners are taught if they run into you, it’s a penalty. The guy did a great job of running into me. I was just trying not to be called for a personal foul. There would have been a fine for that.”
Tampa Bay controlled the time of possession, keeping Newton on the bench. “I think it was 37 or 38 minutes of time possession,” Schiano stated. “That’s critical when you keep No. 1 (Cam Newton) off the field. The best way to defend him is not to have to defend him.”
Panthers linebacker Jon Beason, playing in his first game in a year after recovering from injuries that kept him out of the entire 2011 season was not happy at all. “Anytime you lose, you have to be more critical of yourself and what we did in the first half, in particularly in the first quarter. The (first) three series I think they got points on. I think that’s unacceptable.”
Couldn’t have put it better myself. With a very angry New Orleans Saints team coming to Charlotte for Week 2, the Panthers have to right the ship…and do it quickly. They need to have their leader, Cam Newton, make smarter plays. Yes, he’s flashy and puts up incredible numbers. But his mistakes are costing the team wins. “He did make some mistakes and it was, at times, unlike him,” Rivera said. Rivera also credited Newton for several of his second-half throws. Again, like the running game, the line did Newton no favors. He was sacked three times and hurried other times.
An NFC South battle next Sunday (against New Orleans) with both coming off embarrassing losses, in my opinion, should be a great match-up. The NFL season is a long one…for a reason. No team thinks they are done already. Last season in Week 1, the Bears beat the Falcons…the Steelers lost by 28 and the Giants lost to a dreadful Washington team by two touchdowns. No one goes undefeated in the NFL. The Panthers are a talented team with a lot of expectations on their shoulders. How they answer next Sunday will determine a lot. And with their next three games (Sunday’s vs. the Saints; Thursday night at home against the Giants and a road game at Atlanta) being equally tough…this team can be 0-4, 1-3, 2-2 or 3-1 by the end of September. We should know a lot about the character of this team by then.