The Carolina Panthers started the 2017 season with such wild inconsistencies and on-field ticks of potential catastrophe that fans braced themselves for cardiac episodes each week.
But now, Carolina has morphed into a team that looks like it could be on the cusp of a deep postseason run.
Quarterback Cam Newton snapped us to attention against Green Bay with a cackling, confident “Watch this!” followed by a slick touchdown pass to rookie running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey, but it was a third-quarter touchdown that gave Carolina’s dramatic season yet a little more meat.
Newton and Greg Olsen ran an identical play to one they failed to complete against the Green Bay Packers in 2015, during their raucous Super Bowl run.
Olsen got a free release out of the slot and beat the safety who was, for some reason, matched with him one-on-one. This time the play was a touchdown.
The score gave Carolina the lead and the Panthers never looked back.
It’s hard to imagine this team, getting hot at the perfect time, will look back again this year.
The Panthers started the season struggling to find offensive consistency and stalled week after week in the red zone. They hit rock bottom in a 17-3 loss in Week 7 against a terrible Chicago team that scored two defensive touchdowns and didn’t do a whole lot else.
But since that day, the Panthers have won six of their past seven games. Newton has thrown two interceptions in the past seven weeks, after throwing 10 in the first seven (including two against Chicago). Carolina improved its red zone production from field goals (or worse) to a 70.83 touchdown percentage. The Panthers scored 18.7 points per game in the first seven weeks, and 28.6 since.
In fact, B.C. (Before Chicago), Carolina had averaged 97.3 rushing yards, a number that climbed to 174.4 (and from No. 21 in the league to No. 1).
And interceptions have popped, too. The Panthers had one in the first seven weeks and nine A.C. (After Chicago).
It’s also hard to remember the chaos – Newton’s injury, the mysterious neck injury of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the Kelvin Benjamin trade, the loss and return of Olsen and Damiere Byrd, and the loss of second-round pick Curtis Samuel.
I turned to big-picture thinker Kurt Coleman in the locker room this week to ask: How did the 2017 Carolina Panthers go from discombobulated to dangerous?
“I feel like that’s an onion question,” he said, with a ponderous exhale, “where there are a lot of layers to it.”
Let’s try to peel them back.
The reality is Newton spent half a season playing catch-up, not just with the integration of new players into the offense, but also with his own body.
Newton played one full preseason series while still healing from offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff. To preserve his body, the team’s plan was to run him less and rely on quick layup passes to McCaffrey (we will get to him later).
But without Newton’s legs as a factor, opposing defenses stopped seeing him as a two-dimensional weapon for the Panthers and keyed in on him in the pocket (while taking advantage of injuries to Kalil and new left tackle Matt Kalil). Perhaps the grimmest reality for Newton on the field came when Saints pass-rusher Cam Jordan all but scoffed at Newton following a Week 3 drubbing, saying that the quarterback was “clearly trying to be more of a pocket passer, and I’m OK with that.”
But as Newton got healthier, he factored his legs back in. McCaffrey and Stewart are also sharing the load more efficiently as Carolina has spread out the defenders in front of them (we will also get to that later). And Newton is back to having a blast on the field.
“And now I think he’s feeling himself,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s feeling a lot better and it doesn’t take as much for him to recover. So you see him more engaged as opposed to having him have to work at getting ready for the next day, getting rid of the soreness so he’s ready to go.”
Linebacker Luke Kuechly has a phrase for that.
“Cam is in ‘Cam Mode’ now,” he said, grinning widely, this week. “And we’re pretty excited about that.”