Cam Newton isn’t right and the Panthers aren’t helping him

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If there’s a point Cam Newton can be farthest removed from his 2015 NFL MVP form, one can consider it reached. But the situation won’t get better for Newton and the rest of the Panthers’ offense unless they adjust to his current limitations — and their current weaknesses.

Newton came into Thursday night’s game against the Buccaneers looking to improve upon his losing passing performance in Week 1 against the Rams. He was able to throw the deep ball with more success, but his passing efficiency got worse (25 of 51, 333 yards, 70.1 rating) in another touchdown-less effort.

The Panthers had to settle for four field goals and a safety and Newton couldn’t finish a last-gasp drive; all of that added up to another frustrating one-possession loss, 20-14. Following a game in which Newton rushed only three times for minus-2 yards and was sacked thrice, he rushed only two times for 0 yards and was sacked thrice.

MORE: Bucs vs. Panthers, as it happened

Is Newton’s inaccuracy on short and long throws alike because he’s coming off right shoulder surgery? Are Newton’s rushing and scrambling attempts suddenly low because he’s coming off a foot injury in the third exhibition of the preseason? Coach Ron Rivera was quick to shut down both of those suggestions postgame.

One thing is clear: To dig out of a 0-2 hole, which dropped their record to 1-9 in their past 10 games and extended Newton’s losing streak as a starter to eight games, the Panthers have to accept, at least for the moment, that their quarterback isn’t Superman anymore.

The Buccaneers dared Newton to beat them with his arm by focusing on taking running back Christian McCaffrey out of the game. They loaded the box against the power run and kept him well-covered with a smart man-to-man approach. In years past, that game plan would have destroyed a team.

But offensive coordinator Norv Turner and the Panthers played right into the hands of Bucs coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Arians and Bowles were insistent on Newton proving he could take shots after there were no passes of 20 or more yards against the Rams. 

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Newton got four such big plays Thursday, two each to wide receiver Curtis Samuel and tight end Greg Olsen, but he was wild, too, with plenty of overthrows. He also rushed plenty of short throws and threw often to well-covered receivers in racking up one more incompletion than completion.

MORE: Officiating decisions mark Panthers’ final drive

If health is no longer an issue for Newton, then a lot of the blame should fall on the coaching and personnel not doing much to help get him right. McCaffrey was naturally going to be center of attention for Tampa Bay after he ripped Los Angeles for 209 yards and two TDs on 29 touches. The focus worked as he plummeted to 55 yards on 18 touches.

“You’ve got to bottle him up, you can’t let him get out in space,” Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David said of the plan against McCaffrey. “At the beginning of game, he was slipping out of our hands, but we had to make a conscious effort of everybody gang-tackling and getting to the football.”

Carolina should have anticipated this. It was evident early in the game its opponent was selling out to stop its best offensive player. There could have been ways to get Samuel and fellow speedy wide receiver D.J. Moore involved through misdirection or short passes playing off McCaffrey, to make sure Newton still had an outlet to get the ball out quickly.

Having Newton stand around and survey the field with no threat of his own running doesn’t work. It’s a high-risk offense with a lesser chance of a high reward. Turner’s scheme is power running to set up downfield throws, but when there’s no synergy between the two, there’s usually no steadiness to his offense. There needs to be a way to rebuild Newton’s rhythm and confidence.

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The Panthers have also learned that both of their starting offensive tackles are deficient. Daryl Williams and Taylor Moton aren’t built to hold up for long stretches. The Bucs brought a 3-4 pressure defense that was similar to what the Rams did. Shaquil Barrett was the star pass-rusher of the night, reprising the role Dante Fowler Jr. played in Week 1.

The tackles’ task won’t get any easier in Week 3 against the Cardinals’ Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs. Yet another good 3-4 defense, a Texans unit led by J.J. Watt, awaits in Week 4. The Panthers aren’t built to succeed with a heavy dose of deep passing, even though, on paper, their skill players and Newton should allow for it.

MORE: Takeaways from Tampa Bay’s victory

Newton didn’t make excuses for his latest rough game. He didn’t question the play-calling, even when he was denied a chance to run the ball near the goal line with the game on the line. Turner instead called a fake-reverse outside run on a direct snap to McCaffrey that got neither the game-extending first down nor the game-winning touchdown.

“Whether it’s missed throws, missed protections, whatever, we’re not putting points on the board,” Newton said. “At times we were lethargic, and times we were flat offensively.”

“Stagnant” was another word Newton used, which was absolutely true. The Bucs took advantage of play-calling that didn’t include enough checkdowns or smart little plays. When the Panthers finally turned to unpredictability, the Bucs were prepared for it — because there was no indication Turner would go back using Newton’s legs.

A lot of once-elite quarterbacks have gone through similar slumps. The Panthers have grown used to depending on Newton’s immense physical skills to bail them out. Now that he has arrived at a real career crossroads at age 30, they need to flip the script and let him lean on the rest of them for a while — or else watch him fade into mediocrity, maybe for good.

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