Just a few weeks ago, Cam Newton was “BAAAAACK” and the Carolina Panthers had handed the Arizona Cardinals just their second loss of the season through 10 weeks. There was hope that Newton could be the answer the Panthers needed to the question mark under center. Maybe he would even lead them to the playoffs.
That time might as well have been a lifetime ago.
Carolina hasn’t won a game since, and their four-game slide to 5-9 has them firmly outside of the playoff picture. The only NFC team that is worse and not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention is the New York Giants. Where did it all go wrong?
Almost the entire first half of this season for the Panthers was defined by bad quarterbacking from Sam Darnold. It didn’t take long to see that Carolina had swung and missed when they traded for the former New York Jet. It was also probably a mistake to exercise his fifth-year option as well. When Carolina brought Newton back to the team, it seemed like a perfectly logical move given Darnold’s ineptitude and the Panthers’ inability to trade for Deshaun Watson. Instead, what they’ve gotten from Newton in the five games he’s played in 2021 has (somehow) been a worse option at quarterback than Darnold.
The Panthers were flying high after their first game with Newton active and even higher a week later. Though he lost to his former head coach Ron Rivera and the Washington Football Team in his first start in 2021, the former MVP looked great. He completed a high percentage of his passes, threw a couple of touchdowns, and ran for one more, all without turning the ball over once.
Since then, Newton has been inconceivably bad. Over his last three games, he’s thrown for 426 total yards with one passing touchdown and four interceptions, though he did have a rushing score in each game. Worse than the lack of positive production has been his accuracy. In the last three weeks, Newton has completed just over 46% of his passes, bringing his 2021 completion rate down under 55%. Out of those three games of abysmal play, Newton was benched in all but one.
So… yes. Newton has been a worse quarterback than Darnold this season. Carolina’s prodigal son’s return hasn’t been all that either party hoped for. To make matters more complicated, backup P.J. Walker doesn’t seem to have the faith of the coaches, and Darnold was cleared for contact on Monday. Signs are pointing to the former Jet getting another crack at the Panthers’ starting job before the 2021 season ends. The future under center in Carolina seems bleak.
As if the issues with their quarterback weren’t enough, the Panthers are also feeling the effects of a Christian McCaffrey-sized roster hole. When McCaffrey is healthy, he completely elevates Carolina’s offense as both a fantastic running back and a stellar pass-catcher.
The key words here are “when McCaffrey is healthy,” because that has rarely been the case over the last two seasons. When he isn’t healthy, the Panthers drop from a top-half team in the NFL in rushing yards per game to the bottom 10. A lack of McCaffrey also means the loss of a top receiver on the roster. In the six full games the running back has played this season, he’s been Carolina’s receiving and rushing leader in four of them.
With all that being said, it’s really no wonder the entire Panthers’ offense has seemingly disintegrated in recent weeks. They still don’t have a serviceable quarterback, and with all due respect to Chuba Hubbard, he’s no McCaffrey in the rushing nor receiving game. It’s essentially impossible to run a successful NFL offense without any dynamic, offensive weapons, and the Panthers have learned that the hard way this season. D.J. Moore alone isn’t enough to lift the entire offense.