The Carolina Panthers are a cool 2-0 after outlasting the Bills, 9-3, on Sunday, but that record can’t mask serious concerns about their offense. A week after putting up an underwhelming 23 points against a hapless 49ers defense, the Panthers struggled against the Bills, and ultimately had to survive a two-minute drill from Tyrod Taylor to secure the win. The low points totals are a major concern, but they’re only the symptom of an even bigger problem: Cam Newton doesn’t look like the same player who won the MVP award in 2015 and led his team to the Super Bowl.
After undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder this offseason, Newton has looked pedestrian in his return to NFL action. A week after a ho-hum performance in Santa Clara (14-of-25, 171 yards, two TDs, one interception), Newton struggled again this week, completing 20 of 32 passes for 228 yards, no touchdowns, and no picks. The seventh-year veteran spent most of his day under pressure, with the Bills registering six sacks against him, including one in the fourth quarter that temporarily sent Newton to the sidelines with an ankle injury.
Newton came back in on the very next series, but the Panthers didn’t suddenly start taking pass protection seriously, at least as far as their play calls go:
Panthers spent all offseason talking about protecting Cam Newton and just bootlegged him on a 2nd and 4 after he left with an ankle injury.— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) September 17, 2017
Protecting Newton wasn’t the only problem, as the offense was a mess from top to bottom. The running back duo of Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey picked up just 50 yards on 23 carries, and the Panthers failed to move the ball down the field all game, punting it six times and never finding the end zone. And worse, going forward Newton will be without one of his most reliable weapons, as tight end Greg Olsen broke his foot in the first half.
Even when Newton made plays, it was often only after he miraculously evaded the Bills’ pass rush. That’s a great recipe for highlights, but not one for sustained success.
The dab is back for Cam Newton after this big run on 3rd down pic.twitter.com/hMig0kzarM— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) September 17, 2017
While he’s clearly not getting a lot of help, Newton’s worrisome start to the season isn’t just a product of his supporting cast. The quarterback missed one of the easiest touchdown opportunities he’ll ever see, as he sailed a ball over a wide-open McCaffrey late in the fourth quarter that would have given Carolina the touchdown to put the game out of reach. Instead, the team had to settle for another field goal, putting the contest in the hands of their defense. And it wasn’t Newton’s only missed pass of the day or the season.
Newton still possesses the athletic ability that made him the league’s MVP in 2015. But after two subpar performances in the games since his surgery, it’s fair to wonder whether his arm is still the same. He could just be shaking off offseason rust—but we won’t know for sure until he gets some time to throw in the pocket.