TAMPA, Fla. — The Carolina Panthers played their last game of the 2011 season on the first day of 2012. Since then we’ve waited – players, coaches, team officials, a city, a region and fans.
The 2012 season was going to be something. You could tell. Expectations and excitement were as high for the Panthers as they’ve ever been. Why not? The defense was healthy and the offense less young and, look out, here they come.
On Sunday, on a gray day at a stadium full of empty seats, the Panthers played football again.
But by the time they did, they trailed 13-0.
Comatose Carolina spotted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a lead, didn’t score until the third quarter, and lost 16-10.
In the first half, the Panthers couldn’t pressure Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman and couldn’t protect their quarterback Cam Newton.
The Buccaneers, who last season would have struggled to score if they were on the field by themselves, drove 80 yards the first time they had the ball. They moved in steps small and steady, using more than seven minutes before they reached the end zone.
The second time the Buccaneers had the ball they drove 32 yards for a field goal.
The third time the Buccaneers had the ball they drove 90 yards for a touchdown and required more than 12 minutes to do it. The drive was aggravating because it was so easy. The Panthers not only failed to stop the Buccaneers. They failed to disturb them.
Carolina’s offense, meanwhile, was overwhelmed. I kept waiting for officials to penalize the Buccaneers for having too many men on the field.
Last season, the Panthers were creative. One of the reasons they could afford to be creative was because their featured backs, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, each rushed for an average of 5.4 yards a carry.
On Sunday, Carolina’s long run was 5 yards, and it was on a pitch to wide receiver Kealoha Pilares. Wherever they went, a Buccaneer awaited.
“They didn’t show a lot of stuff that they did” Sunday, says Panther coach Ron Rivera.
In other words, Tampa Bay used schemes and formations the Panthers had not anticipated. The Buccaneers surprised the Panthers.
The Panthers surprised only themselves.
Center Ryan Kalil, one of Carolina’s best players, didn’t know why the Panthers couldn’t run or protect their quarterback. He said he’d need to look at the tape. He acknowledged the offensive line was outplayed.
Carolina’s defense deserves credit; the longer the game went the better it performed. After giving up 13 first downs in the first, half, it gave up five in the second. After giving up 171 yards in the first half, it gave up 87 in the second.
But the offense was tough to watch. Newton regularly was forced to scramble, and the moves that dazzled flailing tacklers a season ago failed Sunday. Although he threw for more than 300 yards, he was never able to make the game his. Twice he threw into coverage and was intercepted.
The special teams, which were not special last season, failed again Sunday, all but inviting the Buccaneers to rush in and block a punt, and then fumbling on a punt return (the Panthers recovered).
So: Carolina was handled by a team that probably will be fortunate to attain the status of mediocre.
But to overreact to one game, be it a victory or a loss, is to be a fool.
The problem is that this was the early-season game the Panthers were favored to win. They get New Orleans, which was upset by Washington on Sunday, at home next week, host the New York Giants after that and then play in Atlanta.
That’s a tough way to start.
Carolina’s lackluster work Sunday makes it tougher.