Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski walked into an interview room at Bank of America Stadium, and was asked how he was doing.
“Could be better,” he said, managing a smile.
Chudzinski’s start-of-the-week doldrums were brought on by his video review of a listless performance from an offense that put up yards and points in bunches last season while re-energizing the Panthers’ fan base.
In Sunday’s 16-10 loss to Tampa Bay, many of the Panthers’ offensive players looked like they’d spent too much time lounging around the pool during their week in Florida.
The Panthers mustered 10 rushing yards – a franchise low and 140 fewer than their average in 2011, when they had the NFL’s third-best rushing attack. They were stymied by a Bucs defense that was the league’s worst against the run last season, allowing 156.1 rushing yards a game.
The Panthers played without running back Jonathan Stewart, who has been out for more than two weeks with a sprained right ankle.
“I don’t know that it would have mattered,” Chudzinski said. “If you miss a block, it’s not going to matter who the running back is sometimes.
“We missed some reads at the running back position, and we missed some blocks at receiver and tight end. So it was a little bit of everybody and a little bit of everything.”
Most of the blame fell on the offensive line, which returned four of five starters from last season. The lone newcomer – rookie left guard Amini Silatolu – had a rough debut, missing blocks and getting whistled for two penalties. But Panthers coach Ron Rivera said some of the veterans were beaten, as well.
“I think in some of the crucial situations, we just lost some one-on-one battles,” Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. “I think everybody kind of took their turn. And the run game just wasn’t very good, wasn’t very decisive.”
DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers’ all-time rushing leader, went backward for minus-7 yards on his first two carries and was not heard from again until the second half. Rivera said the Panthers didn’t abandon the run as much as they adjusted to what the Bucs were doing defensively under first-year coach Greg Schiano.
“It was almost like they said, ‘Hey we’re going to force you to throw the ball. We’re going to force you to become one-dimensional,’ ” Rivera said. “If you pound it, pound it, pound it, next thing you know you’re second-and-10, second-and-12.”
Rivera said the Bucs stacked eight defenders near the line of scrimmage, daring quarterback Cam Newton to beat them. Opponents employed that strategy against the Panthers throughout much of the 2010 season.
But that was with overmatched rookie Jimmy Clausen at quarterback – not Newton, the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 who broke Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record.
“Obviously, we’ve been very successful running the ball. That’s one of the things I think we can expect this season is for people to make you beat them throwing the ball,” Chudzinski said. “And if you’re doing that, they’ll go the other direction.”
Newton was 23-of-33 passing for 303 yards and a touchdown. But he was sacked three times and threw interceptions on consecutive third-quarter series after the Panthers had pulled to 13-7.
“I thought Cam had his moments,” Rivera said. “There were some things early on in the game – he was a little rusty and still working through.”
Others showed an offseason of rust, as well.
Tight end Greg Olsen dropped a pass that would have taken the Panthers near midfield on their first possession. Right guard Geoff Hangartner picked up a false start penalty that moved them out of field goal position, and Kalil sent a shotgun snap to Newton before he was ready.
Rivera said he was optimistic because those are correctable mistakes. As far as the plays when the offensive line was beaten by the Bucs’ more physical defensive front, Kalil said that will not become a trend.
“This is an offensive line that prides itself on running. A lot of the same guys were here when we broke all those records running (in 2008),” Kalil said. “So for us to go out and put that performance on the ground, it’s disappointing for all of us.”
The Panthers tied a franchise low for rushing yards in a game Sunday. The team’s three worst rushing performances previously came during the 2000 season under George Seifert.
10/13/Sept. 9, 2012/Lost to Tampa Bay 16-10
10/12/Oct. 15, 2000/Lost to New Orleans 23-6
11/15/Dec. 17, 2000/Defeated San Diego 30-22
23/16/Dec. 10, 2000/Lost to Kansas City 15-14
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson