Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said a couple of weeks ago his team needed to establish an identity.
As the Panthers stumbled into the bye week with a 1-4 record, they were still searching for that identity on offense.
After setting franchise records last season in total yardage and first downs a year after finishing with team lows in both categories under John Fox the Panthers decided to build on their strength for 2012.
They extended the contract of veteran wideout Steve Smith, gave running back Jonathan Stewart a lucrative extension and brought in free-agent fullback Mike Tolbert to diversify the attack.
But an offense that was both exciting and productive last season has been neither in 2012. Through five games, the Panthers rank 22nd out of 32 teams in total offense a big drop for a unit that that finished seventh last season.
Passing yards are down, rushing yards are down, and points are down.
The Panthers have been held below 13 points in three of their five games. They scored fewer than 13 points just once last season a 30-3 loss to Tennessee.
And that identity?
Our offensive identity is that were an attacking offense and we can run the ball or throw the ball in any situation, and do whatever it takes to win that game, Chudzinski said. In the games that weve played well weve been able to do those things. Weve played balanced offense and been able to throw and get some good plays down the field. In the games we havent played well, we havent started well or got in a rhythm and things have tended to snowball on us and we havent been able to break out.
Rivera said he wants the Panthers to attack vertically, as they did in 2011 when they led the league with 90 plays of 20 yards or more. With that commitment to a downfield passing attack, critics have questioned whether the Panthers were wise to invest $43.5 million in guaranteed money to retain running backs DeAngelo Williams and Stewart.
Rivera, Chudzinski and the Panthers offensive players say theres a place for the backs in the offense when its clicking. Thats happened twice in a 35-25 win over New Orleans and a 30-28 loss at Atlanta.
Second-year quarterback Cam Newton has taken most of the criticism for the Panthers uneven offensive play. Rivera said he thinks last years AP Offensive Rookie of the Year is pressing forcing throws into coverage downfield when underneath receivers are open.
Rivera and Chudzinski said Newton is holding on to the ball too long at times, waiting for receivers usually Smith to come open downfield. That has led to 13 sacks, four more than at this point last season.
When the Panthers decided to cut ties with veteran guard Travelle Wharton and underachieving, oft-injured tackle Jeff Otah, it left them with two young starters on the offensive line rookie guard Amini Silatolu, a second-round pick from Division II Midwestern State, and second-year tackle Byron Bell, an undrafted free agent who started 12 games in 2011.
We have some young players in there in terms of Amini, whos got a lot to learn. And Byron Bell, whos still learning, Rivera said. But having said that, our veteran guys have to step up. Some of those guys have to take the bull by the horns and show the younger players how to do it. Because we have enough quality leadership on this team, we have enough veterans on this team, that they can lead.
The Panthers lost one of those leaders last week when Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil was diagnosed with a season-ending foot injury. It was the first significant injury for the Panthers, who last season placed a team-record 18 players on injured reserve.
Geoff Hangartner, who will shift from right guard to center to replace Kalil, said it has been a frustrating season for an offense from which much was expected. Weve had some plays in some games that we played pretty well, and it felt like things were clicking, Hangartner said. Then weve had some games where it felt like nothing worked. The game against Seattle being one of them offensively that we never got in a rhythm, never got the ball moving, never looked like ourselves.
In a 16-12 loss to Seattle, which has the NFLs No. 2-ranked defense, the Panthers failed to score an offensive touchdown and finished with 190 total yards, the lowest in two seasons under Rivera.
Have defenses adjusted?
Chudzinski said he planned to spend a big part of the bye week self-scouting his offense to see if there are certain plays, formations or tendencies that need tweaking. A popular theory one even Rivera gave credence to is that defensive coordinators have had a year to study Newton and the Panthers zone-read and vertical stretch attacks.
But Chudzinski said no one has reinvented the wheel against the Panthers. Its not anything thats earth-shattering. I think there are things that are in the defensive playbook 101, Chudzinski said. Nothing that you look at that and say, What is this, that youve never seen before.
A running back has led the Panthers in rushing once in five games. But Carolina actually has been more balanced than they were through five games a year ago (see chart).
The problem has been that in three games, neither the running game nor passing attack was particularly effective.
Williams, who had a fumble and a dropped pass against the Seahawks, said he stands behind Chudzinski.
We believe in Chud like we believe in ourselves. He cant go out there and run the plays that he calls. Theres no magic plays, Williams said. But we can make them magical by bringing them to life by execution and making them work out on the field.
Stewart, who has missed two games with injuries, believes the Panthers are close to breaking out based on flashes of things that weve seen over the last couple games, last year, practice.
Added Stewart: We know that were inches away from breaking away.
With the commitment the Panthers made to the offense, Williams said it has created a situation with a lot of people calling for that one rock.
But Williams said the playmakers at every position give him confidence the Panthers can turn things around.
We try to make the best of our opportunities when we get the rock in our hand. We just havent made the plays that we need to make to have this offense go, Williams said. I think that were striving for that. And I know that were going to make that go, and we will be a better team.
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