Fowler: Why the Panthers’ 1-4 record this year feels different

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comOctober 14, 2012 

Why are fans so disappointed with the Carolina Panthers?

In 2011, after five games, the Panthers were 1-4. In 2012, after five games and coming off a bye on Sunday, they also are 1-4.

So why all the outcry this season? Why – in my own opinion and also based on the emails I trade and the conversations I have with fans – does this year seem so much worse?

Panthers fans are pretty used to losing, after all. Carolina has missed the playoffs in 13 of its 17 full seasons. It looks like a very good bet to miss them once again in 2012. But the fog surrounding the 2012 team feels thicker than usual.

Here’s my three-part theory:

1) A simple lack of scoring.

In 2011, the Panthers lost their fifth game at home, 30-27, to New Orleans. It was a compelling game to the end.

In 2012, the Panthers lost their fifth game at home, 16-12, to Seattle. It was a compelling game to the end.

The difference? The Panthers scored more last year. Steve Smith caught a 54-yard touchdown pass in that New Orleans game. DeAngelo Williams had a 69-yard touchdown run. Even though they went home frustrated, fans also had more big moments to talk about. The games were more fun to watch.

This year’s offense has been tepid. The Panthers scored 10 points against Tampa Bay, seven against the New York Giants and 12 against Seattle (and that included a defensive touchdown and an intentional safety). All three were losses. Fans have grown way too familiar with rookie punter Brad Nortman since he’s on the field so much.

The Panthers averaged 25.4 points per game while going 6-10 in 2011. They average 18.4 this season. That’s really the difference, a touchdown per game, but it has felt worse.

2) Cam Newton’s temporary on-field regression.

This goes hand in hand with point No.1. It’s not a permanent problem. Newton remains the player the Panthers must construct their team around and I believe he is due to play a good game at home against Dallas on Sunday.

But I would agree with head coach Ron Rivera, who said last week that Newton is pressing too much on the field. I would go further, in fact, and say that Newton has regressed compared to the first five games of his rookie year. Remember, he threw for more than 400 yards in his first two NFL games (although the Panthers lost both).

This year Newton has had two good games (New Orleans in a win and Atlanta in the loss that will haunt Carolina all season) and three bad ones. Defenses haven’t totally figured him out, but they certainly have a better idea of what he wants to do and are trying to take it away. And as Newton’s honeymoon period concludes, he is also being judged against a far tougher standard – his own performance of 2011, rather than Jimmy Clausen’s performance of 2010.

3) The Ryan Kalil ad.

In late July, without mentioning it to anyone in the Panthers organization, Kalil took out a full-page advertisement in the Observer which began, “Why the Carolina Panthers will win Super Bowl XLVII” and which ended with Kalil’s signature.

I loved the gesture. But it had some unintended consequences. It was so unusual it gave rise to unbridled optimism from Panthers fans, who suddenly had a respected veteran leader provide a unified voice for their hopes. And serious optimism usually turns to curdled disappointment if things don’t go well. The ad raised expectations dramatically and the Panthers have come nowhere close so far to meeting them.

And so now here we are.

Kalil has been put on injured reserve and declared out for the season because of a foot injury. The Panthers are 1-4. They are about to play a similarly disappointing Dallas team in Charlotte. The Cowboys are now 2-3 after missing a last-second field goal and losing to Baltimore, 31-29, on Sunday.

Is the Panthers’ season completely over?

Of course not. But they need to get themselves well quick – preferably by scoring more points and getting Newton on track. That’s all it will take to solve Panthers fans’ severe emotional issues.

At least for one week.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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