GLENDALE, Ariz. — Just when you thought it might be safe to root for Carolina again without feeling like you had wasted three more hours of your life, here came the old Panthers, getting hammered 22-6 by Arizona.
Same stuff, different Sunday. The Panthers’ one win this season – on Sept. 22 against a New York Giants team that turns out to be awful – seemed long ago on an afternoon when Carolina dropped to 1-3 with a dreadful loss.
That 38-0 Giants win felt like a vacation from reality to Panthers fans. This one felt like Monday morning when your boss piles three weeks worth of work on your desk.
Blame Carolina’s offense for this one, for it tried very hard to answer the question: How many mistakes can one offense make?
Start with the first drive, way back when Cam Newton was as sharp as a cactus. Newton would eventually turn the ball over four times and play one of the worst fourth quarters of his life. But at the beginning, he completed his first five passes in a row.
Carolina got inside the Arizona 10, and Newton threw a sixth straight great pass – this one to Steve Smith on a slant in the end zone.
It hit Smith right in the hands – and the 13-year veteran dropped it.
“That’s not Smitty,” Newton said afterward. “I know that. We all know that.”
Smith did not talk to the media after the game except to say he should be the scapegoat and to “blame” the loss all on him.
Sorry, but that would be too simple. Smith’s drop certainly set the tone, but there was so much else. Brandon LaFell soon would drop a ball from Newton on a fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 15 that would have given Carolina a first down. LaFell said later he was trying to turn and run before he had the ball, that he got “greedy.”
Most disturbingly, the offensive line just got blasted by the Cardinals – particularly in the second half. By the fourth quarter, Newton looked like Jake Delhomme looked that whole playoff game against Arizona following the 2008 season. Newton’s best plays of the fourth quarter involved chasing down players who were about to score with his turnovers.
Newton in the fourth quarter: 3-for-11 for 48 yards, with two interceptions and a lost fumble. He was also sacked twice.
“We’re not going to sob or get beside ourselves and go into our shells,” Newton said later. “We are going to continue to keep fighting.”
Of the Panthers’ six second-half possessions, the best two – yes, the best two – were punts. It went like this, as Carolina lost its 6-3 halftime lead: Punt, safety, interception, punt, lost fumble, interception.
All together, Newton was sacked seven times and knocked down many more. The Panthers are fortunate he wasn’t hurt Sunday.
“Anytime we give up sacks, the O-line didn’t block the guys,” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “There’s a lot of ways I could try to spin it, but if the quarterback is getting sacked, it’s because the offensive line is not blocking well enough.”
The Panthers defense ultimately played well enough to win, intercepting Arizona’s Carson Palmer three times.
The offense did not. Despite his 308 passing yards, Newton looked uncomfortable. He would hold it too long – once taking a sack that pushed Carolina out of field-goal range on third down. Or it would not be his fault at all and he’d just get creamed from the blindside, as on the safety he had to take when Ryan Kalil and Travelle Wharton miscommunicated and let a guy slide right through for a two-point sack.
Newton’s worst throw came on the first play of the fourth quarter. Down 12-6, he faced a third-and-3 at the Arizona 11. He fired a slant to Steve Smith that Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington sniffed out. Washington made an athletic, one-handed interception. But if he hadn’t gotten it, cornerback Patrick Peterson (who already had picked Newton off once) said later that he would have.
So here we go again. The Panthers can move the ball but can’t score TDs. They can’t win a close game (which this was until the very end). They have eight touchdowns all season – five in that uncharacteristically good Giants game, but only a total of three in their three losses.
And so the old questions are all beginning to resurface. NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported on Twitter Sunday that the Panthers had “begun laying groundwork for a possible coaching search, doing background checks on candidates.”
That doesn’t mean coach Ron Rivera is going to be fired, but he certainly will be if the Panthers go 1-3 each quarter of the season and wind up 4-12. As stark as that sounds, that’s the path they are on right now.
Look, Arizona has a good defense, but it’s not that good. New Orleans knew how to bury the Arizona blitzes, hitting the Cardinals up for 31 points two weeks ago.
But Newton is not Drew Brees, and the Saints’ offensive line is not the Panthers’ offensive line, and on and on and on. The Panthers messed up badly on Sunday, traveling 2,100 miles to get sand thrown in their faces in the desert.
“We didn’t protect the football as well as we needed to, and we didn’t protect the quarterback as well as we needed to,” Rivera said.
The season is not over, of course. Said Newton: “We’re not in panic mode. ... Our future is still bright.”
But that was hard to believe on Sunday.
Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler