Seven possessions. Seven points.
That’s the sum total of the Carolina Panthers’ first-string offensive output through two exhibitions. One drive produced a touchdown. But Kelvin Benjamin, the player who scored that TD, is now out until the 2016 season with a knee injury.
The six other first-team drives under quarterback Cam Newton have come up empty – and three of them were three-and-outs. Familiar problems have resurfaced, endangering the Panthers’ quest for a third straight playoff berth.
So these four words are what I worry about most – again – with the 2015 Panthers:
Can they score enough?
It’s a recurring problem. Most of the NFL’s best teams scored close to a touchdown more per game last year than the Panthers, who were 19th in the NFL with a 21.2 points per game average.
Carolina rides its top-10 defense for long stretches, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can’t average a point a possession in the NFL unless you want to score about 12 points per game.
“We just have to get on a roll,” Newton said in the wake of Saturday night, when he directed four series and produced zero points. “We have to start faster.”
Newton and his unit will try to do better Friday night at home vs. New England in the third exhibition, where if form holds, he and the first-team offense should play at least the first half.
The quarterback got good pass protection but was plagued by iffy receivers Saturday night, particularly Corey Brown and his two drops (one would have been a touchdown). Tight end Greg Olsen also said Newton’s interception was “totally my fault” when he didn’t win on a route, which turned into a Miami Dolphins defensive back cutting in front of Newton’s timing throw and picking it off.
But the worst feeling for Panthers’ fans actually came after Carolina’s best drive – Newton’s final one, which ended up with Carolina facing a first-and-goal from the Miami 2.
“When you get down to the goal line, first and 2 from the 2, you have to score,” head coach Ron Rivera said.
Carolina didn’t even have a wide receiver in the game on the next four downs as the Panthers tried to bash the ball in through the thick of one of the NFL’s best defensive lines.
Behind six offensive linemen and two tight ends, the Panthers ran Mike Tolbert out of the I-formation on first down for a yard. They did exactly the same thing again and lost a yard. On third down, Carolina ran Cameron Artis-Payne out of the I for a yard. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, they finally did something different, trying a play-action pass that never developed.
Newton ran left and tried to score, but at the last second pulled the ball back in rather than stretching for the goal line pylon as he was about to get clocked by two Dolphins. Newton said later that if it had been the regular season he would have reached out and risked the injury and that “I know I would have got in.”
Still, he didn’t.
Carolina wouldn’t have called the four plays in the series the same way in the regular season. Newton would probably have gone over the top at least once and Jonathan Stewart would have gotten at least one carry.
But the larger problem is that Carolina’s first-team wide receivers were extremely ineffective, especially Brown. The need for rookie Devin Funchess to progress quickly was never more apparent. He didn’t play vs. Miami because of a hamstring injury, and the Panthers obviously need him with Kelvin Benjamin gone.
Said Rivera: “I’m a little disappointed in that we really didn’t have anyone step up with the first bunch in terms of the wide receiver corps.”
Carolina spread a thin layer of good feelings atop that disappointment by scoring 31 points with its second- and third-teamers, enough to win a wild game 31-30.
But the fact remains that the second- and third-teamers won’t play much once the Sept. 13 opener at Jacksonville rolls around. It is up to the offense – and particularly to Newton, the team’s $103.8-million quarterback – to shoulder its share of the load.