There was a fool’s gold element to the Carolina Panthers’ 34-27 preseason road win over the Baltimore Ravens Thursday night.
Yes, the Panthers edged the defending Super Bowl champions and looked spectacular at times while doing so. But they won despite an offense that was often offensive. Carolina didn’t run a single play from scrimmage inside the Baltimore 20, so its red zone offense was literally nonexistent.
“We won,” center Ryan Kalil said later in the locker room. “But I probably speak for a lot of offensive guys, it doesn’t feel like a win for us.”
Tight end Greg Olsen agreed: “We need to catch up and play a bigger role in the success we’re having. ... It felt a little bit like we lost.”
The Panthers scored 28 of their 34 points on returns Thursday by the defense and special teams. That was a glorious anomaly. NFL teams generally must get most of their points the old-fashioned way – through steady offensive drives – and that is where the Panthers fell woefully short again.
“I’m absolutely not pleased with how I played,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. “Our offense just has to find our mesh.”
Newton has led only one touchdown drive in 14 preseason series. They have punted eight times.
There are problems cropping up everywhere on offense, but here are the top three in my opinion:
The offensive line: It just isn’t getting the push on run plays that it needs to. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula would like to run a more conventional offense. But that doesn’t “mesh,” to use Newton’s word, with the fact that the Panthers simply don’t look strong or disciplined enough to gain a tough yard when they need it. DeAngelo Williams took the blame for not converting on second- and third-and-1 Thursday night on back-to-back snaps
“You’ve just got to make that play,” he said, but in my view there was nowhere for him to go.
Inconsistent wide receivers: Brandon LaFell simply can’t be a No. 2 NFL receiver and then drop Newton’s perfect 20-yard pass on third-and-10 at the Ravens’ 36. David Gettis is the Panthers’ leading receiver in the preseason, but he had another critical drop.
“The first two games our receivers really stepped up and made plays,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “This game we didn’t, and shame on us.”
Newton: It’s not all his fault, but some of it is. His completion percentage (50) and quarterback rating (64.2) in limited work through three games are both well below where they need to be. He has too often thrown the ball too high.
“I’m confident that everybody will play better, starting with me,” Newton said.
Said Rivera immediately after the game of his quarterback: “I have a feeling he made a lot of good decisions. He just has to get his feet set a little bit faster and deliver the ball.”
Whether Newton will get a chance to play better before the regular-season opener in Charlotte vs. Seattle on Sept. 8 is very questionable. Rivera didn’t play Newton or almost all of the rest of the first-team offense at all in the fourth preseason game in 2012, and it’s hard to see him making a different decision this time around.
Then again, Rivera was so disappointed in the offense Thursday he might give the first-team offense a series or two next Thursday vs. Pittsburgh just to get a little more confidence. I would err on the side of caution, though, and not play any of the offensive or defensive starters at all.
But something has to change in the next two weeks. The Panthers gained only 3.46 yards per offensive play Thursday, a “horrific stat,” as Kalil said.
First and foremost, Kalil’s offensive line is going to have to get better. The O-line may end up as this team’s Achilles’ heel. And if it does, these Panthers – despite the promise they exhibited Thursday night – ultimately won’t get very far.