Despite a winning record, the Carolina Panthers look like a team teetering on the edge of a collapse. They have fallen from atop the NFC standings to occupying the muddled middle of the pack in just two week's time, losing valuable ground in the race for the division crown and possibly the team's identity in the process.
Over the past two games, the Panthers have repeatedly tripped over themselves on offense. Mental errors by the players (Russell Shepard's false start in Chicago that caused a half-ending clock runoff) and bad coaching calls (attempting a field goal from the Eagles' two-yard line) took away touchdown opportunities that could have tilted both outcomes. Those mistakes loom large, as the Panthers have averaged just a shade over four yards per play during that stretch, well off the pace they set in their Super Bowl run in 2015 (5.5) or even the underwhelming '16 campaign (5.2). Carolina simply isn't good right now.
Cam Newton is part of the problem. The MVP mojo that he put on display in wins over the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions earlier this season has disappeared. The QB seems intent on forcing the ball to coverage receivers, resulting in multiple takeaways and a pick-six during Sunday's 17-3 loss to the Chicago Bears. Newton's recent penchant for turnovers -- six total in the past two weeks -- ultimately derailed the Panthers' chances in two winnable and important NFC contests.
Newton hardly shoulders the entire blame for the offensive stagnation, however. His offensive line -- or what remains of it after injuries to Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner -- has given up seven sacks and a preposterous 20 hits on the quarterback in their past two outings. The group has also faltered in the ground game in key moments, including Sunday's failed QB sneak on fourth-and-2 deep in Bears territory. That Newton possesses the athleticism to dodge defenders and the frame to absorb myriad blows and remain in the game has allowed Carolina to get away with poor offensive lines in the past. However, those traits don't absolve the unit or the Carolina front office that assembled it.
Meanwhile, Carolina's defense hasn't recovered from the loss of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The former Defensive Player of the Year suffered a concussion against the Eagles, the third diagnosed concussion of his NFL career. Since his exit shortly before halftime in Week 6, the Panthers have given up 25 points to Philly and another 17 points to a Chicago offense that completed just four passes all game, an ominous sign for the defense's chances in Kuechly's absence.
Even more concerning, the linebacker has already missed nine total games after suffering concussions and might require another extended absence to recover from this latest one. Another extended stint on the sidelines would make upcoming matchups with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons look like near-impossible tasks.
The team that crushed opponents with a powerhouse ground game and a deep-shot passing attack on offense and brutalized them with a lightning-quick front-seven and shutdown secondary on defense no longer seems to reside in Charlotte. For the Panthers to correct course, they must rediscover those strengths or create new ones, and that might start with reconfiguring how the offense uses its most dynamic weapon.
The Panthers spent the No. 8 overall pick in do-everything tailback Christian McCaffrey back in April with the hopes of deploying him all over the offense. McCaffrey broke numerous records during his collegiate career at Stanford and blew up the NFL Scouting Combine with an all-around stellar performance. The NFL Draft community beamed with optimism over how a forward-thinking coaching staff could take advantage of his skill set. While he has played multiple roles through seven weeks, Carolina has yet to make him the focal point of the offense.
While McCaffrey rushes the ball multiple times every game, he receives less than half the carries allotted to veteran Jonathan Stewart (99). Limiting the number of times McCaffrey runs into defensive linemen makes sense, but that disparity has kept the rookie from finding his rhythm as a ball carrier.
Instead, the Panthers have regularly split McCaffrey out wide as a receiver or motioned him out of the backfield. The tailback does have the pass-catching acumen of a wideout, but doing so has often left Newton with even less protection than usual, putting the offense at a disadvantage. It also strongly telegraphs Carolina's intentions, further reducing the element of surprise in the team's approach.
The Panthers have already pushed their chips in the middle of the table with McCaffrey. Now, they must give him a role befitting that investment. The team needs to give him the lion's share of the backfield work and find a better balance between his carries and targets. This could determine embattled offensive coordinator Mike Shula's future in Carolina.
On defense, the Panthers have little choice but to hope for a healthy and speedy return for Kuechly. The defense requires him and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis to roam from sideline to sideline, taking away the short passes and stopping runs near the line of scrimmage. The scheme falls apart without that element in place, leading to the issues the unit has endured over the past six quarters.
If the Panthers can develop a more flexible, nuanced offense and Kuechly can return to the field in the coming weeks, perhaps they can climb back toward the top of the conference and regain pole position in the NFC South. Otherwise, the team could see its stock plummet even further, perhaps out of the playoff field altogether. Should that occur, expect the fallout to be swift and complete.