In an ideal world, this is how the preseason would have gone for the Panthers:
- Game 1 — QB Cam Newton and the rest of the starters play a series or two.
- Game 2 — Newton and the starters play into the second quarter.
- Game 3 — Dress rehearsal; Newton and the starters play at least a half, and maybe into the third quarter.
- Game 4 — Newton and most of the key starters sit out.
Instead, it seems like the Panthers are going through a pseudo-preseason, where it’s almost upside down:
- Game 1 — Newton sat out to rest his surgically repaired ankle.
- Game 2 — Dress rehearsal; Newton and the starters played about a half.
- Game 3 — Newton and most of the starters played into the third quarter.
- Game 4 — Newton and most of the starters will play an undetermined amount.
Last week, in a positive performance against the Chiefs, it appeared things were going in the right direction. But then came Friday night in New England, a dud that left head coach Ron Rivera lamenting his team’s lack of consistency.
“We had opportunities to make plays; we didn’t make the plays. We make a block; we miss a block. We complete a pass; we miss a pass. We had an opportunity to stop a team on third down, and we didn’t do that,” Rivera said.
While the defense had its own issues, the glaring deficiencies were on offense. There wasn’t one person or unit to blame. Newton, the running backs, the offensive line — they all had a hand in an uninspiring performance.
So instead of watching Thursday’s preseason finale from the sideline in Pittsburgh, the starting offense will play. How much they’ll be out there is unclear, but it’s obvious they need more work together.
“It was very evident that we’ve got to get (Newton) out there,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to get our quarterback out on the field, and he’s got to get some timing with those guys.”
Not surprisingly, Newton’s timing with his buddy and rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin appears ok. They connected five times against the Patriots, giving them seven completions in two games. But Newton twice overthrew Greg Olsen, his tight end the last three seasons, and new wideouts Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant didn’t catch a pass. In their two games with Newton, Avant has the only reception between the veteran receivers.
“When you look at the film, we’re getting open. But at the same time, you’ve got to develop that trust in the game,” Avant said. “In practice, we have it, but you’ve got to constantly see a person open, and constantly see a person doing the right thing, and then make the decision and say, ‘He’s always in the spot, so I can trust him to throw it there.'”
It’s obvious the combo of a host of new players and a quarterback that’s been back on the field for less than a month needs more time to jell. When the Panthers return to practice Sunday, they’ll have two weeks before the season opener in Tampa Bay. That doesn’t give them much time, but they do have one more good chance to cram.
“I knew they had to play (against the Steelers), but just how much was really dependent on how well they played tonight,” Rivera said. “And obviously we didn’t play well enough.”