CHARLOTTE – If the Panthers had gone those final 16 yards to beat the Redskins, this week would’ve been so different.
A 4-1 record with a trip to play the reigning Super Bowl champs up next?
That's a fun buildup.
Instead, there are plenty of questions about what went wrong and what needs to be fixed on a 3-2 team.
That’s not as fun. Especially for the quarterback.
“We good. We are good. I don’t know if these questions are just kind of rubbing me the wrong way, but look, we are good,” Cam Newton said Wednesday. “Ain’t no need to worry about whatever hasn't happened or what we need to do. We don't need to change nothing. We just need to shore up some things.
“Everything was all good just a week ago, but now, all of a sudden we have one loss or a loss that we know we were capable of winning the game, then everybody wants to kind of ask questions about deep passes, ask questions about certain players.”
But five games is now enough of a sample size to have some legit concerns, including about the deep passing game. Or the lack of one so far.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Newton is 1-for-14 on passes that have traveled 20-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage this season. That “1” was Devin Funchess’ leaping 23-yard score last week. And according to Pro Football Focus, Newton’s passer rating on throws of 20-plus yards is 34.9, good for 35th among quarterbacks who have played at least three games.
Those numbers combined with the early-season offensive explosions around the league make it fair to wonder if something’s wrong with Carolina’s vertical offense.
“I wonder if the wins and losses are exploding,” Newton countered. “I've seen quarterbacks have 100 yards and they blow them out. I've seen quarterbacks have 500 yards and they get (blown) out. Who cares about stats? The most meaningful stat in all of sports is wins and losses – straight up.”
A sentiment echoed by Ron Rivera.
“Yeah, it would be good to expand on it, but I'm not concerned about it,” Carolina’s head coach said when asked about the lack of deep connections. “We have won three games. I know we've lost two, but we've won three with it. I think the quarterback is very efficient with it right now.
“There’s no reason to panic.”
As advertised, offensive coordinator Norv Turner has done wonders for Newton’s completion percentage. He’s at 65.9, outpacing his career-best mark of 61.7 in 2013. But Newton is also averaging just 6.8 yards per completion, tied with Baltimore’s Joe Flacco for 27th among guys with at least 90 attempts.
“When we get into the logistical things of football and what the defense is giving and what they aren't, you just can't go down and chuck the football downfield and just expect, ‘Well, we didn't take shots in the game,’” Newton said.
“Whatever Norv and his offensive staff calls, it's my job as a quarterback to execute it.”
While Turner essentially built the system Newton has played in since he came to Carolina, former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski called a much different game than Turner or Mike Shula. Newton’s two years under Chudzinski produced his top two seasons in terms of 20-plus-yard completions (33 in 2011, 28 in 2012). Those chunk plays helped lift Newton’s average of such connections through his first six seasons to 23. But in 2017, following offseason shoulder surgery, that number dipped to 17, tied with Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles for 19th most.
So perhaps something’s up with Newton since the surgery, although the downturn in big passing plays that has continued into this season isn’t all on him or the play calls.
A deep passing game requires many moving parts, starting with the offensive line. Despite an injury-filled training camp and preseason, the Panthers’ line has been solid, but perhaps it's one of the reasons why Turner has been hesitant to get vertical more often.
Again, Newton has attempted 14 passes of 20-plus yards. Nine quarterbacks have already gone that deep at least 30 times.
Also, three of Newton’s 20-plus-yard attempts have been dropped, tied for third most on such throws. And as wideout Torrey Smith pointed out, sometimes Newton may be forced to turn away from a possible look downfield for reasons that shouldn't fall at his feet.
“If we don't get off clean, it could throw the timing off a little bit,” Smith said. “There's so many different things that go into play with the deep ball. I think people think sometimes you're just going back and dialing it up. It's not that we haven't called them. It's just that we didn't get the ball off or we haven't executed the way that we could've. So it's a little bit on all of us in terms of our fault as to why it hasn't been the way it should be.
“I know even just for myself, you can pull a play or two from each game and go, ‘All right, that could have been it. That could have been a long touchdown.’”
Like Smith’s third-quarter sprint past the Giants’ defense in Week 5.
“He ran down the middle and beat everybody,” Turner said last week. “Cam just didn’t see him.”
So here's the thing: This isn’t all on Newton. Nor is it all on the play calls, the offensive line or not getting speedster Curtis Samuel more involved. It’s all of the above. And while the Panthers may not be panicking now, how to get vertical more often in a league full of explosive passing offenses is something they probably need to figure out sometime soon.
“We're just in Week 6. Nobody has ever won a Super Bowl in Week 6 nor has lost a Super Bowl, either,” Newton said. “It's a marathon throughout this whole year and we still have our running shoes on.”
View the photos of the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game against the Eagles.