The Carolina Panthers are off to a great start at 3-1, but what about the sluggish offense?
Last year the Panthers went 6-10 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Cam Newton went from being MVP in 2015 to having the worst season of his career.
It was announced after the season that Cam had a partially torn rotator cuff that could have hampered him during the second half of the season. That sounded believable (except for the fact that arm strength wasn’t Cam’s problem — he was throwing hard enough).
The team spent its first two draft picks on quick receivers who could give a boost to the offense.
So how is it going so far? First-round pick Christian McCaffrey has been as impressive looking as advertised, and the team is trying to get him several touches a game. He has 31 carries and 22 receptions in four games. If that keeps up, he would finish the season with 124 carries and 88 catches.
That 88 catches would be the most by any Panther since 2005 when Steve Smith had 103 in his career season.
Compare that to Cam’s usual neglect of running backs. In 2016, Jonathan Stewart, Fozzie Whitaker and Cameron Artis-Payne combined for just 34 receptions. That is barely two per game. In 2015, the three backs had 33 catches, but FB Mike Tolbert did add another 18 to help.
Outside of McCaffrey, the passing attack this season is looking pretty weak.
Second-round pick Curtis Samuel battled a hamstring injury in the preseason. Then he was behind the learning curve to start the season. He’s only had four catches for 12 yards, and now he’s listed as questionable this weekend with a back injury.
Former first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin looks really slow. He wasn’t a speedster even before a knee injury in 2015 cost him the whole season. He ran a 4.61 in the 40 at the NFL Combine, which is more like what a linebacker runs, not a #1 receiver. He would be a fine choice as a possession receiver, but he doesn’t get open enough to be the team’s top threat.
Kelvin’s on pace for about 850 yards receiving, which is pretty good for a second WR, but not for a first.
Greg Olsen had three straight 1,000-yard seasons, but now he’s on the injured reserve with a broken right foot. Backup TE Ed Dickson has only been targeted nine times in four games, so Cam just doesn’t look for him as often as he did Olsen.
A new addition to the injured reserve is reserve WR Damiere Byrd. After leading the team in wow moments in the preseason, Byrd had yet to catch a pass in four games before suffering a forearm injury. He won’t be available again until at least Week 13.
Russell Shepherd was a hero in Week 1, catching a pass near the sideline, staying inbounds and finishing off a 40-yard TD. Except for that one play, however, he’s only had three other catches in four games.
Is that it? Is there no bright spot on this team?
I hesitate to say this, but Devin Funchess had a good game against the Patriots. He was targeted nine times and finished with seven catches for 70 yards and two TDs. He caught a key third-down pass even after limping to the sideline with a calf cramp.
In the first game (when Olsen was healthy), Funchess had two catches. Since then he’s had 15 catches in three games for 196 yards and two TDs. If that production continues, he would finish the year with exactly 1,000 yards and 11 TDs.
So why the hesitancy? Last year.
In the summer of 2016, everyone at Wofford College (where the Panthers hold training camp) said that Funchess looked like a Pro Bowler in the making. After a so-so rookie season with just 31 catches, Funchess was poised for a monster second year.
Instead, he had just 23 catches and averaged a meager 25 yards a game receiving. Maybe he’s poised for a breakout season, or maybe it was just a bad New England secondary making him look like a stud. I mean, he was left all alone on one of the TD catches — high school kids could’ve scored there.
Still, we have to remember that Funchess only played one year at WR in college. His freshman and sophomore years at Michigan were at TE because of his 6-foot-4 height. He was the Big 10 Tight End of the Year in 2013.
He slipped to the second round of the 2015 draft after running a 4.70 time in the 40 at the combine. However, Funchess has since noted that he was dealing with a sore hamstring, and when Michigan had its pro day, he ran a 4.47.
A guy who is 6-foot-4 and can run a 4.5 time in the 40 is an impressive physical specimen. So why hasn’t he emerged already? Panthers.com posted an article on Funchess this week and reminded people that one year in college isn’t enough time to learn how to properly run routes. He is still learning how to set up cornerbacks before he makes his cut.
Even with the injury issues, and Funchess’ learning curve, the direction of the offense is already paying dividends for the quarterback.
Last year, Cam’s completion percentage (52.9) and QB rating (75.8) were career lows.
This year, despite already throwing five interceptions, Cam’s passer rating of 85.5 is still back around his career average (86.1). And, he’s well ahead of his best accuracy mark — 65.2 percent compared to 61.7 percent in 2013.
While the short drop-off passes may frustrate some who like to see the deep ball, the accuracy has helped Cam in the important stat of yards per attempt. He is averaging 7.9 yards, compared to his career average of 7.5.
Just imagine what could happen if Olsen and Samuel get healthy.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.