In August of 2015, no one will forget the moment Kelvin Benjamin went down with a non-contact injury during a joint practice with the Miami Dolphins. As much as Panther Nation's hearts went out to Kelvin for a sophomore season ending injury, the situation posed a more pressing question for the Carolina Panthers offense; Who would Cam Newton throw to besides Greg Olsen? As the season played out, the Panthers QB answered by spreading the ball around to the likes of Corey Brown, Jericho Cotchery and Ted Ginn Jr. along with their new draft pick Devin Funchess in a 15-1 MVP season that came up a few plays short of a Lombardi trophy.
Fast forward to the present where the 4-1 Panthers have finally seemed to figure out their offense despite losing arguably Cam's true safety blanket in Tight End Greg Olsen, who left week two’s matchup against the Buffalo Bills with a fractured foot. Carolina would go on to hang on to the win vs Buffalo, but completely sputtered the following week against a New Orleans Saints team who came into Bank of America Stadium hungry for a win. The two games after however, paint an entirely different picture.
Many factors go into why weeks 4 and 5 have been different from the first three and I honestly don't think it has anything to do with "luck". With Cam Newton coming off shoulder surgery this offseason, he had virtually no training camp or preseason games to prepare. In fact, week 1 at San Francisco was the first time Panthers fans really experienced Cam throwing a football downfield, to which was even few and far between at that. There's not denying it, Cam was extremely off in his debut, but luckily it was somewhat irrelevant to the result of the game. Missing wide open receivers, throwing into double coverage and more, this was certainly not the offense Panthers fans expected with the draft splashes Carolina made in Philadelphia in April. The Panthers barely operational offense continued through Buffalo with Cam looking a little better, but still struggling against ex defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and while both games resulted in a win, it was apparent that this inability to score would not get past some of the powerhouses in the NFL. Is it possible that offensive coordinator Mike Shula was holding back the 2017 Panthers playbook until a healthy Cam Newton could effectively run it? We usually aren't up for giving Shula this amount of credit, but the following weeks seemed to unveil more of the plan.
As a Bostonian, I'll be the first to say I gave the Panthers zero chance to win in my city. Doing the math, teams coming into Foxboro have to generally score more than 30 points to even sniff a win and as October 1st approached, this just flat out didn't seem possible to me from the three weeks of Panthers offensive film I'd seen. From the opening kickoff however, things just looked for a lack of a better term....different. What were these formations? 3x1 and 4x1 bunch sets weren't what we saw in the first 3 games or 2016 and in addition to that they were working and working well. Newton slung the ball around Gillette stadium like an entirely different person. Patriot fans never phased by Newton's success were quick to point out how bad their defense is but I wasn't sure that was entirely the case, although I'd take a win here however we could get it. An offense that previously constantly showed a stagnant two WR set with forced deep balls to slower receivers and hold your breath plays was now spreading the field with multiple playmakers running YAC eating routes for long drives and even getting their under the radar guys involved as seen in the Fozzy Whittaker screen touchdown.
More importantly, the "show me you can do it again" game would come this past Sunday as the Panthers traveled to Detroit, a much better defense and it didn't come without a little distraction baggage due to Cam Newton's mid week controversial remarks to Charlotte beat writer Jourdan Rodrigue. Regardless of how you personally felt about what was said and the actions that followed, football wise this was either going to bring out the struggling, bad decision Newton even more, or summon the 2015 NFL MVP. Luckily, it looked like more of the later. Here is evidence of Cam going through his reads without mentally staring anyone down. He goes through the play progression, doesn't force the football, moves around the pocket and delivers a well placed strike to Devin Funchess for six.
Since the departure of Greg Olsen, Cam has been on a whole 'nother level, or at least in the past two weeks, in games most thought he would struggle in. (I'll chalk the Saints game up as just bad everywhere and adjusting in a week to Olsen's void) It definitely makes you ask the question, does Cam Newton become a better Quarterback when he doesn't have a receiving option that he knows he can force the ball to or is this just a coincidence of a Panthers offense clicking in a time where one of them isn't on the field? Either way, let's just hope this continues...