CHARLOTTE — Missed opportunities.
Last year’s trend has spilled over into this season, and the Carolina Panthers are 0-1 with a short week looming.
Their 30-27 loss to the defending NFC champion Rams might ultimately not be a game to lose sleep over, but the Panthers should’ve won it. And that’s something we saw over and over last season.
And while Panthers played hard to the end, coming back from a deficit to make it close, the game might’ve been decided in the opening minutes when Carolina drove into Los Angeles territory three times yet went to halftime trailing 13-3.
“More than anything else, missed opportunities,” Coach Ron Rivera said, a refrain from last year’s disastrous season that almost got everybody fired.
They all survived it a year ago, but it was a bit alarming to see the same issues that turned a 6-2 team into a 7-9 team.
With a year in coordinator Norv Turner’s offense and the return of a presumably healthy Cam Newton, the Panthers expected to be much improved. And maybe they will be ultimately.
At key moments of the game, Carolina looked all too familiar. And maybe most troubling of all was that the Panthers wasted one of the great performances in franchise history.
Christian McCaffrey looked like the best player in the NFL, gaining more than 200 yards from scrimmage, rushing for 121, scoring two touchdowns and showing what Turner’s quick-hit offense is supposed to look like.
What isn’t clear about the offense is effectiveness of Newton. Carolina never really took a shot deep downfield, a glaring tell last season that resulted in the Panthers eventually admitting Newton’s shoulder wasn’t right, requiring offseason surgery.
Carolina ended up with 343 yards in offense with Newton passing for 239, but it was from a combination of runs, dump passes and crossing patterns for the most part.
Newton’s longest completion was 17 yards, and that was a catch-and-run by McCaffrey.
Rivera insisted Newton is just fine.
“He’s not limited in any way at all,” Rivera said. “He went out there and played his game. It was unfortunate. We had some good opportunities against a good football team.”
Rivera said much of the performance was based on the packages the Panthers used and didn’t use, and he said some of the mistakes like game management was on him. Carolina never got into the 3-4 defense it instituted in preseason, choosing to play with nickel packages and even dime packages with extra defensive backs. And on offense, the Panthers built everything around the “Cat Pack” group of skill players.
Against one of the best teams in the NFL, Carolina took some things from this game that it will build on. But the film of this game is already being studied in Tampa Bay, which comes to Charlotte for a Thursday night game, and every other team on Carolina’s schedule.
What they’ll see is a younger and faster version of last season with one of the most dynamic players in the league, McCaffrey; a quarterback coming off shoulder surgery and a preseason foot injury; and an unorthodox offense that uses an underneath attack, either because of Carolina’s speed or Newton’s lack of arm strength deep downfield.
It was a lot to digest in the first game, and while Rivera seemed a little too happy that the Panthers hung in against the NFC champions, the reality is Carolina had the opportunity to win.
In the short week between now and Thursday, the Panthers need to find a way to protect Newton better and find a way to dictate the game with their defense.
Neither of those things happened against the Rams.
It wasn’t a step back, though the explanation and excuses sounded like a step back in time.
Carolina should be better this season than last.
But the Panthers also should’ve won this game.