CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers are 1-3, their MVP quarterback has a concussion and their young secondary just allowed Matt Ryan to throw for 503 yards and four touchdowns.
Yep, the NFC’s best team last season is reeling.
The Panthers are 1-3 for the fourth time in six seasons under coach Ron Rivera, but the two-time NFL Coach of the Year said this one feels different.
“I think we should be better than we are,” Rivera said Monday.
Carolina has won three straight NFC South titles, but is two games behind the Atlanta Falcons (3-1) one quarter of the way through the season.
And now there’s a chance they could be without Cam Newton for a while.
Newton left Sunday’s 48-33 loss to the Falcons in the fourth quarter with a concussion and did not return. Rivera said Newton’s status for next Monday night’s home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is uncertain. The Panthers visit the New Orleans Saints in another division matchup in Week 6 before a bye week.
Derek Anderson, who threw two TD passes and two interceptions against the Falcons, would start if Newton isn’t cleared from the concussion protocol. Anderson was 2-0 as a starter for Carolina in 2014 with both wins coming against Tampa Bay.
Rivera last spoke to Newton after the game at the Georgia Dome and said the quarterback told him, “I’m fine.”
But the coach said he hadn’t spoken to Newton on Monday and that “I have no idea what has come out of the meeting with the doctors.”
The Panthers return to practice Wednesday.
Newton inexplicably slowed down nearing the goal line on a 2-point conversion run on Sunday and took a legal hit from linebacker Deion Jones.
Rivera, a former NFL linebacker with the Chicago Bears, seemed to have no problem with the hit, saying “If I was playing I’d have taken the shot.”
Even before the injury, Newton wasn’t playing particularly smart.
He was flagged for a taunting penalty in the first quarter and finished 14 of 25 for 165 yards and a touchdown with a few overthrows.
Newton has eight combined touchdowns and six turnovers so far this season. At this point last season, Newton had nine combined TDs and three turnovers — and the Panthers were on their way to a 14-0 start and a trip to the Super Bowl. His QB rating (80.2) is at a career low and he’s only completing 57.9 percent of his passes.
The offensive line, which was missing left tackle Michael Oher (concussion) on Sunday, has allowed 13 sacks against Newton, considered to be one of the more mobile quarterbacks in the league.
Rivera said the team needs to learn how to better utilize the options they have on offense.
There’s plenty of blame to go around though.
Carolina’s starting defensive ends Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy have yet to get a sack, and its young secondary allowed Julio Jones to pile up 300 yards receiving — the fourth-most in the Super Bowl era.
The Panthers removed the $13.9 million franchise tag from All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman in the offseason and turned to three rookies to help replace him, including starter James Bradberry. That appears to be a huge mistake for a team well under the NFL salary cap.
Bradberry was outmatched when lined up against Jones, allowing three completions for 51 yards on Atlanta’s first possession before leaving for about two quarters with a toe injury.
When asked about the Panthers problems in the secondary on the “Dan LeBatard Show”, Norman responded, “You get what you pay for.”
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, whose defense had finished in the top 10 in the league the past four seasons, said he expected some growing pains from his young secondary.
“I would be naive to think that wouldn’t have been the case,” McDermott said. “… There’s a lot of communication that goes on there, but that is the challenge that goes on as a coach.”
Still, the Panthers aren’t used to giving up 597 yards in a game.
When asked if he thinks Norman might have made a difference, McDermott said. “I haven’t thought about Josh on our defense since the minute he left. That is how you have to do your job. We have new players in those positions and I have a tremendous amount of confidence in those players and I expect them to do the job at a high level.”