With twelve seconds remaining in yesterday’s wild-card game, with Carolina trailing by five points and facing a 3rd-and-23 from the Saints’ 35-yard line, Cam Newton lofted a dangerous-looking pass into the New Orleans end zone. Devin Funchess, ostensibly the Panthers’ number one wide receiver, engaged in some hand fighting with Saints strong safety Vonn Bell and appeared for a second to be in position to snag the winning touchdown. Instead, he didn’t a play on the ball, and it fell uneventfully to the Superdome turf. This effectively concluded Newton’s and the Panthers’ near-miss attempt at an epic comeback in a game that will haunt them all offseason—and perhaps going forward.
On a day when Carolina’s franchise quarterback repeatedly demonstrated resolute and even ill-advised bravado, the Panthers always seemed to be one quality playmaker short of moving ahead in the playoffs. The last gasp with Funchess appeared to underscore what is widely known to be the team’s congenital weakness: Newton is great, and the defense is championship caliber or close to it, but they simply have not surrounded the quarterback with enough elite talent to consistently keep up with top teams. Not to unfairly knock Funchess—he was playing banged up and is essentially a dependable possession receiver miscast in his role—but what if that’s AJ Green or DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone trying to haul in the desperation heave? Under those circumstances, it’s not difficult to imagine the razor-thin margin going Carolina’s way.
Instead, the Panthers will end their season pondering what-ifs. In what was always going to be a brutally tough matchup for them, Carolina did a lot right. Newton had ended the regular season battling one of his periodic bouts of baffling inaccuracy, but he was largely sharp throughout the game, throwing effectively into tight windows to Greg Olsen and checking down to dynamic rookie Christian McCaffrey when nothing else was available. On defense, the Panthers picked their poison and decided to concentrate on shutting down the Saints’ electric run game, which they proved startlingly effective at doing. New Orleans, which stampeded through the regular season with two all-pro running backs in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, was limited to barely fifty hard-earned yards on the ground.
That the Panthers performed credibly on defense and still yielded thirty-one points is a testament to just how good the Saints’ offense is. Undiminished by time and undaunted by the Panthers’ ferocious pass rush, Drew Brees made play after play with his pinpoint accuracy and an uncanny feel for the pocket. Again and again, he delivered big throws, often under pressure and frequently to well-covered receivers. At times he used his legs, rolling to the right and hitting Michael Thomas on the dead run to set up the Saints’ final touchdown. When he is on his game, as he was yesterday, there really isn’t an effective strategy for stopping him. The Panthers were largely sound and got their licks in, and Brees still torched them for 376 yards and two touchdowns.
He’ll go the Hall of Fame about ten seconds after he’s eligible.
Maybe one day we’ll say the same of Cam Newton. He’s got the talent and heart of an all-time great, and he more than held his own in yesterday's duel with his storied counterpart. But the Panthers will need to do some soul-searching if they want their star to experience Brees-like longevity. Newton is so android-hulking, so startlingly physical and fast, that it can be easy to overlook the terrible toll that his playing style often exacts. He frequently seems to relish the contact other quarterbacks dread, and nothing in Carolina’s game plan discourages these punishing engagements. However, the perilous risk of this approach became only too clear with nine minutes remaining, after an ill-advised scramble led to a grotesque collision with David Onyemata, leaving Newton woozy and unable to leave the field on his own power.
Two truths seemed inextricable in that moment: 1) Newton probably had a concussion and should have been ruled out of the game; and 2) if that was the case, the game was essentially over. At that point, the Panthers trailed only 24–19, but Derek Anderson wasn’t coming in and pulling off a comeback. Of course Newton returned, and of course he performed brilliantly after having half of his head caved in. But the micro-truth for the Panthers matched the macro-truth league-wide: subjecting your star players to this level of abuse is not a sustainable model for the long term. If Newton is to fulfill his promise and win a championship or two over the duration of a legendary career, he needs the team to protect him from his own masochistic-heroic impulses. The best way they can do that is to surround him with better talent.
The offseason starts now, and it figures to be a pivotal one for the Panthers. Newton is twenty-eight, under contract, and in his prime. Ron Rivera has proven a dependable winner at head coach, lending the organization some much-needed stability in the wake of the departure of execrable owner Jerry Richardson. The front office situation remains unsettled, with Marty Hurney serving as interim GM, and the sooner that situation is resolved the sooner they can begin the process of finding Cam help through free agency and the draft.
Until then, this near miss will be a bitter pill. The Panthers were one play, and perhaps one playmaker, from becoming a terrifying matchup in the divisional playoffs. Instead, they’ll watch from home and once more ponder a strong season that slipped away.