If you watched the Carolina Panthers’ offense this preseason, it looked almost like a carbon copy of the offensive performance in last season’s Super Bowl.
That’s a problem. After being very efficient during a 15-1 regular season, the Panthers scored only 10 points in the Super Bowl loss to Denver. This preseason, the offense’s performance was lackluster.
“We need to remind ourselves that we’re not pretty good if we just line up and think we’re going to be good. We have to start all over,’’ offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who can make plays, who are self-starters and who don’t want to let each other down. But we’ve got to go prove it all over again.’’
That process officially starts Thursday night in a Super Bowl rematch with Denver. If the Carolina offense struggles in that game, then it’s time to start worrying. But there’s no reason to be concerned about the offense’s showing in the preseason.
It really doesn’t matter because teams aren’t running anything close to their full offense in exhibition games and the Panthers were no exception. They kept things vanilla.
They also weren’t using a good amount of their talent most of the time. Most Valuable Player Cam Newton didn’t play a lot because there’s no sense risking losing a player of that magnitude to a preseason injury. Running back Jonathan Stewart was also used sparingly in training camp and preseason games. Stewart is aging and has a history of injuries and the Panthers wanted to keep him fresh because he’s going to be the main ball carrier during the regular season.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin also was brought along slowly as he recovered from a torn ACL that prevented him from playing last year. Several other offensive starters were used only sparingly.
But things should be different Thursday night. The entire playbook will be used. Newton will play the whole game. Stewart and Benjamin are healthy. All that should make the Panthers much better offensively.
But there’s another factor at work.
The Panthers should be playing with a chip on their shoulder after what happened in the Super Bowl. Especially Newton. After a brilliant regular season, he went cold in the Super Bowl. He also drew heavy criticism for cutting short his post-game interview after giving only a few short answers.
But the Panthers think Newton has grown since the Super Bowl.
“He’s taken ownership even more,’’ Shula said of Newton. “And I say that because I think we were right there. As close as you could possibly be. One drive away. And I know Cam and that’s in the back of his mind and he uses that as motivation.’’
The Carolina offense needs all the motivation it can get for the regular season. But this offense has more going for it than last year’s unit did. Quite simply, it has more talent than last year.
Newton just began hitting the prime of his career last year and should only be better. Of course, he’ll be helped tremendously by the fact he’ll have Benjamin back as his top receiver. Without Benjamin last year, the Panthers used a committee of receivers that played over their heads and tight end Greg Olsen was Newton’s favorite target. There also is hope that second-year pro Devin Funchess can emerge as a quality receiver.
Then, there is Stewart. He was well on his way to 1,000 yards rushing last year before getting hurt and missing the final three games of the regular season. Newton is the league’s best running quarterback and he and Stewart can give the Panthers a strong running game.
Forget how badly the offense played during the preseason. It doesn’t matter. The regular season is here and that means it’s time to see a Carolina offense that’s better than last year.
Count on it.