CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Only five games into the season and the Carolina Panthers look nothing like the team that went 15-1 last year and lost in the Super Bowl.
These days, the reigning NFC and three-time NFC South champions are struggling with a little of everything — shaky defense, injuries, turnovers, you name it — in a shocking 1-4 start to the season.
And after a mistake-filled 17-14 home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a last-second field goal, the Panthers are left to explain how they can turn it all around.
“Stuff like this happens in the NFL,” cornerback Teddy Williams said. “You can be great one year and come back and have a season like this. But at the end of the day we’re only five games in, you really can circle the wagons and know that it’s a long season, and come back strong and really finish stronger than you started.”
Injuries have been a huge problem, starting with Monday’s absence of reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton. He missed this one after suffering a concussion after taking a hard shot to the head when he pulled up near the goal line on a 2-point conversion in a loss at Atlanta.
Carolina has also been without top tailback Jonathan Stewart since Week 2 with a hamstring injury. Two other starters, left tackle Michael Oher (concussion) and cornerback James Bradberry (toe), were also out along with first-round draft pick Vernon Butler (ankle) at defensive tackle.
But the problems run deeper, starting with the fact the Panthers are committing way too many mistakes.
Carolina had four turnovers Monday night, three coming from backup quarterback Derek Anderson. The most costly was a goal-line interception in which Anderson threw into double coverage looking for Greg Olsen — Brent Grimes made a leaping grab in the end zone — with the teams tied at 14-all midway through the fourth quarter.
That pushed the Panthers to 14 turnovers through five games after committing 19 during their 15-win regular season a year ago.
Carolina got the ball only once more, a three-and-out that ultimately led to the Buccaneers’ winning drive. By the end, Carolina had finished with nearly 100 more total yards (414-315) but plenty of empty possessions.
“We moved the ball when we wanted to,” Anderson said. “We did a lot of good things. Unfortunately we had bad plays at the wrong time. That’s kind of what it came down to.”
Overall, Carolina’s offense is averaging about a touchdown less per game from its NFL-best 31.2-point average last season, while the defense has struggled to get a pass rush and is surrendering 27 points per game after allowing about 19 a year ago.
Carolina is also committing more penalties. They’ve committed 39 penalties for 330 yards, including a 15-yard facemask by Kony Ealy while trying to tackle Jacquizz Rodgers in the final minute to set up Roberto Aguayo’s 38-yard field goal for the win.
The Panthers travel to New Orleans this weekend before getting a needed bye. They can only hope that gives them a chance to get healthy and regroup.
“The things that we aren’t doing a good job of, we need to fix,” center Ryan Kalil said, “and we need to fix them right away.”