NFC South: Carolina Panthers

Greg, Kara and TJ Olsen.Courtesy Greg OlsenGreg Olsen and his wife, Kara, take their son, T.J., home after his final procedure.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The call came as the Carolina Panthers were beginning practice on Monday. Just as he had several times over the past few months, tight end Greg Olsen ran back to the stadium for a quick change of clothes and short drive to the hospital.

"He had to go in for a little hiccup," Olsen said.

He is T.J., Olsen's son, the twin to Talbot.

Since being born with hypo-plastic left heart syndrome in 2012, T.J. has undergone four open heart surgeries. Three were expected. The fourth, which came in September when a pacemaker was installed, was not.

In between there have been several "hiccups," as Olsen calls them. But for the most part, despite the long-term uncertainty, things are going as well as can be expected.

[+] EnlargeOlsen
Evan Habeeb/Getty ImagesGreg Olsen is on pace to having one of the best seasons of his career.
Things are going well for Olsen on the field, too. He's on pace for a career year with a team-leading 56 receptions, with 719 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

But as impressive as Olsen has been on the field, he's been more impressive off it in the way he and his wife, Kara, have handled T.J.'s condition while raising their other two children.

In dealing with T.J.'s fight, the struggles the Panthers (3-7-1) have had on and off the field don't seem quite so bad.

"It puts a lot of things in perspective," Olsen said as he anticipated spending Thanksgiving with his family. "This time of the year you kind of stop and count your blessings and just think how fortunate we are.

"We've learned a lot about ourselves as a family about perseverance and continuing to be mentally strong and continue to take the good with the bad and wake up the next day and do it all over again."

Many of Olsen's days this season began waking up at the hospital before going to work. During one four-week stretch, Olsen spent about six nights a week at the hospital while Kara stayed at home with Talbot and older brother Tate.

Through all this, Olsen has learned a lot about himself as a husband, a father, a player and a teammate.

"It hasn't been easy," said Olsen, who with his wife and Levine Hospital started the initiative "The Heartest Yard" to help provide care for other kids like T.J. "We haven't shied away from that. His road is a little unclear going forward for the long, long haul.

"And we understand that. We're confident he's doing to do well and we're confident as a family we're going to be able to handle whatever comes our way."

Don't think Olsen's teammates haven't noticed the way he has handled things.

"He's showing a lot of perseverance to endure so much," quarterback Cam Newton said. "It's motivating and it's a heartwarming story when you hear about it.

"It's beyond being a player. It's what type of man Greg Olsen really is and he inspires a lot of people -- on the field and off."

In a way, football has been an escape for Olsen. When he's on the field, whether it's in practice or a game, his mind is focused totally on the game plan and away from the tears he has shed over T.J.

"He does a great job of balancing the two and using football as his outlet," said backup tight end Ed Dickson, who shares a locker next to Olsen's. "He puts on a great face when he's here."

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen's children: Talbot, left, Tate and T.J.
Courtesy Greg OlsenGreg Olsen's children: Talbot, left, Tate and T.J.
The on-the-field production says it all. Olsen is having the kind of season that warrants strong consideration for his first Pro Bowl.

But the Pro Bowl is the least of Olsen's concerns. As a team captain, he's more interested in helping Carolina turn around the season and make a run at Atlanta (4-7) and New Orleans (4-7) for the NFC South title.

As a husband and father, he's more interested in being there for T.J. and his family, knowing there likely will be other "hiccups" along the way.

"It's obviously not ideal," Olsen said. "It's not something you'd wish on anybody's child to live that sort of lifestyle, regardless of what mom and dad's schedule has been like. More importantly, it's what his first two years in life has been like."

Olsen has done his best to make life as normal as possible for T.J. So has the Carolina organization, from team owner Jerry Richardson to head coach Ron Rivera.

The "J" in T.J. actually is in honor of Richardson, who flew Olsen and his family to Boston in 2012 to consult with the country's top medical experts on their son's condition.

Rivera does his part by allowing Olsen to miss practices like Monday's session without question.

Olsen is appreciative. He wants his life to be as normal as possible even though he knows there will be calls and moments like Monday when nothing seems normal.

"We don't live our life on panic," Olsen said. "We don't live our life worrying. That's not any way we want him to go through his life or us to go through ours."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly appears headed back to the Pro Bowl.

Kuechly leads all inside linebackers in Pro Bowl votes with 182,900 with three weeks remaining in the voting on The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year is the only Carolina player leading in votes at his position.

Greg Olsen ranks fifth among tight ends behind New England’s Rob Gronkowski, Denver’s Julius Thomas, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and San Diego’s Antonio Gates.

Ryan Kalil ranks seventh at center and Antoine Cason is No. 8 at cornerback.

Cam Newton, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, is not in the top 10 at quarterback. Newton is having his worst season statistically since being the first pick of the 2011 draft. He has 12 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions, with a completion percentage of 58.6. His passer rating is 80.3, his worst since an 84.5 rating as a rookie. He had a career-best 88.8 in 2013.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman didn't play a defensive snap in Week 1 at Tampa Bay. He didn't become a regular in the starting lineup until four weeks ago against Seattle.

Now he may be Carolina's best defender.

In Carolina's 19-17 loss to Atlanta, the third-year player out of Coastal Carolina was asked to shadow Julio Jones. Ranked fourth in the league in receptions, Jones was held to six catches for 59 yards and no touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesCornerback Josh Norman has come on strong for the Panthers in their past four games.
A week earlier against Tampa Bay, Jones had eight catches for 119 yards.

Two weeks ago, Norman was assigned Jeremy Maclin a week after Philadelphia's leading receiver had six catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns against Houston. Maclin had three catches for 38 yards and no touchdowns.

Norman likely will draw Minnesota's Greg Jennings in Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game in Minneapolis.

He doesn't have the shutdown corner reputation that Seattle's Richard Sherman does, but at 6-1 and 195 pounds he has a similar build and Sherman-like potential.

"He's come a long way from Day 1," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He was somebody right off the bat that did a lot of good things, a lot of risky things ... kind of his hair was on fire type of play. Trying to get him to come into the fold and the mix was hard.

"But it's paying off and he's responded and done the things you would like for a corner to do."

Norman is the 34th-ranked cornerback with a rating of plus-2.1, according to Pro Football Focus. No other Carolina defensive back has a positive number. Left corner Antoine Cason ranks 100 at minus-8.0. Melvin White, the player Norman replaced on the right side, ranks 108 at minus-9.5.

Before Norman emerged, the Panthers hesitated to make one player responsible for another team's star receiver. They really haven't done that like they have the past two games since Chris Gamble, who holds the franchise record with 27 career interceptions, in 2012.

Norman's cover ability, as well as the attitude he brings, has helped stabilize the defense the past four games. He's just as brash on the field as he is off the field and doesn't back down from anybody.

That resulted in an $8,268 fine for his part in a fight against Atlanta wide receiver Harry Douglas after both dragged each other to the ground by their facemasks.

That brashness and confidence is one of the reasons Norman believes former teammate Captain Munnerlyn, now with the Vikings, felt threatened by him in 2012.

But Norman isn't so brash that he's forgotten what it was like last season when he spent nine games -- including the final four -- on the inactive list because coaches lost confidence in his ability to play under control.

He also remembers what it was like in 2012 when he was benched after the 12th game for a lack of discipline in a loss at Kansas City. He didn't get that spot back until three games ago.

"I came from a long way," Norman said. "I'm very grateful. I've got to take that all into perspective and not get too high and not get too low about the situation and just be humble and maintain my composure through it all.

"It's crazy how things work out, right? I'm blessed beyond measures. I'm very fortunate to be in the situation I am now."

QB snapshot: Cam Newton

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
A quick observation of quarterback Cam Newton and how he must improve in the Carolina Panthers' game at Minnesota on Sunday:

A defense ranked seventh against the pass and 12th overall, one that held Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers to 209 yards passing Sunday, isn't exactly what a struggling quarterback trying to turn around a career-worst season wants to face.

That Newton will be on the road with temperatures expected to be in the high teens doesn't help, either.

Newton first must cut down on turnovers. He has thrown five interceptions in the past two games and 10 in the past seven. He has tied a team record with an interception in seven straight games. He had only 13 all of last season.

Newton hasn't had a passer rating better than 85.8 in the past seven games and has topped 100 once all season.

The good news? He went to Minnesota looking to turn around his and Carolina's season in the fifth game a year ago. He threw three touchdown passes and had a passer rating of 143.4.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin would make a tough critic.

Asked how he graded Sunday night's one-handed touchdown catch by New York Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. that some analysts called the best they'd seen, Benjamin left room for a better one.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Jim Dedmon/Icon SportswireKelvin Benjamin has made his own share of spectacular catches this season.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, it was about a 9," Benjamin said Monday.

And what would have taken for Beckham, the 12th pick of the draft, to get that additional point?

"Catch it with no eyes looking," Benjamin said.

To be fair, Benjamin has been just as tough at grading some of his own spectacular catches. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound rookie out of Florida State gave his 26-yard touchdown in the opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a 7.

"I mean, it was OK," Benjamin said after a fourth-quarter grab in which it was hard to figure out the ball got through the defender and into Benjamin's arms, and how Benjamin even saw it. "I'm pretty sure I'll make greater catches than that down the line."

Benjamin did just that in a Week 2 victory over the Detroit Lions when he twisted his body nearly 180 degrees and caught a one-handed pass similar to Beckham's as he landed just inbounds for a 24-yard pickup.

Then there was a 51-yard catch Benjamin made over the middle against the Seattle Seahawks with arguably the game's best cornerback (Richard Sherman) and safety (Earl Thomas) draped all over him. Sherman came over the top and had his arms around Benjamin's head to the point the ball barely was visible.

And then there was a 22-yard touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons eight days ago. Benjamin, the 28th pick of the draft, had the ball go off his fingertips and up into the air, then hauled it in as he was going out of bounds with the defender draped over him.

Told that catch was ranked below Beckham's on ESPN's "SportsCenter," Benjamin laughed and said, "I'm not an analyst."

He also wouldn't call it the greatest catch he'd ever seen.

"Man, why y'all always try to compare things?" Benjamin said.

But he reiterated Beckham's grab was a "helluva catch."

It just wasn't good enough to get a perfect 10 in his book.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There are times when Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin makes a catch that makes you say "wow," like the juggling 22-yarder falling backward in the end zone during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 19-17 loss to Atlanta.

At times he drops the routine catch that makes you say "wow" in not such a good way, like the one in the back of the end zone in a 13-9 loss to Seattle that went through both hands.

That kind of inconsistency is why his number of catches (52) to targets (98) isn’t spectacular.

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AP Photo/Paul SpinelliKelvin Benjamin is second among rookie receivers in receptions (52) and receiving yards (768), and first in TD catches (eight).
But one thing is certain: Feeding passes to the 6-foot-5, 240-pound rookie out of Florida State will continue to be a priority when the Panthers (3-7-1) return from their bye week.

"You’ve got to get him touches, because he gets going," Carolina wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl said. "Just like any great receiver, when you feed him he gets into the game."

The 19-17 loss to Atlanta before the bye week is a prime example. Quarterback Cam Newton targeted Benjamin six times in the first three quarters. Benjamin had two receptions for 26 yards.

The two connected on all seven attempts in the fourth quarter for 88 yards and a touchdown.

"You could ask any receiver that plays the game, when you get involved and get in the rhythm of the game, you get fired up," said Proehl, who played wide receiver for 17 seasons in the NFL. "That’s what we have to do, to make sure we get him involved."

A 53.06 reception-to-target percentage aside, Benjamin is having a spectacular season. He is second among rookie receivers in receptions (52) and receiving yards (768), and first in touchdown catches with eight.

He is not likely to break any rookie records, but his numbers are good enough to make him a strong candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

"Haven’t looked at it," Benjamin said of the ROY race.

Benjamin is focused on turning around Carolina’s season, which includes five straight losses. He hasn’t given up on passing Atlanta (4-6) and New Orleans (4-6) in the NFC South to win the division and make the playoffs.

He even mentioned Super Bowl hopes.

But first and foremost, he wants to improve.

"I’m not pleased," Benjamin said of his performance thus far. "A lot of games I left a lot on the table. I should have done some things way better."

That goes back to his targets versus completions. To put Benjamin’s success rate in perspective, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown leads the NFL in receptions with 88 on 123 targets (71.5).

Steve Smith, the player Benjamin has replaced as Carolina’s No. 1 target, is at 59.03.

But everywhere else Benjamin holds an edge on Smith, Carolina’s career leading receiver who was released in March. Now with Baltimore, Smith has 49 catches for 728 yards and four touchdowns.

"The best thing about Kelvin is he understands when he makes mistakes," Proehl said. "A lot of it is focus. He’s down on himself or frustrated, and sometimes it affects his performance."

Part of the frustration stems from being used to success. Benjamin is coming off a 14-0 season and national championship at Florida State in which he caught the winning touchdown for the title.

"It’s a transition for him," Proehl said. "It’s about learning how to deal with adversity, the ups and downs. ... When you preach that and then it happens in a game, where all of a sudden it’s crappy, crappy, crappy, and then he makes a couple of big plays and we’re right back in the game ... it changes the whole outlook and makes him understand you’ve got to play for 60 minutes."

Benjamin might not be pleased with what he’s done so far, but Proehl is.

"He’s on schedule to ahead of schedule," he said. "There’s room to grow, and that’s what we saw when we looked at him. He’s a great talent, and there’s a lot of upside. He’s going to get better."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera gave an emphatic “no" when asked if he planned changes in his staff during the bye week.

But there could be changes after the season unless the Panthers (3-7-1) turn things around in the final five games.

Rivera should be safe. Even if the Panthers finish with their third losing record in his four seasons, there’s almost no way owner Jerry Richardson would fire Rivera a year after winning the NFL Coach of the Year award and getting a three-year extension.

Money would be the big factor. It would go against Richardson’s DNA to pay Rivera and a replacement head coach in 2015 and beyond.

Remember, this is the same owner that didn’t give former coach John Fox an extension after a 12-win 2008 season and allowed Fox to coach in a lame duck 2010 season before letting him go.

Rivera’s overall record (28-30-1, 0-1 in playoffs) might not warrant another season, particularly if the Panthers were to go winless the rest of way and finish 3-12-1.

[+] EnlargeMike Shula and Cam Newton
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonIt's been a rough season for Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterback Cam Newton.
But many of the issues with this year’s team were based on salary-cap decisions made by general manager Dave Gettleman, injuries that decimated the depth chart on the offensive line and at running back, and the loss of 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy.

Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list before the third game until his domestic violence case is resolved. That won’t be until after the season, leaving Rivera without a key cog to his defense that ranked second in the NFL a year ago.

The salary cap decisions included Gettleman cutting all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and three other receivers go in free agency.

Gettleman also prompted left tackle Jordan Gross to retire a year earlier than planned when he renegotiated the contract to eliminate the 2014 season. He then opted not to sign a free agent tackle to replace Gross, believing he had the talent on the roster to fill that spot.

It hasn’t happened. Rivera shouldn’t be blamed for that.

But as in most bad seasons, there typically are fall guys. General manager Marty Hurney was that person during the 2012 season after a 1-5 start.

The most obvious fall guy for this season would be offensive coordinator Mike Shula. The offense ranks 24th in the NFL and quarterback Cam Newton statistically is having his worst season, ranking near the bottom of the league in passer rating at 80.3.

The injuries and salary cap issues have been a factor. Shula didn’t have Newton for most of the offseason because of a surgically-repaired left ankle or for the opener because of fractured ribs.

Newton still admits he’s not 100 percent, while at the same time admitting injuries aren’t the reason for his poor performance.

But if the offense doesn’t make a dramatic turnaround, Shula’s future could hang in the balance.

It has been suggested by readers the Panthers should bring back Rob Chudzinski as the offensive coordinator. He left after the 2012 season to become the head coach at Cleveland, then was fired after only one season.

Under Chudzinski, Newton became the first rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards in 2011 and the second player in NFL history to pass for more than 7,500 yard and 40 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Peyton Manning was the other.

But Chudzinski, a special assistant with the Indianapolis Colts, wasn’t the most popular coach among Carolina players.

If there’s a change, Rivera might need a push from Gettleman or Richardson to make it. He believes in Shula’s philosophy that is predicated around a good ground game and ball control. He recently reminded that a team with a good defense has a good running game.

Much might depend on how Carolina wants to move forward with Newton. Do they continue to use him in the running game that has left him open to twice as many hits as any quarterback the past three-plus seasons?

Or do they push him more toward being a pocket passer, which he has yet to prove he consistently can be?

Gettleman hasn’t addressed the media since early in the season when Hardy was placed on the exempt list. He turned down multiple requests to talk during the bye week.

If there are changes, he ultimately will be the one to make them.

For now, he and he Panthers will remain quiet.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You’re on the telephone with your older brother who is stationed in Iraq and hear gunfire in the background. He tells you he’s got to go because mortars are coming. You don’t hear from him again for days, sometimes weeks.

"It was scary for me," Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano said as he recalled those days. "Hearing those [guns], getting emails saying I’m going to be gone for a while and not knowing what’s going on. ... Those were hard times for me."

Makes missing a game-winning field goal seem small in the big scheme of things, doesn’t it?

[+] EnlargeGraham Gano
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonCarolina coach Ron Rivera said he's not worried about Graham Gano after he missed two potential winning field goals on Sunday.
Not that Gano trivializes missing a 46-yarder with 1:22 remaining and a 63-yarder as time expired in Sunday’s 19-17 loss to Atlanta. He just understands that there are a lot worse situations to be in than losing a football game.

It’s called perspective.

Gano gained a lot as the son of a master chief petty officer in the Navy, the sibling of three brothers who served in the Marines, the grandson of a World War II vet, the distant relative of a Confederate general who fought in the Civil War and a confidant of George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

"Definitely," Gano said on Tuesday before taking a five-day bye week break. "My dad always instilled discipline and to learn from your mistakes and keep moving on. If you sit back and dwell on your mistakes it’s going to drag you down."

Gano has moved on. He did as soon as he got home Sunday night and saw his two sons, 3 years old and 9 months old.

"They have no idea daddy plays football and what’s at stake," Gano said.

Gano, 27, almost gave up football before the stakes were so high. Coming out of high school in Pensacola, Florida, he was ready to join the Marines like three of his four brothers and fight the War on Iraq with his brother, Stewart Marnie.

Were it not for Stewart, he likely would have done that.

"When he went to war, I obviously was mad and wanted to go with him," Gano said. "He was encouraging me to work hard at football and stick with that."

So Gano used his full scholarship offer to attend Florida State, where as a senior he won the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s top kicker. He worked his way from the United States Football League to the Washington Redskins to the Panthers late in the 2012 season.

This past offseason -- after making 24 of 27 field goals, including all six from 50-plus yards -- he signed a four-year deal worth $12.4 million.

He’s not going to let a missed field goal, even one as big as Sunday’s that could have put the Panthers (3-7-1) in first place in the NFC South, bring him down. Other than taking a break from social media, it’s been business as usual.

As much as the team needs a break, he would like to be back on the field on Sunday with a chance to win the game.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who also grew up in a military family, understands.

"He’s very strong," Rivera said. "He understands and he gets it and knows it. He and I talked about it. He’ll get an opportunity to win games for us."

Gano hopes so.

"I want to redeem myself and hit another field goal," he said. "At the same time I have to use that as motivation. I’m not a guy who is going to stay down in the dumps and be upset with what happened."

Growing up in a military family prepared Gano for moments like this. You could see his respect for the armed forces during halftime of Carolina’s Salute to Service game. He stood at attention instead of going through his normal kicking routine while a group of Marines went through a drill exercise.

Remember, this is the same player who took on a trombonist to warm up during halftime of the opener at Tampa Bay.

Gano laughed.

"It’s another lesson learned from Week 1," he said. "You always go on and learn from your mistakes."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tuesday's decision to cut Jason Avant wasn't some knee-jerk reaction to the veteran wide receiver suggesting the Carolina Panthers could have been more aggressive with the play calling in the final minutes of Sunday's 19-17 loss.

It was a reaction to opponents for weeks playing man-to-man defense without fear of receivers getting separation.

It was a reaction to get more speed on the field with undrafted rookie free agent Philly Brown -- as well as Brenton Bersin and De'Andre Presley.

And this wasn't something that became evident on Sunday when Brown got deep for a 47-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

This has been building since the Pittsburgh game in Week 3. With Jerricho Cotchery sidelined with a hamstring injury, Brown caught seven passes for 66 yards.

Avant had two catches for 12 yards in that game.

Brown followed that up with two catches for 35 yards in a Week 4 loss at Baltimore despite being on the field for only 12 plays. Avant had two catches for 24 yards and was on the field for 41 plays.

The Panthers may have cut Avant sooner, but Brown suffered a concussion during a Week 7 loss at Green Bay and wasn't able to play in the next three games.

His touchdown against Atlanta was a signal the former Ohio State star was ready to contribute again.

[+] EnlargeJason Avant
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneNine-year veteran receiver Jason Avant failed to create separation in his 11 games as a Panther.
That Avant didn't have a catch in 34 plays and Brown had a big one in 16 likely sealed it.

"When you have veteran guys who play a lot in front of younger guys that have potential, sometimes you stunt their growth," coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday after letting players go for a bye-week break.

Brown not only can play wide receiver, he can return kicks. While still an adventure at times, that's more than Avant offered.

So was it a mistake signing the 31-year-old Avant as a free agent out of Philadelphia? Not at the time. The Panthers needed to add veteran leaders after releasing all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and losing their next three wide receivers in free agency.

They went with Avant and Cotchery.

Did they realize neither was a speedster? Yes. They were counting on somebody to emerge out of free-agent signee Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt.

None panned out.

Brown emerged late as that guy, but because he spent so much time behind the others throughout offseason workouts and training camp he wasn't ready to step into a significant role when the season began.

The Panthers believe he is now. They believe his speed brings to the offense what Ted Ginn Jr., who signed with Arizona during the offseason, did last season.

Brown gives the receiving corps more flexibility than Avant, who had only 21 catches for 201 yards in 11 games.

They need him to be dynamic, a word Rivera has used often to describe him, if they're going to make a run at Atlanta (4-6) and New Orleans (4-6) for the NFC South title.

"Probably one of the things that was really illustrated in the Philadelphia game was as much man coverage as we got," Rivera said. "And then going into [the Atlanta] game and seeing how much man coverage you get, that's tough. It changes what you're trying to do because of what they're doing.

"So now Sunday, watching the game and watching them trying to play man coverage and watching Philly run by or get open, now all of a sudden it's, 'Hey guys, this is what we've got to start doing.'"
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As if Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton hasn’t had enough problems between offseason ankle surgery, a preseason rib injury and an injury-plagued offensive line that has left him with a bulls eye on his No. 1 jersey, on Tuesday his Twitter account was hacked.

The Panthers, as you can see from the following tweet, were made aware of this.

Well, at least the Panthers thought they had the hacker under control. At around 5:25 p.m. this person was back at it, writing under Newton’s name that he wants to go to a good team, putting a smiley face at the end of the tweet. That tweet was quickly deleted, as were the earlier tweets. But there were some really interesting -- and entertaining -- tweets floating around before the Panthers became wise to the hack.

The one that clinched this really wasn’t Newton came at 3:30 p.m. when the Tweet read: @RSherman_25 overrated.

Newton wasn’t thrilled when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman beat him out for the Madden NFL 15 cover, but he’s not the type to take to public retaliation.

The hacker also tweeted under @CamNewton that “My fantasy team sucks smh"

There also were a few funny replies, such as the person that wrote Newton’s twitter password is easier to break through than his offensive line.

Yes, it’s been a tough season for the first pick of the 2011 draft. He was made fun of during the “C’mon Man!" segment of ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecast for saying “Hindsight is 50-50" -- again -- after Sunday’s 19-17 loss to Atlanta.

Newton also made a bad fashion statement earlier this season with the Capri pants.

Having his Twitter account hacked was like piling on.

At 4:39, Newton responded with this Tweet:

Practice actually ended at around 11:30 a.m., but when you’ve had the kind of year Newton is having we’ll give him a break on that.

The Film Don’t Lie: Panthers

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
A weekly look at what the Carolina Panthers must fix:

The good thing about a bye week is it allows players to work on fundamentals. For quarterback Cam Newton, that means stepping into his throws. Not that Newton is totally to blame for throwing off his back foot more than normal lately. Before Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, he had been sacked 19 times in four games -- more than any quarterback in the NFL during that span.

On the first play against Atlanta, the right tackle went right when the rest of the offensive line went left (as the blocking scheme was designed), and Newton took an uncontested shot to the head. When Newton consistently had time to throw early in the season he was as fundamentally sound as he's been in his career. As injuries have impacted his protection, he's taken a step -- no pun intended -- backward. A couple plays stood out on Sunday.

On a third-and-4 pass from the Atlanta 5, Newton threw off his back foot to tight end Greg Olsen. The pass lacked zip, giving the defensive back time to knock the ball down at the goal line. On third-and-2 on Carolina's first series of the second half, Newton threw off his back foot to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. The defensive back stepped in front of the play for an easy interception. To be fair, Benjamin didn't do a great job of running hard on the slant, leaving room for the defensive back to make the play.

There are times when Newton is effective throwing off his back foot. In the first half, while scrambling to his right, he completed a first-down pass to Benjamin on third-and-9. Later in the drive, he threw sidearm for a completion to Olsen. "I'd say there are times when he needs to step into it, but I wouldn't characterize that as a bad habit," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "Late in the game, he probably was as good technique wise as he's ever been. We work on it as hard as we ever had. He is talented. Sometimes he can get away with it when he's throwing off his back foot a little bit. It happens sporadically, let alone the fact the guy gets hit [a lot]. It's easy for us to say, 'step into it, step into it.'"
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Slow starts offensively are becoming an issue for the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton.

During a five-game losing streak the Panthers (3-7-1) have scored only 26 points combined in the first three quarters, an average of 5.2 points per game.

They had only three points through the first three quarters of Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, who came into the game with the worst rated pass defense in the NFL.

The Panthers scored a combined 48 points in the fourth quarter, including 28 the past two weeks against Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Newton hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in the first three quarters since a 3-yarder to Kelvin Benjamin six games ago in a 37-37 tie at Cincinnati.

Over the last five games, Newton has no touchdowns and five interceptions in the first half. In the second half, he has five touchdowns (all in the fourth quarter) to three interceptions.

Newton’s passer rating this season is 80.3, worse than every quarterback except Oakland rookie Derek Carr (76.0), Minnesota rookie Teddy Bridgewater (75.0), Jacksonville rookie Blake Bortles (72.2) and New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith (65.6).

Smith was benched three games ago and replaced by Michael Vick.

There’s been no talk of benching Newton.

Where Newton has excelled is the fourth quarter. His passer rating is 113.1 in the final quarter, third-best in the NFL but second-best on the Panthers. Backup quarterback Derek Anderson ranks first at 125.9.

Newton has eight touchdowns to only one interception in the fourth quarter. He has only four touchdowns to nine interceptions in the first three quarters.

That the Panthers haven’t been good on third down doesn’t help. They converted only three of 13 attempts against Atlanta. Nine of those were four yards or longer, which puts more pressure on the quarterback. On the season they rank 20th in the league in third-down conversions with a 40 percent success rate.

Finding a way to get Newton on track early will be key if the Panthers have any chance of staying in the hunt for the NFC South title when they return from a bye week.

Despite Newton’s woes, the Panthers are only a win behind Atlanta (4-6) and New Orleans (4-6).

“We’ve just got to get in rhythm as a whole team," Newton said. “When we do that, everybody seems to loosen up and play better."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In what he called a weak moment on Monday, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera looked ahead on the schedule.

The man who has drilled into his players not to look past the next game, looked at the next five. He took a macro look at the season instead of the micro look that has defined him.

He did so because he felt it was important that his players understood that despite a 3-7-1 record, despite having lost five straight games and winning only once in the past nine, they still have a chance at the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesRon Rivera says the Carolina must win its five remaining games -- against Minnesota, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta -- to have a shot at the playoffs.
Why? Because they are only one game back of Atlanta (4-6) and New Orleans (4-6) in the NFC South and have a game left with each.

That was Rivera’s message on Monday as Carolina enters a bye week before resuming its season on November 30 at Minnesota.

"I broke my own rule and looked ahead," Rivera said. "I told the guys, 'We’ve got five games left to play. If we take care of business in all five games and one or two things happen, then we win the division.'

"That’s how simple it is."

It’s not that simple. Rivera admitted the Panthers have to win all five games against Minnesota, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta to have a chance.

They also need Atlanta and New Orleans to lose at least one more game and not get past eight wins.

An 8-7-1 Carolina team then would win the division title by percentage points because of its tie against Cincinnati.

It’s also not that simple, because that would mean a team that hasn’t won since Oct. 5 against Chicago has to win five straight.

But Rivera doesn’t think it’s such a long shot.

"I don’t believe it’s a faint hope," he said. "I believe it’s a strong hope."

Do the Panthers deserve to be in the race with three wins 11 games into the season? Cornerback Josh Norman might have summed that up best after Sunday’s 19-17 loss to Atlanta when he said, "Does anybody in the NFC South deserve to be in it?"

Based on records, probably not.

But somebody is going to be the division champion, so the Panthers figure it might as well be them. Even Norman admits that.

"Yes," Norman said. "If the Panthers win it they deserve it ... hands down."

According to Elias, this is the third time since the NFL went to at least four divisions in 1967 that a team two games under .500 is at least in a share for first place this late in the season. The last time was in 2010 when Seattle and St. Louis were in that position.

Seattle won the division with a 7-9 record, and then won a playoff game at home.

Rivera was part of a San Diego team in 2008 that won its final four games to finish 8-8 and win the division. That team also won a playoff game.

"That’s why it’s a division," Rivera said. "It’s a division race. We’re in the middle of a division race."

As bad as this season has gotten, as ridiculous as it sounds to be talking about the possibilities of making the playoffs, that is what Carolina is clinging to as it enters its bye week.

On paper, the Panthers have the easiest route. Their opponents have a combined record of 20-30 (.400) record. The Saints’ opponents are 25-35-1 (.410). Atlanta’s opponents are a combined 35-25-1 (.574).

So when Rivera got out of his comfort one and looked ahead on the schedule, his players didn’t think it was that unusual.

"That’s the human nature of the beast," Norman said.

Defensive tackle Colin Cole said Rivera’s speech was motivational, especially for younger players used to the college system in which one or two losses takes you out of the running for a national championship.

"If we take care of our business and one other thing happens, we win the division," Rivera said. "That’s how crazy it is."

Since we’re looking ahead, here’s a look at what Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans face:

PANTHERS (3-7-1, 1-2 in division)

Remaining schedule: Nov. 23 – Bye; Nov. 30 – at Minnesota (4-6); Dec. 7 – at New Orleans (4-6); Dec. 14 – Tampa Bay (2-8); Dec. 21 – Cleveland (6-4); Dec. 28 – at Atlanta (4-6).
Opponent’s record: 20-30 (.400)

FALCONS (4-6, 4-0 in division)

Remaining schedule: Nov. 23 – Cleveland (6-4); Nov. 30 – Arizona (9-1); Dec. 8 – at Green Bay (7-3); Dec. 14 – Pittsburgh (6-4); Dec. 21 – at New Orleans (4-6); Dec. 28 – Carolina (3-7-1).
Opponent’s record: 35-25-1 (.574)

SAINTS (4-6, 2-1 in division) Remaining schedule: Nov. 24 – Baltimore (6-4); Nov. 30 – at Pittsburgh (6-4); Dec. 7 – Carolina (3-7-1); Dec. 14 – at Chicago (4-6); Dec. 21 – Atlanta (4-6); Dec. 28 – at Tampa Bay (2-8).
Opponent’s record: 25-35-1 (.410)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart stood on the sideline and watched.

The Carolina Panthers were mounting a fourth-quarter comeback in Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and their running backs that count more than $10 million against the salary cap were nothing more than spectators.

On the field for two straight series -- three if you go back to Carolina’s last series of the third quarter -- was journeyman Fozzy Whittaker.

It seemed odd.

Asked about it, Carolina coach Ron Rivera didn’t offer much insight.

"We have a nice trifecta of running backs," he said.

Since Williams and Stewart became the first pair of NFL running backs to top 1,100 yards in the same season, they have been known as "Double Trouble," even when the trouble was keeping them both on the field because of injuries.

Now they are part of a trifecta?

If that is the case, Whittaker should ask for a pay raise.

Williams has a cap number of $6 million this season. Stewart is at $4.85 million. Together they count more than 19 percent of Carolina’s 2014 salary cap.

Whittaker, who came into the NFL in 2012 with Arizona as an undrafted player out of Texas, is making $495,000. He counts 0.90 of the cap, signed in training camp only after rookie Tyler Gaffney suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Perhaps the Panthers saw something in Whittaker’s 46-yard second-half kickoff return that made them believe he could offer a spark. Or perhaps this is a sign that Carolina is close to turning the page on "Double Trouble."

For neither to be on the field during a crucial part of a game that was crucial to the season raises questions about whether they are to be a crucial part of 2015.

Williams is the most likely to be gone. He has one year left on his deal. Because of an option bonus that would have to be exercised between the first and fifth day of next season, odds favor him being cut.

The fourth quarter on Sunday might have been a sign. Williams had one carry for one yard. Stewart had one carry for minus-one yard in the entire second half.

Whittaker had three carries for 11 yards in the second half. For the game, he was on the field for 14 plays -- most if not all in the second half -- compared to 23 for Williams and 30 for Stewart.

Rivera called them a "good combination of guys" and said they all bring something "different to the table." Mike Tolbert, scheduled to come off injured reserve, will be added to the mix when the Panthers (3-7-1) next play on Nov. 30 at Minnesota.

It still seemed odd that Whittaker was on the field at a crucial time.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil still was wearing a towel from a post-game shower when he stopped in the corner of the locker room to console kicker Graham Gano.

[+] EnlargeGraham Gano
Chuck Burton/AP PhotoPanthers kicker Graham Gano went 1-for-3 on field goal attempts in a 19-17 loss to Atlanta on Sunday.
Kalil wanted to let Gano know he didn't blame him for missing a 46-yard field goal with 1:22 remaining in Sunday's 19-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. He said the offense should have played better earlier so the outcome wasn't riding on the kicker's right foot.

Kalil easily could have placed the blame on quarterback Cam Newton, but he didn't.

Newton was horrendous through more than three quarters, posting a 27.1 passer rating before throwing a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to get his final rating up to 82.3.

But as Kalil reminded, "offensively we came to the party a little too late."

The offense has been AWOL for most of a now five-game losing streak, scoring only 57 points. You're not going to win many games averaging 11.4 points a game.

Newton's 82.3 passer rating on Sunday was his best during that stretch. His average for the previous four games was 61.12.

"The answers are in the locker room," Newton said, reminding the Panthers get fullback Mike Tolbert and a few offensive linemen back from injuries when they next play on Nov. 30 at Minnesota. "We're not going to get any miraculous play or any miraculous break.

"It's time for guys to ... say it's time for us to do what we do. I'm talking about me more important. It's just time to do our thing. Nothing else can bother us. Nothing else can affect us. The time has come."

That, nor Kalil's apology, made Gano feel better. He insisted he should have converted the 46-yarder as well as the 63-yarder that was blocked as time expired.

He didn't make excuses, saying the snap and hold on the first kick that went wide left was good. He thought the second kick was hit clean enough to easily reach the net behind the crossbar.

"My teammates have my back," Gano said. "They have confidence in me. I have to pull through and make that kick. That's what it comes down to. No excuses.

"I can't wait for the next game. I hope it comes down to a field goal."