The Carolina Panthers are one of eight NFL teams with a 2-0 record.
Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, 63 per cent of teams that have started the season 2-0 went on to make the postseason.
The Panthers have plenty of positives to take away from their first two games. They own the NFL’s top-ranked defence and have allowed a combined six points in back-to-back wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills.
At the same time, the offence failed to score a touchdown in a 9-3 win over the Bills on Sunday. Cam Newton was sacked six times and suffered an ankle injury. Carolina also lost star tight end Greg Olsen indefinitely with an injury.
Olsen is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot on Monday.
Head coach Ron Rivera said that the Panthers “are not going to change the offence because Greg (Olsen) is out.” Rivera might not want to change the offence, but the reality is it has to change with Olsen sidelined.
The numbers help illustrate how important Olsen has been to the Panthers offence over the last four years. No tight end has more catches (75) or more receiving yards (3,213) than Olsen since 2014. He’s the only tight end in the NFL with at least 75 catches in each of the previous three years.
Olsen has led or shared the team lead in receptions and receiving yards in each of the past four seasons. He’s been Newton’s most reliable option over that span, including last year when he had just two drops on 127 targets.
Ed Dickson, who hasn’t recorded more than 17 receptions in a single season since 2013, becomes the starting tight end in Carolina. Dickson won’t be able to replicate what Olsen brought to the offence, so the more likely scenario is that the Panthers spread the ball around even more.
It will be interesting to see if the offence can evolve beyond the tight end position with Olsen out. Carolina used each of its first two picks in the 2017 draft on skill-position players on the offensive side of the football. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has 12 pass targets through his first two NFL games. Newton could look to him even more with Olsen sidelined. Rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel is still working his way into form after dealing with a hamstring injury for most of training camp and the preseason. The Panthers invested heavily in McCaffrey and Samuel at the draft and with Olsen sidelined they could get even more opportunities to make an impact.
Another name to keep an eye on is 2105 second-round pick Devin Funchess. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Funchess has the size and strength to emerge as another capable option for Newton this season. In order for that to happen he will need to prove he can be relied on for more consistent production. Funchess has caught only 45 per cent of his 132 targets since entering the league.
The biggest concern for the Panthers is still their ability to protect their star quarterback. Newton had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder in March and didn’t even start throwing until June.
He was pressured on 40 per cent of his dropbacks against the Bills and was sacked six times. Newton left the game briefly with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. While he was able to finish the game, the injury was another reminder that the team needs to do a better job of protecting him in the pocket. That could be even tougher to do without Olsen in the lineup.
The Carolina offence should be just fine this Sunday when they face a New Orleans Saints defence that has allowed a league-worst 1,025 yards through two games. However, the schedule gets a lot tougher after that as the Panthers visit the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions in back-to-back weeks, followed by a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The coaching staff will need to make adjustments on the offensive side of the football without Olsen. That includes a greater emphasis on protecting Newton. Carolina took a substantial hit with the loss of its star tight end. The outlook for the Panthers season would become much more dire if they lost Newton for an extended period of time.