Since John Fox introduced most Panther fans to the concept, the idea of taking the regular season in four four-game chunks has become a standard thought process for many. With the early bye week, the Panthers have only played three games through four weeks, but heading into the Giants game, we can compare this year to previous ‘opening quarters’ of the season.
The Panthers have not been known for quick starts in the Rivera-Newton era. Even in years where they’ve started well, from a record standpoint, the offense has rarely been clicking. The team was 1-3 in the first four games of Cam’s first two seasons and in 2013, they amassed just 36 points through three games, with the notable exception being a 38-0 beatdown they put on this week’s visitors, the New York Giants. In 2014, the offense didn’t crack 24 points until Week 5. In the magical 2015 season, the lowest point totals the Panthers put up – with the exception of the second ATL game and the Super Bowl – were all at the beginning of the year. Do you remember surviving Week 1 20-9 in Jacksonville? Last season, the Panthers again failed to crack 24 points in the their first three games.
This season, the Panthers have put up 24+ in their last two games and left a score at the goal line with a fumble in Week 1.
One particular area that Cam and the offense have struggled year in and year out is early season interceptions. 30% of Cam’s career picks have come in the first four games of the season and in five of Cam’s seven previous seasons, he’s had five or more interceptions in the first quarter of the season. Cam’s not averaged more than an INT per game, for the entire year, since his rookie season. The only two seasons Cam didn’t have five or more picks during the first quarter were both playoff seasons: 2014 (0) and 2015 (2).
This season, Cam has just one interception through three games.
Protecting Cam has also been a primary focus – for fans at least – since he has been drafted. Since Mike Shula took over the offense, the Panthers have conceded at least 2.5 sacks per game in the opening quarter of the season, with the lone exception being 2015, when the Panthers conceded only seven sacks through the first four. Through three games this season, the Panthers have allowed just six sacks – or two per game. This despite the rotating walking wounded that have been blocking for Cam this season – this decrease represents one drive per week that isn’t foiled by a negative play.
The other foundational piece of this offense, Christian McCaffrey, is a good Sunday from having one of the best starts to season we’ve seen for any weapon Cam has had since Steve Smith in Cam’s rookie season. With 15 touches on Sunday, CMC will have the most touches any Panther has had through four games since Stephen Davis in 2003 – if McCaffrey can build off the success against the Bengals and produce a second 100-yard day, he’ll have the most yards from scrimmage since Davis in 2003 as well. With 60 yards on the ground, CMC will have the most yards any running back has gained through the first four games of the Rivera-Newton era. It can’t be emphasized enough how Cam has not had a weapon of CMC’s caliber since Steve Smith, back in Cam’s rookie year.
While the Panthers offense may not get the 39 points they need to produce the most prolific first four games in Panthers history, if they manage just 23 against the Giants this weekend, they will have the fourth-best offensive start we’ve seen from the Panthers – ever.
This offense is not turning the ball over, allowing fewer sacks, scoring better than most starts of the season and has begun to unleash a weapon that forces defenses to not focus solely on Cam – while the Panthers have not put up some of the numbers that many fans want to see, specifically in the passing game, when comparing to the last several seasons, they’re already a step ahead.