When Jameis Winston hit Cameron Brate for a go-ahead touchdown against the Cowboys, it felt as though the Bucs belonged in the NFC playoff field.
They've been in decline ever since.
As Tampa Bay prepares to play Carolina on Sunday, we're not talking about the playoffs anymore. We're talking about ending the season on a positive note and whether success in January can carry over to September. What a letdown.
"In the NFL, you're going to turn over a certain part of your team," coach Dirk Koetter said. "You're going to have additions through free agency, through the draft. Your team's going to change. And then you're going to have key injuries. Every team's going to have injuries and some luck involved next year."
In other words, your "momentum" theories are nonsense.
Change is the only constant in the NFL. The Bucs won't have to look far Sunday to see evidence. The team occupying the visitor sideline looked unstoppable this time last season.
Cam Newton was dabbing. Josh Norman was riding Delta. The Panthers weren't The Next Big Thing. They were The Thing.
Then the dab became a tired fad, and Carolina became a tired football team.
These days, the Panthers look a lot less like the team that dominated the Bucs 38-10 in the regular-season finale and a lot more like the team that couldn't solve Von Miller and the Broncos defense in Super Bowl 50.
Carolina has missed Norman, who left for Washington after a contract dispute. The pass defense has fallen from second in Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings to 12th. It has gone from allowing a league-low 6.2 yards per pass attempt to allowing 7.6, ninth most.
Most of all, the Panthers have missed their Superman. Newton, the reigning MVP, seemed poised to frustrate defenses for years to come. He hasn't been the same this season, and we're back to doubting him all over again. USA Today has even named him the year's most overrated athlete.
Newton was due to regress. He wasn't going to maintain his scoring pace. He was the sixth quarterback to score 45 touchdowns (passing and rushing) in a single season, and only one has done so twice (Peyton Manning, in 2004 and 2013).
There are other explanations, too. His primary receivers — Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess (placed on injured reserve this week) — are big bodies, but they haven't been particularly good at separating from defensive backs. The offensive line is in tatters — only left guard Andrew Norwell is playing the same position he played at the start of the season.
There also is evidence that the hits might be getting to Newton, who missed the Week 5 game against the Bucs because of a concussion. He has faced pressure on 38.1 percent of his dropbacks, the ninth-highest rate, and has looked like the rest of us when we're under duress — sloppy and inaccurate. He has the league's worst completion percentage when under pressure (36.3 percent) and the fifth-worst passer rating (48.8). Both are lower than last season.
Cam Newton and Jameis Winston under pressure
|Frequency of pressure (rank*)||Comp % (rank)||Rating (rank)|
|Newton||38.1 (9)||36.3 (30)||48.8 (26)|
|Winston||38.5 (8)||48.4 (18)||67.9 (16)|
|*Among 30 qualifying quarterbacks Source: Pro Football Focus|
Newton's poor performance under pressure is especially problematic, as the Panthers have asked him to throw more often.
The last time Newton faced the Bucs, he burned the defense when it sent a seven-man blitz. As defensive tackle Gerald McCoy closed in, Newton kept his eyes downfield but didn't step into his throw. He didn't have much time to. Instead, he sidearmed it. He delivered an accurate 16-yard touchdown pass to Funchess anyway.
That was Newton in 2015. It wasn't always pretty, but it worked. How could you criticize it? That'd be like complaining about broken windows after Superman saves Metropolis from Doomsday.
That good fortune has dissipated. Consider one of Newton's passes against Washington two weeks ago. Like in the play above, the defense executed an all-out blitz, rushing seven defenders and leaving the defensive backs one-on-one with the receivers.
Newton had Benjamin alone against Norman on the left side of the field, but he instead looked to tight end Greg Olsen on the right side. He didn't step into this pass, either — he fell away from it as he threw it. As a result, the pass sailed. He had a tight window, and with better form, he might have been able to lead Olsen to the sideline.
The Panthers settled for a field goal, something they've been doing more often of late. Over the past three weeks, they haven't been even half as successful in the red zone as they have over the course of the season. In their past 10 trips, they have scored just three touchdowns.
The lack of efficiency in the red zone mirrors another trend: Newton's performance inside the 20 is in a freefall. He was nearly flawless last season, throwing 24 touchdowns to zero interceptions and posting a 112.7 rating. While he started well this season, he has been abysmal since the halfway point.
Cam Newton inside the red zone
|2016 through Week 9||54.2||124||8||1||91.0|
|2016 since Week 10||23.3||47||2||1||47.9|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
The Panthers' 2016 season is a reminder to everyone that there's no such thing as certainty. A team can change dramatically within a season, let alone one season to the next. Look at last season's Chiefs, or this season's Packers.
When Koetter and Winston talk about going 1-0 each week, it's only partly coach-speak. It's a week-to-week league. One week, you're a superhero. The next, a mere mortal.
The takeaway for this week: There isn't one.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.