CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton has taken a lot of blame over the years for what is wrong with the Carolina Panthers. He’s running too much and throwing off his back foot. He’s making too many mental mistakes and unforced errors to lead the team to a championship.
Newton wasn’t what was wrong with the Panthers in Sunday’s 31-26 loss to New Orleans in an NFC wild-card game.
What was wrong with the Panthers were the players around Newton.
The seventh-year quarterback might have had one of the best games of his career that nobody will remember because it came in a losing effort. He passed for 349 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He rushed eight times for 37 yards. He made pinpoint passes even with pressure in his face.
He showed with his arm and legs that he has what it takes to win a Super Bowl if the Panthers put the right talent around him.
He didn’t have that against the Saints.
Kaelin Clay dropped a perfect pass in the end zone on third-and-2 from the New Orleans 7 that could have given the Panthers a 7-0 lead and kept Graham Gano’s missed 25-yard field goal on the next play from happening. A few plays before that, backup tight end Ed Dickson had a drop.
On Carolina’s next-to-last play, Devin Funchess had a chance to complete an amazing comeback with a 34-yard touchdown catch. It was a play an elite receiver likely would have made, even with a sore shoulder like Funchess had.
He didn’t make the play. He’s not elite.
The first order of business this offseason should be to surround Newton with more playmakers, starting with an elite wide receiver. He hasn’t had one since former general manager Dave Gettleman opted to move on from Steve Smith after the 2013 season.
Kelvin Benjamin, the team’s 2014 first-round pick traded to Buffalo in November, was good but never elite. Neither is Funchess or any of the other so-dubbed misfits Newton threw to in the final month of the season.
Perhaps second-round pick Curtis Samuel will become elite, but he first has to stay healthy and then show that he can be a dominant force from the slot. In all likelihood, he’ll be another role player with dynamic play-making ability.
Same for wide receiver Damiere Byrd, who went on injured reserve twice this season.
Right now, Newton has only tight end Greg Olsen and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey to consistently can depend on. He needs more than that if the Panthers are to take advantage of their shrinking window to win a title.
But the window still is open.
The defense still has the key pieces to make a run, with linebackers Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson and Thomas Davis. Re-signing defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and finding another marquee end if Julius Peppers, 37, retires are the biggest concerns.
The most glaring piece missing from the equation is a top-flight wide receiver who can take the pressure off Newton so he doesn't feel he has to run; this season, he had a career-high 754 rushing yards.
Nobody in the organization will say that, of course. Newton wouldn’t even say it on Sunday.
"I've just got to be better," he said. "I am not going to take the coward way and point somebody else out. I feel like plenty of times this year it was up to me. I do believe I am the leader of this team, and the team goes as I go. That comes with a lot of responsibility."
Taking that responsibility and that stance showed how much Newton has matured since he walked out of his news conference following a loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.
It showed how much he has matured since earlier this season, when he made light of a female reporter during a Wednesday news conference, then didn’t appear at the next news conference the reporter attended.
He is showing that he has what it takes mentally to win a title. He has always had what it takes physically when the pressure isn’t all on him to win.
It’s just a matter of getting the right pieces around Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft, to make it all come together. He can’t do it alone, as Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said earlier this season, even though Newton sometimes thinks he can.
"I hate that I could not do enough to get a win today for a lot of guys that I think so highly of," Newton said.
Newton didn’t mention names, but you have to believe one of them was running back Jonathan Stewart, who at 30 could be a salary-cap casualty as he enters the final season of his contract after an unproductive season.
Another could be center Ryan Kalil, who at 32 spent much of this season fighting through a neck injury a year after battling a shoulder injury.
Newton even might have been talking about Peppers, a future Hall of Famer who had 11 sacks in his 16th season. Coach Ron Rivera wants Peppers back for another season, and Peppers hasn’t shut the door on a return, but there are no guarantees.
Newton likely was talking about the 34-year-old Davis, the heart and soul of the defense and the player who challenges the quarterback to be better every day in practice. Davis plans to be back but expects to be in a reduced role.
“We didn’t come here just to get a shot," Newton said of the playoffs. “We came here to win. And that’s what we didn’t do. I kind of caught a sense of a lot of people just being satisfied with being in the playoffs. I will learn from this, and I will get better from it."
Newton has learned and grown a lot this season. But he has to have a full complement of pieces around him to take this team to the next level, and it’s up to management to get those for him.
“I still think this is a team that is in its window to compete at the highest level and win this thing," Olsen said. “We need to learn our lessons from this year where things went wrong, moves that need to be made and find ways to improve."
What went wrong on Sunday had nothing to do with Newton.
"Our quarterback played extremely well," general manager Marty Hurney told Charlotte radio station WFNZ on Monday. "If you look at how he's grown -- not being able to throw in camp -- he's grown a ton professionally. If you're in a 'win or go home,' he's the guy you need."