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Cam Newton, Panthers searching for identity on offense after loss to Bears

CHICAGO -- One yard.

That’s all the Carolina Panthers needed on fourth down from the Chicago 25-yard line in the third quarter to make Sunday’s game at Soldier Field at least interesting.

It seemed like a safe bet with quarterback Cam Newton, the best in the NFL at picking up a yard on fourth-and-1 with 12 first downs on 14 career attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

He didn’t get it.

He wasn’t really close.

So while much of the focus of the Panthers' 17-3 loss to Chicago will be on Bears safety Eddie Jackson returning a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown and an interception 76 yards for a score, the big concern for Carolina has to be with the inability of the offensive line to give Newton enough room for 1 yard.

The concern has to be on an offense without an identity.

"Disappointed," Newton said. "There's no excuse to not come in and find a way to win this football game. We squandered that opportunity."

The return of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, who hadn’t played since the opener, was supposed to help the communication up front. Kalil left on the second drive after aggravating the neck injury that kept him out the past five games. Then Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner left in the second half with a left knee injury.

But the inefficiency of the running game was evident even when both were on the field.

Those who wondered whether 30-year-old running back Jonathan Stewart was the problem should take note that rookie Christian McCaffrey started and gained only 3 yards with two rushes on the game’s first four plays.

The issue was magnified early in the third quarter when Newton couldn’t get a yard to keep an impressive drive alive. The Panthers (4-3) were down 17-3 at the time, and had they converted and eventually punched that one in, they could have made a game of it.

Because they didn’t, it brings up concerns moving forward about the identity of this offense.

Is it the one that scored a combined 60 points in wins at New England and Detroit, with Newton throwing three touchdowns in each? Or is it what we’ve seen the past two weeks in losses to Philadelphia and Chicago?

It’s definitely not the physical run style Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked about during the preseason.

This has morphed into an offense that has forced Newton to scramble and call his own number on more run plays than offensive coordinator Mike Shula probably would like.

It has left Newton looking beaten up, as he did much of last season.

Newton will get much of the blame for the 17-3 first-half deficit, but it wasn’t all on him.

Jackson’s fumble return for a touchdown looked more like a muffed lateral by rookie Curtis Samuel instead of a fumble by Newton, as it showed up on the stats.

"I just took my eyes off it too early," Samuel said.

Jackson’s 76-yard return of an interception was credited to Newton, but the ball went off the hand of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who could have made a better attempt to go for the ball.

"The pitch wasn't his fault," Rivera said. "That ball should have been caught. We'll work on it and get better at it. And when the ball ricocheted in the air (and was intercepted), again not his fault. He moved us. But unfortunately he didn't put the ball in the end zone again."

This isn’t to say Newton didn’t have his bad moments. His fourth-quarter interception scrambling to his right was a horrible decision. He missed several open receivers and made his share of bad reads.

He also was sacked five times, and on several of those, he should have gotten rid of the ball with good coverage.

"He overthrew Christian and he overthrew Kelvin," Rivera said. "Those are some of the things you wish you could have back. He knows it, too. I saw his expression right after he missed them both."

But with all that, the Panthers could have made this one interesting had they picked up 1 yard in the third quarter.

They couldn’t.

"That was very critical," Rivera said. "In a game like this against a team like that, if you don't score when you have that opportunity when you get down there, you might not get back down there again."

The Panthers didn't.

Now they’re searching for more than a yard. They’re searching for an identity.