NFC South: Ryan Kalil
As the landscape of Carolina's playground changes, so does the landscape of the team -- particularly the offensive line.
There's a chance in 2014 that center Ryan Kalil is the only starter at the same position he was when last season ended. It's not an enviable position for a team looking to get back to the playoffs, but it easily could happen.
Here's how looking at last year's starters:
Left tackle -- Gross. We know he's gone. Coach Ron Rivera said his replacement could come from one of three players on the existing roster in right tackle Byron Bell, fifth-year player Bruce Campbell or Nate Chandler, a backup tackle before injuries forced him into the lineup at right guard. If it's not one of those, then it'll be a free agent or draft pick. Regardless, a new starter.
Left guard -- Travelle Wharton. He started the final 14 games there, including the playoffs. But he was signed after starter Amini Silatolu was injured in training camp. There's a good chance the 32-year-old Wharton, a free agent, won't be re-signed. And even if he is it's likely a healthy Silatolu will get first dibs on the starting job. Or maybe it'll be Chris Scott, who started there in the opener before moving to the right side to replace the injured Gary Williams (ACL). Don't count out Williams, either.
Center -- Kalil. Four Pro Bowls since 2008. He's not going anywhere.
Right guard -- Nate Chandler. He played well, starting most of the final nine games after Scott suffered a knee injury in the first Atlanta game. He kept the job even after Scott was healthy. But suppose Scott beats him out in camp? Or Chandler gets the left tackle job. Or Edmund Kugbila, last year's fourth-round pick that spent the season on injured reserve, could take the job. Don't forget as I said above Williams, who started there the first game before the season-ending knee injury. Don't count on Geoff Hangartner. He plans on riding into the sunset with Gross unless something dramatically changes last minute.
Right tackle -- Bell. He took a lot of heat last season for allowing sacks, and according to Gross much of it was undeserved. Gross, like Rivera, said Bell should have a shot at left tackle. If he gets that job, there's an opening on the right side. There could be anyway if the coaching staff feels that heat was deserved and an adequate replacement can be found.
And don't forget, the Panthers certainly will sign a free agent offensive lineman or two and draft at least one. General manager Dave Gettleman likes to build from the inside out with what he called "hog mollies'' after taking a pair of defensive tackles with Carolina's first two picks in the 2013 draft.
I often am wary of teams with a new front line. But like Bank of America Stadium, it could be better when the renovations are completed.
Let Gross explain.
"I always said I don't want to leave until I felt like things were in good order, and they are,'' he said on Wednesday. "They should be for a long time, and that's going to be regardless of whether I am here or not.
"And that's a beautiful thing.''
It was sad. It was funny.
It was tearful. It was laughable.
It was Jordan Gross.
Gross did both.
Carolina's left tackle officially called it quits on Wednesday after 11 NFL seasons, saying it was the right time to leave. He said goodbye the way only he could, taking us through a pictorial journey of his career filled with one-liners and tears.
He began with a picture of him fresh out of the University of Utah, his face admittedly a bit chubby and his ears undeniably big. He ended with a picture of him, his wife and two kids on the sideline at the 2014 Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
"It's time for me to go," Gross said. "I learned in college you never want to stay at the party too long or bad things will happen."
Gross, 33, spent most of the news conference fighting back tears. Surrounded by many of his teammates from his rookie year in 2003 to his current team, he admittedly couldn't find anybody to look at that didn't get him choked up.
Most of them were choked up as well. Wide receiver Steve Smith, who barely can remember the last time he was on a football field without the player who followed him to Carolina from the University of Utah, stopped several times to fight off tears.
Asked about one moment in the news conference when there was a picture of him on the right shoulder of Gross in the Super Bowl following the 2003 season, the raw emotion spilled over.
"Just a great teammate," he said, biting his upper lip. "I'm good. I can't keep it together."
And he walked away.
Gross walked away from football for many reasons. He couldn't see putting his body through another season and risk the possibility of not being able to enjoy a family skiing trip as he just returned from.
He also felt the Panthers were headed in the right direction regardless of whether he returned or not. I won't bore you with details of who might replace him here. This is all about Gross.
Gross actually knew this was going to be his last season a year ago, "barring some miracle, where I knew I wouldn't have any more pain in my body."
And it's not like he's really going anywhere. He still plans to be around the organization. As he hinted, it'll likely be behind a microphone, whether it's doing his weekly "This is Gross" podcast or doing analysis for the team's in-house network -- or possibly both.
Center Ryan Kalil jokingly said Gross will be around the stadium so much it'll be like he's on pretend injured reserve.
But regardless of how much Gross is around, he'll be missed -- on and off the field. His leadership meant just as much to the team as his ability to protect the blind side of quarterback Jake Delhomme during his rookie season to Cam Newton the past three seasons.
He was selfless to a fault, always coming to coach Ron Rivera to fight for the team needs and not his own. Rivera felt like he lost a friend as much as a player.
"He always started off, 'You don't always have to do it this way, but ...'" Rivera said when describing one of Gross' visits to his office. "It was always the 'but' that got me."
But Gross got people because they respected him. That was reinforced by the number of coaches, current teammates and former teammates that lined the visitors' locker room for the goodbye.
It was in the visitors' locker room, by the way, because the stadium is under an $87 million renovation.
Guard Geoff Hangartner flew from Austin, Texas, to be here. Smith cut a family vacation to Utah short.
"Not many of us get to play with that one team and have personal success and have a positive impact, not only with the team but the organization and community," tight end Greg Olsen said. "He pretty much lived what every player hopes to have as their timeline in the NFL."
That didn't make Wednesday's goodbye any easier. Kalil knew his good friend was dreading the moment, so he hired the quartet to lighten the mood.
He even sang along. Here's a sample of the variations they came up with:
"Happy Trails to you, my aging and departing friend. Happy Trails to you, I can't believe it's the end. ... No more cares about the spin or speed or bull rush. So try to not get knocked back while in retirement. ... Happy Trials, to you, you'll be missed on third-and-10."
That, as Smith said, summarized what Gross meant to the team.
"He always kept things fun, great spirits," Smith said.
And in the end, Gross left on his own terms.
It was sad. It was funny.
But it was Gross.
Jordan Gross is listed at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, so to say the Carolina Panthers have a big hole at left tackle now that he's retiring is an understatement.
But the bigger hole will be in the locker room.
Gross' heart is his biggest asset.
Beyond what the eighth pick of the 2003 NFL draft brought to the team in terms of protecting the quarterback and run blocking, Gross has been a stabilizing factor off the field.
If there was a potentially disruptive issue brewing, he usually was the first to nip it in the bud. If the team needed an inspirational speech, he was the one you could count on to give it.
Many credited his Highlanders speech when Carolina was 1-3 as the catalyst for this past season's 12-4 record.
Gross' contributions off the field were why I rated him the top priority among Carolina's 21 unrestricted free agents, including defensive end Greg Hardy.
Gross epitomizes class.
His retirement, which will be made official on Wednesday, means Carolina's focus with the 28th pick of the draft has to lean heavily toward a tackle -- unless one can be found in free agency.
In all likelihood, the team will try to find one both ways.
There's really nobody on the roster capable of replacing Gross, who has been with the Panthers since they selected him 11 years ago.
"It's that old adage: There are guys that play professional football and then there's professional football players," Carolina center Ryan Kalil told me this past season. "As long as I've known Jordan, he's always been the epitome of a true professional."
Kalil understands and appreciates Gross' value to the team as a leader as well as anyone.
"He's easy to talk to," he said. "Jordan is one of those guys who has a relationship with almost everybody on the team. It's important for him to know his teammates. He doesn't just stay in his little bubble.
"Because of that, he has a good pulse on what the personality of the team is like. That's important, because when you have a guy who is a true leader, who understands everybody and then gets up to speak or make a point about something, he's somebody you care to hear what he has to say."
One of the best to ever play in a panther jersey. I wish he would stay but you gotta do what u gotta… http://t.co/aYDOKDhpQc— charles johnson (@randywattson) February 25, 2014
Gross, 33, came to Carolina from the University of Utah two years after the Panthers drafted college teammate Steve Smith. Gross' retirement leaves the team's all-time leading receiver without what some consider his stabilizing force.
Quarterback Cam Newton told me that Gross was the person behind the scenes "controlling that inner animal" in Smith.
"It will never probably come out the way people will want to say it, and maybe I'm giving Jordan too much credit, but he doesn't get a lot of credit at all," Newton said.
Smith may have a different opinion on how Gross impacts his "inner animal." Smith made a point to bring up Newton's comment after the team saw its eight-game winning streak end at New Orleans.
But there's no denying Smith will miss Gross -- if the receiver is still playing. That came into question last week when general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera were unusually vague on their receiver's future.
"For me, it'll be a sad day when I look in the huddle and he's not that left tackle," Smith said in December. And Smith tweeted on Tuesday:
Since 1999 until 2day @J2theGross and I have been in same huddle. Today its has stopped I salute JG great player better man!!! Love ya— Steve Smith (@89SteveSmith) February 25, 2014
That day came earlier than many expected -- or wanted. Gross told me last month, after finishing his career with his third Pro Bowl appearance, that Rivera wanted him back.
Gettleman said last week it was Gross' decision.
Gross, whose 167 career starts is a franchise record, ultimately decided it was time to step aside. As he said earlier in the year when his future came into question, he's done everything a player could want except win the Super Bowl.
And he came close to that, losing Super Bowl XXXVIII on a last-second field goal that gave New England a 32-29 victory at the end of his rookie season.
"I didn't want to leave until I felt the team was back in a good position for sustained success," Gross told the team's official website, Panthers.com. "The team is there now. There is good, young leadership, there are talented players, and there are guys that really want to work hard and want to win."
I assumed Gross would return because he felt the Panthers needed him for at least one more year. His comment suggests the team is in better shape on the line than many assumed.
Gross will explain in more detail his decision during Wednesday's news conference at Bank of America Stadium. The good news is this doesn't appear to be one of those situations where he was forced to retire.
He's going out on his terms, and that's a good thing.
There's still a big hole to fill.
And an even bigger heart to replace.
Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, the captain for the team Rivera and his Carolina staff will coach, picked Panthers center Ryan Kalil and fullback Mike Tolbert during Tuesday's first-ever Pro Bowl draft.
That gives Rivera the perfect place to start up the middle if he decides to gamble on fourth-and-1 as he did so many times during the season to earn the nickname "Riverboat Ron.''
"Very happy,'' Rivera said during the draft televised live on the NFL Network.
Rivera had a chance to take Carolina long snapper J.J. Jansen, but instead took Indianapolis' Matt Overton. Colts coach Chuck Pagano, paired with Hall of Fame captain Deion Sanders, in turn took Jansen.
Or maybe letting Jansen go to the opposing team was part of Rivera's strategy.
"It's one of those things where J.J. will do the right thing,'' Rivera said with a wry smile during the broadcast.
Rice will have a shot at four other Panthers on Wednesday night as the draft continues. Joining Kalil, Tolbert and Jansen in Honololu are quarterback Cam Newton, left tackle Jordan Gross, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy.
Wouldn't it be fun to see Hardy, aka "The Kraken,'' go after the quarterback he can't touch in practice? Or to see Kuechly stuff Tolbert on a "Riverboat Ron'' dive up the middle?
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 23
Biggest surprise: "Riverboat Ron." Not often does a coach admit he needs to change, but Ron Rivera did after a 24-23 loss to Buffalo dropped Carolina to 0-2. He admitted he should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 with 1:42 remaining and leading by three. He admitted he needed to show more confidence in his offense to make a yard and his defense to make stops. He went from one of the league's most conservative fourth-down coaches to one of the most aggressive, and added a nickname. He successfully went for it twice on the opening drive against Minnesota to start an eight-game winning streak. He went for it late on fourth-and-10 deep in his own territory to set up the winning touchdown against Miami. Carolina finished the regular season 10-of-13 on fourth-down attempts. Ironically, it was a failed attempt in the playoff game against San Francisco that led to the Panthers' 23-10 loss.
Biggest disappointment: The inability to win a home playoff game once again, which came in large part because of the team's late-season inability to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. The Panthers ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line in Sunday's playoff loss, and came away with no touchdowns. Four times they had an opportunity to score from the 1 and failed. Had they converted even one, it would have been a one-score game at the end, leaving open the possibility for a comeback. I'm still wondering why 6-foot-5 quarterback Cam Newton didn't get the call on third down and less than 2 feet. You would think he could have jumped up and thrust the ball over the goal line.
Biggest need: If Newton is to have success as the team's franchise quarterback he needs to have more weapons. Outside of the aging-but-still-effective Steve Smith, and occasional moments from Ted Ginn Jr., he has none at this position. Brandon LaFell did little over the final three games to prove he should be re-signed as the team's No. 2 receiver. He could have been selected for the season's biggest disappointment. Don't be surprised to see the team address this position in free agency and the draft, which is heavy with receiver talent. It was obvious in the playoff loss against San Francisco that a major difference between Newton and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was talent at receiver.
Team MVP: This is a tough one. Part of me says Greg Hardy, whose team-leading 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures were key to what the team does on defense. Not to mention he played every position along the defensive front at some point. But I have to go with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He led the league's second-ranked defense in tackles with 176. He is the brains and leader of this unit. His ability to cover some of the league's top tight ends as well as set the tone for stopping the run was invaluable. His 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against New Orleans in Week 16 helped keep the Panthers close enough to pull off a win that helped them clinch the NFC South title.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, center Ryan Kalil and fullback Mike Tolbert were named first team. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who tied the team single-season record for sacks (15), was named to the second team.
Quarterback Cam Newton, who was selected with those four to the Pro Bowl last week, was not named to the team.
It was the first time Kuechly, Tolbert and Hardy were selected to the team. Kalil was named to the second team in 2011.
The three first-team selections tied the team record set in 1996. The 2008 team also had four All-Pros, two on the first team and two on the second.
"All four have worked very hard, have done a great job for us,'' coach Ron Rivera said on Friday. "I am disappointed for a number of guys, though. We had some guys that played well that deserved recognition as well.''
Among those that got snubbed were Newton, left tackle Jordan Gross, safety Mike Mitchell and defensive end Charles Johnson.
The date was Oct. 13, 2013.
The place was the visitors locker room at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Left tackle Jordan Gross was frustrated. The Panthers were 1-3 and he felt they were better than that. So before the team took the field, he asked coach Ron Rivera if he could say a few words.
Gross began with an analogy from the 1986 film "Highlander," depicting the climax of an age-old battle between immortal warriors.
"A dad tells a kid how you become a man," Gross said Sunday after Carolina clinched the NFC South title and a first-round playoff bye with a 21-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. "He said you have a wolf on both shoulders. One's good, tells you to work hard, believe, trust, commit. The other one's bad, tells you to doubt, cheat, laziness, whatever.
"And the kid says, 'Well, which one wins?' And the dad said, 'Whichever one you feed.' So it was in the middle of some choice words and some yelling and other things. So that became part of our battle cry this season, was that we're a wolf pack and we feed the wolf."
The Panthers defeated the Vikings 35-10 that day. Then, they beat the St. Louis Rams 30-15 in a game filled with a few on-the-field scuffles in which Carolina players kept their poise but stood up for each other.
Next thing you know, they'd won eight straight.
Sunday's win was the 11th in 12 games, making Carolina the NFL's hottest team entering the playoffs, guaranteed a home game in two weeks.
From free safety Mike Mitchell to center Ryan Kalil, players pointed to Gross' speech as the turning point.
"Jordan really expressed how everybody was feeling, that the time is now and we've got to make a choice and stop waiting for somebody to make it for us," Kalil said. "It's on the players."
The win against Atlanta was a microcosm of that speech. In the final minutes, in a stadium where Carolina had a 4-14 overall record, the Panthers made the plays to secure the victory instead of giving up plays to give it away.
They did the little things that they seemingly couldn't during the first month of the season, which included two losses by a touchdown or less.
They did it in an unselfish manner. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who had four sacks to tie the team's single-season sack record (15) held by Kevin Greene, wasn't even aware of his total until somebody told him.
“"I don't know what the odds were when we were 1-3 that we'd end up winning the division and getting a [first-round] bye," Gross said. "But we believe, and that's a powerful thing."
I don't know what the odds were when we were 1-3 that we'd end up winning the division and getting a [first-round] bye. But we believe, and that's a powerful thing.” -- Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross
Having the league's second-ranked defense, a unit that sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan nine times and hurried him another 14, doesn't hurt. Neither does having quarterback Cam Newton, who when his arm let him down was able to lift the offense with his legs to the tune of 72 rushing yards.
Having unsung heroes such as cornerback Melvin White, who returned an interception 7 yards for a touchdown with Atlanta leading 10-0 in the second quarter, also doesn't hurt.
"It was kind of indicative of the whole season," Rivera said. "We have had to come back. We have won four games or five games now with last-second scores and stuff like that. It just shows that we can handle those situations and circumstances."
Gross knew that when he gave his emotional speech. But until Sunday, nobody had pinpointed the speech as a key moment.
"At that point, everyone knew," Gross said "We were better than 1-3 and we let teams beat us rather than [losing] to them. Sometimes the right mood strikes you to say something that is believable, authentic.
"But that's not what turned the season around. What turned the season around was believing in ourselves."
That belief doesn't end with winning the division title. There was no wild locker room celebration. There was the same focus and workman-like attitude the Panthers have shown all season.
Even team owner Jerry Richardson told the players they have much more to accomplish.
"It means we won the NFC South championship, but we know we still have unfinished business," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said as he put the victory into perspective. "We can't get excited over this win.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of this team's unity was wide receiver Steve Smith. He could have stayed in Charlotte, rehabbing the sprained knee that kept him from playing.
Instead, he stood on the sideline and offered advice and motivation wherever he could. When Newton threw a second-quarter interception because of yet another high throw, the oft-excitable Smith came to him and said, "Calm down."
Newton did. He went on to complete 15 of 27 pass attempts for 149 yards and two touchdowns. Couple that with his running and it was an efficient effort from a player who desperately wanted to beat the Falcons in his hometown for the first time.
"Our guys fought and did the things we needed to do," Rivera said. "This wasn't pretty, but it was well-earned."
This 12-4 season has been well-earned. It happened after a start that had Rivera's future in doubt and players such as Gross frustrated because they knew they were better.
"People wrote us off," Davis said. "People started talking about Coach Rivera being on the hot seat. For that to happen, it falls back on the players. Once you start replacing coaches, you start replacing players as well.
"We started doing whatever we had to do so everybody would keep their jobs."
It began in Minnesota. It began with a speech by a 10-year veteran who'd had enough of losing.
"It worked out well because we won the game, so it's memorable," Gross said. "If we had lost, nobody would have remembered anything."
Now they won't forget.
Key moments seldom are.
They easily could have two or three more on a team that is 11-4 heading into Sunday's regular-season finale at Atlanta.
Those selected were quarterback Cam Newton, fullback Mike Tolbert, center Ryan Kalil, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy.
Tolbert, Kuechly and Hardy are first-time selections.
“It’s an honor to be selected,” Kuechly said. “I’ve grown up watching the games at the end of the season and it’s awesome to have a chance to be a part of it. Our defense has played great this year and made this possible.”
Among those left off the team was outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who has a career-best 143 tackles and four sacks for the league's second-ranked defense.
Coach Ron Rivera was disappointed.
"He's played so well,'' Rivera said of Davis, the first player to come back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee. "He does so many good things. The hard part is he plays outside linebacker in a league where you have 3-4 linebackers that get double-digit sacks.
"People miss the true impact of an outside linebacker in a true 4-3 scheme. I'd love to see a guy like that get his due.''
Here's a look at the Panthers that were selected:
QB Cam Newton: Has a career-best passer rating of 89.2 on the season, 93.6 over the past 11 games in leading Carolina to a 10-1 record. Has thrown for 16 touchdowns during that span and rushed for five more. Has four game-winning, last-minute drives, against San Francisco, New England, Miami and New Orleans.
My take: Much deserved, particularly with the comebacks. Has elevated his game to a new level.
C Ryan Kalil: The anchor of the line for the league's 11th-ranked rush offense and the team's 2013 Ed Block Courage Award winner. This is his fourth career Pro Bowl.
My take: This too was a no-brainer. The only injustice is that left tackle Jordan Gross wasn't selected as well.
FB Mike Tolbert: A versatile player who can play fullback, running back and tight end. Third on the team in rushing with 332 yards. His five rushing touchdowns are second to Newton's six.
My take: One of the most complete all-around backs in the league. Hard to believe this is his first selection.
MLB Luke Kuechly: Leads the team in tackles with 167, two more than he had a year ago when he led the league and was selected the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Coming off a 24-tackle effort against the New Orleans Saints.
My take: This was a no-brainer. He should be a Pro Bowler for years to come.
DE Greg Hardy: Leads the team in sacks with 11 and quarterback pressures with 34. His ability to play every position along the line makes him invaluable.
My take: The man who calls himself The Kraken just saw his price tag in free agency go up. He wants to return to Carolina, and is willing to take less than other teams offer if it's within reason. This could change things. The Panthers might have been smart to re-sign him before the season when they had the chance.
Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
It's called the hangover.
They're so prominent that they actually have remedies, from something called the hair-of-the-dog cocktail to a hot bowl of Yakamein soup, otherwise known as "Old Sober" concocted by somebody known simply as Ms. Linda.
So, it got me to thinking. What is the best cure for the football hangover? Here's what I got in an informal survey of Carolina players as they prepare to face the New York Jets (6-7) on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
"We had a rough night, for sure," safety Mike Mitchell said as he recalled the game. "It just takes the next game. Get the reps and get the last game out of your system."
Center Ryan Kalil took it one step further.
"Wins," he said. "Wins are the best cure. That's it. More football. That's the thing about it. You get another opportunity to right the wrongs from the week before. It's not always a terrible thing."
Cornerback Drayton Florence doesn't believe there are hangovers in football. At least not with good teams, and he believes the Panthers (9-4) are a good team.
"Be a professional," he said. "No matter if you win or lose, you're always on to the next opponent. I don't think it will be a problem for our team. You win or lose, you get over it in a 24-hour period. If you're still worried about last week, obviously, you're not going to be as prepared as you should be this week.
"One game doesn't make our season. One game doesn't spoil our season."
So, if you were mixing a concoction for Carolina's football hangover, it would be pretty much like this:
Time: Coach Ron Rivera gave his players Monday to dwell on the loss, then turned the focus to the Jets. He still was concerned after Wednesday's practice, sensing players were disappointed. He made sure everyone understood a second straight loss with the Arizona Cardinals (8-5) breathing down their necks in the wild-card chase would not be good for their playoff chances.
A win: Nothing cures the sick feeling that comes from losing like a win. The Panthers have a chance to do that against a team that -- before Sunday's 37-27 win over Oakland -- had lost three straight and four of five. The Jets also are 1-5 on the road.
Secret ingredient: A Carolina win and losses by Arizona and San Francisco, plus a Dallas loss or tie; or a Carolina win and losses by Arizona and San Francisco, plus a Philadelphia loss or tie. Hey, it could happen. Not likely, but it could. And if it does, the Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
That would cure any hangover.
The biggest task is to make sure there is no Hangover Part II.
But at Bank of America, it apparently is a lot about him.
Newton has the second-highest quarterback rating in the league (82.1) at home, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Denver's Peyton Manning (83.9 at home) ranks higher.
At home, Newton is 5-1, leading the offense to 26.6 points a game -- 30.6 in the five wins. On the road, the record is 4-3 with 19.7 points a game.
So that bodes well for the Panthers (9-4) as they play host to the New York Jets (6-7) on Sunday. That the Jets are allowing 30.6 points a game on the road also favors Carolina.
Maybe all this is why Jets coach Rex Ryan called Newton "one of the scariest athletes" he has ever seen.
But on the road, Newton isn't quite so scary. He ranks 27th in the league with a rating of 39.0. That's a differential of 43.1 from home, by far the largest in the league.
Oakland's Terrelle Pryor has the second-biggest differential (30.6), followed by Chicago's Jay Cutler (29.3) and Geno Smith (28.6) of the Jets.
So why is Newton's differential so stark? His touchdown-to-interception ratio isn't that much different home and away -- 11-to-5 at home, compared to 9-to-6 on the road.
His completion percentage is higher at home -- 65.8 vs. 58.9 -- but not significantly. He has three rushing touchdowns at home and three on the road, and his average yards rushing isn't much different at 41.5 at home compared to 33.7 away.
The difference between average passing yards is less than three yards -- 214.7 per game away to 212.1 at home.
The alarming statistic comes in sacks. Newton has been sacked eight times at home, compared to 28 times on the road. The differential of 20 also is the highest in the league, with Buffalo's EJ Manuel second with 16 more sacks on the road.
Why does Newton become a bigger target on the road?
"Road games are definitely more challenging," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "They're noisy and an environment you're not used to. Maybe we're not protecting as well on the road. Before you told me that I didn't know.
"We're doing the same stuff. I don't have a good answer for you."
Neither did center Ryan Kalil other than pass protection is difficult home and away.
"Obviously, the game plan is not to let the quarterback get sacked," he said. "There's a lot of good teams we're playing. ... As far as quarterback ratings, I don't pay much attention to that. More so, putting points on the board and 'W's' on the schedule."
Coach Ron Rivera had no clear-cut explanation for Newton's statistical difference away from home, either.
"I do know he loves playing on grass," said Rivera, whose team is 1-2 on artificial turf. "I know that. I'm not sure he loves playing indoors. He is very effective outside, and he's been very effective at home, so maybe there is something there to it."
Fortunately for the Panthers, two of their last three games are at home as they attempt to wrap up a playoff bid for the first time since 2008.
That's all Newton and his teammates are focused on, although barring a 3-0 Panthers finish and 1-2 finish by the Saints -- including a loss at Carolina on Dec. 22 -- they will open the playoffs on the road.
Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil was kind -- or mischievous -- enough to share the message he and other teammates got from left tackle Jordan Gross.
Those who were on the team bus two weeks ago when members of the offensive line decided to grow playoff beards apparently made a lunch bet on when Dana Gross would suggest that her husband's attempt might need to go.
Guard Geoff Hangartner didn't believe it would last a week. He had Nov. 30. Tackle Byron Bell had Dec. 2. Kalil had Dec. 3. Tight end Richie Brockel had Dec. 4. Linebacker Jordan Senn had Dec. 6. Quarterback Cam Newton had Dec. 7, 8 and 9.
It didn't come close.
Teams in sports often grow beards as a sign of unity. The Boston Red Sox rode them all the way to the World Series. In 2010, the San Francisco Giants created a "Fear the Beard'' phenomenon en route to a World Series title. The New York Islanders started a long-standing tradition of playoff beards in hockey in the early 1980s, when they traded their razors for four Stanley Cups. It's been a tradition since way before there was a "Duck Dynasty."
But what makes Gross' adventure in facial hair unique is this is his first. He's tried to grow beards before, but they'd get so splotchy -- or "crusty," as he and his teammates like to say -- that he'd shave before it had a whisker of a chance to fill in.
This two-week growth might be evidence that it never will happen.
"I can't grow facial hair and these guys all have beards, and so they told me I need to grow my hair and a beard for the playoffs,'' Gross said as the 9-3 Panthers were preparing for a Sunday night NFC South showdown against the 9-3 New Orleans Saints.
"So, being the team guy I am, I said, 'Sure, I'll be the brunt of all your jokes.'"
Trust me, there have been jokes. Many have come from Gross, who doesn't mind making fun of himself.
But it's obvious Gross never will have a beard in the same class as Kalil, who would look like the Santa Claus in the 1994 remake of "Miracle on 34th Street'' if you dyed his thick, black hair white.
"When this started I said, 'Kalil, what are you doing [for this unity]?'" Gross said. "He said, 'I'm growing my beard longer.' I said, 'Oh, that's real daring. A thick beard to a long beard.'
"So he's growing his beard longer, and I have to grow a whole crusty beard with big spots in it."
A few of Gross' teammates declined to talk about his beard. Running back DeAngelo Williams said, "I've already let him know what I think of his beard. We've had that conversation."
It didn't sound like he was a fan.
Kalil apparently is a beard aficionado, having read a book about the advantages of having a beard, a book he shared with Jordan.
"There's actually scientific benefits," Kalil said. "They protect you from UV rays. It's a natural filter to any carcinogens in the air."
It also collects food if you're a messy eater.
As for Gross' beard, Kalil said, "It's all genetics-based, so it's not an effort on his part. But I respect the commitment to it."
Gross laughed. He's just glad the Panthers are good enough this season to warrant a playoff beard.
"I'm not afraid to look crusty if it makes the guys happy and boosts the team spirit," he said.
Then he walked away.
Then Kalil got a devilish look in his eyes and shared the text.
"He's probably going to be upset I told you this," he said. "But it's going to be hilarious."
Pain: Defensive end Charles Johnson pulled up in a golf cart and hobbled into the locker room with a pulled groin that never would have happened had the Panthers not botched a late onside kick by Tampa Bay.
Hunger: Defensive end Greg Hardy was upset he wasn't credited with more than one sack, arguing he should have had at least one more when he got to the quarterback after a bad snap. Another sign this team isn't satisfied with where it is.
It's Tampa, dude: Tight end Greg Olsen was wearing a toboggan hat with the outside temperature still in the 60s.
Three men and a cellphone: Quarterback Cam Newton, center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Jordan Gross -- all three shirtless -- got a laugh out of a video one of Kalil's friends shot and sent him from the stands. You probably don't do that if you lose.
Life Savers moment: Center Ryan Kalil had his arm around the shoulders of guard Amini Silatolu, whose right leg was wrapped and in a brace after a second-half injury that the Panthers are hoping isn't as serious as it appears.
Iceman cometh: It looked worse than it is. Bandages were wrapped around wide receiver Brandon LaFell's upper torso to support a huge bag of ice on his back. He was hurting worse from a dropped first-down pass inside the Arizona 15. "It's bad, man," he said.
Lot going on: Quarterback Cam Newton has a reputation for being a flashy dresser, but there was a lot to digest in travel attire that included a blue plaid jacket, blue sweater, red plaid shirt and red tie. It was kind of like his game that included three interceptions, a fumble and two tackles.
He sounded almost angry as he discussed all that went wrong in Sunday's 24-23 setback at Buffalo.
"It's not fun to lose," he said.
So are you saying Rivera was more angry than normal?
"I'm pissed off," Kalil said. "It's not fun to lose."
Tight end Greg Olsen concurred on all points.
"I don't blame him," he said of being Rivera being upset. "I feel for coach. There's nothing he can do."
Rivera insisted his future as the head coach won't be a factor as the Panthers move forward, although a loss this weekend to the 0-2 New York Giants may change that. He insisted the team is close, in fact "very close," to being good.
He said it's time for playmakers to make plays, throwing the onus on the players instead of himself and the coaching staff that gets most of the blame.
What makes this tough on Rivera, beyond his future, is he and his coaches believe they have the talent to win. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula couldn't say enough good things about how well everyone on his side works together.
"It hasn't been good," he said. "It's been great."
The Panthers will need more than just great attitudes and worth ethics to get past the losing that has become almost epidemic. If they don't, then coaches will be fired and players will be re-evaluated.
"It's obviously really frustrating with as hard as we've worked and how much effort we've put into it," Olsen said. "It seems right now we're kind of stuck in the mud there."
And when you're stuck in the mud, you get irritated and angry.
"Yes, there is disappointment in themselves,'' coach Ron Rivera said as he evaluated the 12-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. "I really felt in talking to a lot of guys they were disappointed in how certain things went on.
"The thing I told them is as we watch this tape, be honest. If you played 59 plays well and you played one play bad that one play should really eat at you. I think a lot of guys are going to respond the right way.''
Center Ryan Kalil said players understand more of what they have to do to be a winning team than they did this time a year ago during a 1-6 start.
"There's more of a feeling of what our identity is and what we can do and what we're capable of moving forward,'' he said. "The last couple of years [we were] still kind of unsure of where we're going, what we're doing.
"It doesn't feel like that this year. Obviously, it's not the ideal start to what we want to get done, but there were a lot of good things on film and a lot of things we saw that I'm not so sure we kind of knew what was going on early on last year.''
Losing right guard Garry Williams to a torn ACL/MCL in his left knee won't help. But the good news is Amini Silatolu, the starting left guard who missed the opener with a hamstring injury, is set to return to practice without restrictions on Wednesday.
And Chris Scott, who started at left guard before moving over to replace Williams, is more natural at right guard. He graded out perfectly in pass protection against Seattle from the right side.
So Carolina, with veteran Travelle Wharton in the mix, has a decent three-player rotation.
That Scott and Wharton helped the Panthers rush for 134 yards on 26 carries also was encouraging.
What disappointed Rivera was the number of mistakes and that they didn't come from one person that easily could be replaced.
"When you have 45 players and there is 130 plays, that means there is 45 bad plays,'' Rivera said. "Those are things we have to correct. The disappointment is not necessarily that we lost, but how we lost, that we didn't play smart football.
"That's what bothers me more than anything else, and I just expressed that to the players.''
They seemed to get it, because the mood was surprisingly upbeat.