By David Rogers. September 10, 2017. SANTA CLARA, CA — Scoring 14 points off of San Francisco turnovers and sporting a strong “D” that held the 49ers to just three points, it’s not like the Panthers really needed Cam Newton to have a spectacular 2017 season debut. And they didn’t get it — but still cruised to a 23-3 win over the 49ers in Levi’s Stadium.
COVER IMAGE: Carolina rookie Christian McCaffrey was kept busy in his Panthers debut whether rushing, receiving or returning. All photographic images by Craig Weston exclusively for Blowing Rock News
Against a San Francisco team that only had 16 players returning from its final 53-man active roster at the end of last season, a roster that has seen a major makeover by new general manager John Lynch and new head coach Kyle Shanahan, Panther Nation had perhaps expected more from their team, but winning the 2017 season opener is something to build upon.
In his own homecoming of sorts with his ol’ alma mater (Stanford University) being just 13 miles up the U.S. 101 freeway, rookie running back-receiver-return specialist Christian McCaffrey got plenty of opportunities to thrill the locals who marveled at his skills as a collegian. Probably because he returned three punts, too, it seemed like the Panthers’ new feature back in-the-making had touches on every other play, especially in the first half.
Looking just at the numbers, it was an inauspicious McCaffrey performance, rushing for 47 yards on 13 carries and hauling in 5 catches for 38 yards. His three punt returns netted just 7 yards.
However lackluster his numbers were, statistically, the frequency with which the Panthers were putting the ball in the young man’s hands as well as his reputation as a bigtime playmaker may have paid dividends for other Carolina performers as the 49er defense started keying on “the kid.” There were more than a few instances where McCaffrey drew a crowd of defenders, which left others open. So his effect as a decoy was just as important as his numbers.
Unfortunately, while the Panthers’ offense had its moments, it was mostly underwhelming. An obviously rusty Cam Newton overthrew or didn’t see open receivers. Arguably still trying to find his rhythm after shoulder surgery in March, the face of the franchise completed 14 of 25 passes for a respectable 171 yards and two TDs, but was also picked off by former Samford star safety, Jaquiski Tartt, when Newton underthrew WR Kelvin Benjamin at the goal line. Given the amount of time the ball was in the air, the athletic Tartt sprinted from other coverage at midfield and leaped high over Benjamin and another 49er DB to snag the INT and return it 37 yards.
Perhaps only the 49ers were envious of the Panthers’ measly 287 net yards of total offense — because the regular tenants of Levi’s Stadium only managed 217 yards themselves.
San Francisco quarterback Brian Hoyer is now playing for his seventh NFL team in nine years as a professional after starring at Michigan State. Rated the 9th best QB in the 2009 NFL Draft, Hoyer went undrafted, but was signed as a free agent by the New England Patriots and was there for three years. After short stints with Pittsburgh and Arizona, Hoyer found himself on the Cleveland Browns’s roster for 2013 and 2014, but there was victimized by Johnny Manziel mania. Arguably the only good thing to come out of the two-year stint with the Browns was meeting Kyle Shanahan, hired in 2014 to be Cleveland’s offensive coordinator (Shanahan reportedly resigned from his OC position in early January 2015 over a front office mandate that Manziel become the starting QB).
Now reunited with Shanahan, Hoyer may have found a home in San Francisco. Against the Panthers, Hoyer completed 24 of 35 passes for 193 yards, but was sacked four times and suffered one interception at the hands of Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly on the second play of the second half.
The Panthers were 7-of-13 in third down conversions (54%), but the Carolina defense limiting San Francisco to just 18% (2-of-11) in third down efficiency, 1-for-4 in 4th down efficiency, as well as disrupting the Hoyer-led offense for the four sacks that set the 49ers back 27 yards on key possessions, the Kuechly INT, and recovering one SFO fumble proved the real difference makers in this game.
Besides Kuechly, the Panthers saw major contributions on the defensive side of the ball from the reunited Julius Peppers, free safety Kurt Coleman, leading tackler in linebacker Thomas Davis, and defensive linemen Mario Addison, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, and strong side linebacker Shaq Thompson.
Carolina returns to Bank of America Stadium for its 2017 home opener next Sunday (1:00 pm) in hosting the Buffalo Bills, who were also victorious in the season opener on Saturday under new head coach Sean McDermott, who previously served as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator from 2011 through 2016. McDermott’s Bills picked up their first season win over the New York Jets, 21-12.