It's been three weeks since running back Christian McCaffrey appeared in a game for the Carolina Panthers and that's also the last time the Panthers won a game. Carolina has now dropped three straight, all of which were by one score.
In each of the team's three losses, the issue has been turnovers. On Sunday, the Panthers turned the ball over three times, including an interception on the very first play of the game. Sam Darnold, for the second straight week, seemed to be in a funk. He made several questionable decisions, held onto the ball way too long, and was very inaccurate with the football. For whatever reason, Darnold looks like a completely different quarterback - almost like the New York version of himself.
Even though he had a very rough day, he did put together a 96-yard scoring drive when the team needed it most. At the end of the game, the Panthers had 4th & 10 from their own 4-yard line and Darnold threw a rope to TE Ian Thomas, picking up 40 yards on the play. A couple of plays later, he scrambled for a first down and then dropped one right into DJ Moore's hands getting the ball down inside the Minnesota 10 which set up a 7-yard touchdown pass to Robby Anderson. Carolina converted the two-point conversion on a shovel pass to Tommy Tremble to tie the game up at 28 apiece with under a minute to go. That's exactly the kind of drive that Matt Rhule wanted from his quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, a year ago but it never came to fruition.
There wasn't much to like about Sunday's game, especially from an offensive standpoint. The Panthers were outplayed for 95% of the game, had a ton of drops, missed blocks, bad throws, yet they found a way to stay within reach. To be honest, they should have never come that close to pulling out a win for as poorly as they played. Minnesota is fortunate to walk out of Charlotte with a win after nearly blowing a two-score lead against a team they owned for the majority of the game.
Darnold's struggles hurt the offense but it's not like the receivers helped out all that much. Between Robby Anderson and DJ Moore, the top two receivers on the team, I counted six drops. That's just something that absolutely can't happen. When your quarterback is reeling, the offensive line is in flux, and Christian McCaffrey is standing on the sidelines, you have to make plays when the opportunity is there. The margin for error is small.
I understand the frustration from the fan base surrounding Darnold's play but I'm not ready to completely write the guy off just yet. Don't get me wrong, he had an awful game but it's a long season and we're only six games in. There's a lot of football left to be played. There's still time for Darnold to get back on track and prove he was worth the draft picks Carolina sent to New York to acquire him this past offseason.
The one constant is that this team needs Christian McCaffrey in the worst ways. Chuba Hubbard is a nice compliment back and has a promising future but he's not Christian McCaffrey. He doesn't impact the game the same way that McCaffrey can. And truthfully, I believe Darnold begins to panic when the play breaks down and McCaffrey isn't around to dump the ball off to. With him on the field, he feels like he can scan the field longer and not rush through his progressions because he has a security blanket in 22. The unfortunate part about that theory is, McCaffrey is on injured reserve and won't be able to return until at least week nine when the Patriots come to town.
Whether it's Darnold taking what the defense gives him, the o-line winning in the trenches, or the receivers catching the balls thrown their way, something has to change for this offense to have an identity. Here we sit midway through October and I'm not sure I, Matt Rhule, or Joe Brady could tell you what the Panthers would like to do on a weekly basis.
If I were Brady, I'm switching up my passing game philosophy. Running more crossers, slants, screens, short digs - things that are quick, easy completions. As poor as the protection has been for Darnold, he needs to be able to get the ball out of his hands quickly and let his receivers make plays in space. Teams are consistently dropping 6-7 guys into coverage because they know they can still apply pressure on the quarterback even with a four-man rush. Dropping that many tends to clog up passing lanes and make the quarterback's reads much foggier. This is exactly what Philadelphia and Minnesota have done over the past two weeks, each having a great deal of success.
The season is nowhere near lost and the Panthers are still very much alive in the playoff hunt. Again, we're only six games in. However, if the offense doesn't show any improvement sometime soon, Carolina will start to trickle down the standings and find themselves on the outside, looking in.
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