At the end of September, the Panthers had the look of a team that was going to have no trouble making the postseason after getting out to a 3-0 record that included a win over the New Orleans Saints. Fast-forward to the end of November and the video of former Colts head coach Jim Mora going off on his rant about the playoffs seems to align with how things are currently going in Carolina.
"Playoffs? Are you kidding me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game." - Jim Mora, or possibly the conscience of Panthers head coach Matt Rhule.
With the loss to the Dolphins, Carolina's record now drops to 5-7 with what is a very daunting schedule down the stretch. The Panthers had some favorable games on the schedule in recent weeks and failed to take advantage of it. Following the bye week, Carolina has the Falcons, Bills, and the Saints sandwiched by two matchups with the Super Bowl defending champion, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Heading into the final four games of the season, the Panthers needed to be at 8-5 or 7-6 at worst to have a realistic chance of getting to the playoffs. Now, it seems inevitable that the playoffs are out of reach.
Nothing seems to be going right for the Panthers be it the offensive side of the ball, defensive side, or even special teams. That was evident on Sunday in Miami as the Dolphins soundly won all three phases of the game. The Dolphins had a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown, had four punts downed inside the 20, held Carolina to just 198 total yards of offense, and dominated the time of possession by over 15 minutes.
Cam Newton put on an unreal performance a week ago against Washington but followed it up with one that he would like to forget about. He finished the game completing just five of 21 pass attempts for 92 yards, two interceptions, and a quarterback rating of just 5.8.
As bad as Newton's numbers were, I can't help but think that maybe the issues with the offense loom larger than just the quarterback play. That's not to excuse Newton's bad day. The fact that this offense has looked inept with Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, and now Cam Newton should send a signal that something isn't right.
Where are things going wrong, you may ask?
Well, let's start with the offensive line. Thanks to injuries and inconsistent play, the Panthers have used, by my count, eight different starting combinations. That alone will create problems. Last offseason the Panthers knew they needed to retool the offensive line but failed to do address it with the right guys. Cameron Erving and Pat Elflein would not have been what came to mind in terms of fixing the o-line. So once again, the Panthers are limited in what they can call. There aren't many shots downfield because there is a lack of trust in the protection. When you have to methodically dink and dunk your way down the field, you're not going to score many points much less convert third downs. Over the last two weeks, Carolina has converted just 6/25 third down conversions - 24%.
Aside from the offensive line, I think it's time to start considering if offensive coordinator Joe Brady is the right guy for the job. He's a great offensive mind, there's no doubt about that. That said, sometimes being too smart can backfire on you. I think that's the case with Brady to this point. Regardless of what approach he takes, he shies away from it the moment things don't go according to plan. There are no adjustments being made in protection, route concepts get shallower and shallower, and the run game diminishes out of thin air. Brady may have led one of the greatest offenses in college football history at LSU in 2019 but he's had little success in his short time in Carolina whereas Phil Snow and those guys on the defensive side of the ball have made notable progress.
Whether it be coaching, personnel, or a mixture of both, the fact of the matter is this is not a playoff team. Young teams are not supposed to win and if they do, they are considered ahead of schedule. I don't know if I qualify the Panthers as being ahead of schedule in their rebuild but more like right on track. Obviously, the quarterback situation needs to be the main area of focus in the offseason. Until they get that solved, the Panthers will be stuck in neutral.
Another thing with this team, let's not fool ourselves, okay? I mean, when Matt Rhule took over nearly two years ago, did we really think it was realistic to be in the playoffs by year two knowing that there would be a complete overhaul of the roster? Let's pump the brakes a little bit and tamper the expectations of being a real player in the NFC until this team gets a little older and finds a quarterback. Clamoring for a coach to be fired because they're not in contention in year two of a rebuild is silly and lazy. If this were a situation where the players were already in place to win now and the record is what it currently is, then questioning Rhule would be valid. It's way too early in the process to believe that the marriage between Rhule and the Panthers can't work.
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