The Panthers had a chance to reset their season on Sunday. Instead, they had their worst showing of 2021 — and are now at a crossroads of identity.
Here’s an at-first-glance look at how the Panthers graded out in their 25-3 loss to the New York Giants.
Words fail to describe the ineptitude of the Panthers’ offense on Sunday. And the impetus of that ineptitude? Their passing offense.
Former New York Jet quarterback Sam Darnold had a bad day in his return to his old stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.: He completed only 16-of-25 passes for 111 yards and an interception.
His worst throw of the day was picked off at the 5-yard line, punctuating the Panthers’ only true promising drive on Sunday. (For what it’s worth, there was stiff competition for “worst throw of the day.” Among those passes: Darnold threw a ball while in the end zone that led to an intentional grounding penalty and a safety to give the Giants their first points of the afternoon.)
Darnold was replaced early in the fourth quarter by PJ Walker, but the backup couldn’t provide the offense with a spark: He completed 3-of-14 passes for 19 yards and was sacked three times.
It’s not like anyone else in the passing offense helped the fledgling quarterbacks. Carolina’s offensive line made the Giants’ unheralded defensive front look like world champions, and DJ Moore (targeted 10 times for six catches and 73 yards) and Robby Anderson (targeted nine times for three catches for 14 yards) continued to struggle.
The Panthers offense looked as hopeless as it had all season on Sunday, and it did so against the Giants, a depressing idea.
The Panthers are balanced in their wins and throw-heavy in their losses. And they were throw-heavy Sunday.
A lot of that has to do with playing from behind, sure. But this stat line is tough to swallow: Carolina threw the ball 39 times and only ran the ball 17 times.
The running game looked promising early: Chuba Hubbard ran well in the first quarter, including for a fourth-down conversion on the team’s first drive. But that hope ceased quickly and for the rest of the game.
Hubbard ended with 12 carries for 28 yards. Royce Freeman ran three times for 18 yards. The entire team only ran for 56 yards.
The Panthers didn’t enter the red zone on Sunday. Their closest trip came when they were on the 25-yard line, but that effort was undone by Darnold’s aforementioned interception.
Poor Carolina defense.
The unit, one with young talent and charisma and star power, bailed out the Panthers’ offense and special teams early and often Sunday.
Giants quarterback Daniel Jones went 23 of 33 for 203 yards and a touchdown, one of two New York offensive touchdowns all game. Not super impressive.
Most of the Giants’ points, too, were a result of great field position — read: bad punting — and that led to a prolific day for former Panthers kicker Graham Gano (who went 3 for 3 on field goals).
But does all that absolve the pass defense of its more or less crumbling in the second half? Not entirely. The Panthers couldn’t turn over Jones, who coming into Sunday had as many interceptions as touchdowns (four), and they didn’t dominate their opposing offensive line as expected. (They forced two sacks and four quarterback hurries on the day.)
Carolina’s rushing defense was more than adequate on Sunday. But again, their counterparts — the Panthers’ offensive and special teams units — couldn’t help but be agents of sabotage.
Take the maddening sequence in the first quarter:
A bad Robby Anderson drop forced the Panthers to punt.
The punt was a poor one, giving the Giants the ball at Carolina’s 41-yard line.
The Panthers defense prevails — forcing a goal-line stand turnover on downs.
But the offense, the ensuing possession, gives up a safety, allows two points and forces the defense to get back on the field.
The defense only allowed 103 total yards rushing. (Worth mentioning: The unit did it without creative running back Saquon Barkley in the lineup for the Giants.)
The defense’s goal-line stand could’ve been game-changing with a competent offense. But it wasn’t.
The Giants, believe it or not, were only in the red zone twice after that first-quarter failure — once that ended in a touchdown connection between Jones and receiver Dante Pettis, and once that ended on a 19-yard run by Devontae Booker after Carolina’s offense turned the ball over on downs late in the fourth.
Zane Gonzalez delivered the Panthers an early lead with a 45-yard field goal that bounced off the left upright and in. But that’s all the positives there were on special teams.
The Panthers’ punting game was particularly poor: Ryan Winslow had seven punts for an average of 36.9 yards a kick. More importantly, the Giants started drives near midfield (within 15 yards of the 50) five times and only started within their own 20 once (and even that one time was after Darnold’s interception, not by virtue of a good kick).
Rhule indicated postgame that the team might be in the market for a new punter if he doesn’t like what he sees on Sunday’s tape.
The blame must fall somewhere, yes, but does it need to fall on Rhule and his coaching staff? Without dwelling too much on the play-to-play peculiarities of Sunday, let’s answer these questions:
Did Rhule and company stick to the reimagined offense they advertised after his team’s loss to the Vikings, one that involved more running and that emphasized ball security? No.
Did Rhule and company take an adequate amount of risks? Perhaps. The Panthers went for it on fourth down on their first possession — and converted it on the ground, too. The Panthers also benched their starting quarterback while the team still had a chance to put together a fourth-quarter comeback.
And finally, where do Carolina and Rhule go from here? That’s unclear.
But here’s something that is clear as day, and something that falls on team management as much as Panther players: Four weeks ago, the Panthers were ascending, basking in the glow of having a healthy star (McCaffrey) and looking like geniuses for picking up Darnold when they did. Now, they’re in a downward spiral — and they’re banking on the fact that they can’t get any lower than Sunday’s rock bottom.