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Panthers Offense Struggles During Worst Start Since 2010

Bryce Young takes a snap during the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 19. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers)

They had a plan, and it didn’t involve going 1-9 in their first 10 games. But that’s where the Carolina Panthers find themselves after getting thrashed 33-10 by the Dallas Cowboys at Bank of America Stadium on Nov. 19. 

They’ll have to regroup now as they prepare to take off on a three-game road trip, one that will see them visit two rival stadiums in Tampa Bay and New Orleans.  

Speaking of getting thrashed, Young has taken a beating all season and took another one on Sunday. And I don’t mean by the critics, I mean a literal physical beating. 

On the TV broadcast, former Panthers TE Greg Olsen described what has quite clearly been the biggest issue for Young: “Everyone wants to make an assessment of where he stands, but I just don’t know how fair an evaluation anyone can make on Bryce Young until they’re able to surround him with the ability to protect him. He has been under constant stress since literally the first play of the game. Rookie or not, I’m not sure how many quarterbacks can operate in that environment.” 

At the point of the game that Olsen made the comment, Young had faced 15 pressures on 33 dropbacks and was sacked five times. He ended up sacked seven times and was intercepted again for a touchdown. 

Talking after the game, head coach Frank Reich acknowledged that the team had problems protecting for the first half, then conceded that the issues lasted the whole game. He went on to admit that staf may have misjudged the effectiveness of the O line as a whole. 

“I thought we would protect better. I thought we had a good protection plan. We had a variety of things in the protection scheme up, but we just weren’t able to execute.” 

That’s been a familiar theme all season, but when Young spoke after the game, he insisted, “I have to be better regardless of what’s going on.” 

This wasn’t supposed to be a rebuild, as the Panthers won seven games last season and were hoping to contend in the weak NFC South, where the division-leading Saints are just 5-5, but little has gone right for Carolina so far, and the future is looking hazy. 

There are so many questions about what has gone wrong, from talent on the offensive side of the ball to play-calling to their selection of Young at No. 1 in this year’s draft.  

It may not seem so now, but things were looking up just a few short weeks ago after the club’s bye week, when the Panthers played the Houston Texans on Oct. 29 in a showdown between the first and second overall picks in the NFL Draft. 

Reich stated on Monday that he has not even considered benching Bryce Young despite his struggles. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers)

Young outplayed No. 2 pick C.J. Stroud that Sunday and the Panthers walked away with their first victory of the season by a score of 15-13 in front of the home crowd. 

Even though Young was under pressure much of the game while Stroud enjoyed more of a clear pocket, Young threw for 235 yards and one touchdown, going 22-31. His Texans counterpart was just 10-21 for 140 yards and no touchdowns. Young was sacked six times that game, however, forced to run for his life consistently, often as soon as the ball was snapped. 

Perhaps most impressive was the long drive Young led the Panthers on in the fourth quarter, which led to the game-winning field goal. The young quarterback came up with key passes to extend the drive, including one to Adam Thielen to convert on fourth down, keeping the drive alive.

It was thought — or at least hoped — that snagging that first win would take some of the pressure off, as the Panthers were the last team in the league without a victory. That it came over Stroud made it even better, as the critics had already begun questioning Carolina’s decision to take Young ahead of Stroud. 

With the Indianapolis Colts up next at 3-5 record and the struggling Chicago Bears to follow, the team saw a path to improvement, a possibility of gaining momentum. Then Young had arguably his worst game of the season. 

He was picked off three times against the Colts, twice for pick-sixes, as the Panthers lost 27-13 in front of the home crowd. Young’s previous week QB rating of 103.6 against Houston only made his 48.3 score against the Colts a bigger disappointment. 

To make matters worse, in Houston, Stroud had the best passing game ever for a rookie quarterback that week, throwing for 470 yards and five touchdowns and no interceptions, the last one a game-winner with just six seconds left against Tampa. 

He was already being talked about as the Offensive Rookie of the Year this season, and he followed up on the momentum a week later, out-slinging Joe Burrow and Cincinnati 30-27, as the buzz grew louder from multiple sources that he could be under MVP consideration. 

On a short week playing in a Thursday night matchup on Nov. 9, the Panthers had their worst offensive game yet under Frank Reich, gaining just 212 total yards as the Panthers lost to the team they owe their first round pick to, the Chicago Bears, by the score of 16-13. The team’s only touchdown came on a punt return. 

That’s just two field goals of offense and the Panthers fell short, as did their attempt at a third one from 59 yards by Eddy Pineiro as the clock struck midnight — another fairy tale that didn’t end well. 

Along with the loss, there was a questionable play call late that doomed the Panthers to another defeat. Many national reporters blamed the Panthers’ decision to call a timeout on third and 10 in the late minutes, but they were as off as the Panthers offense has been all season. 

Bryce Young walks off the field taking off his helmet
Bryce Young hasn’t been able to find a groove due in large part to a lack of protection. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers)

Trailing by three, on second and 10, the Panthers were on the Chicago 40-yard line. They needed to gain some positive yards, which a short pass, preferably to Thielen, could have provided. Instead, they decided to air it out on a much riskier throw of over 20 yards that fell harmlessly to the ground. 

That set up the third-and-10 play call that Reich and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown initially called a timeout for to decide between two plays. I don’t know what the other call was, but the one they chose didn’t connect and left them at fourth and 10 with a 59-yard field goal attempt as their only hope. 

Pineiro doesn’t have the leg for that, but had they made a smarter call on second down and picked up maybe five yards, they could have had a shorter third down play to get to the first down, or a shorter kick that at least could have tied the game and likely sent it to overtime.

Since taking over play-calling duties from Reich beginning with the Texans game, Brown hadn’t exactly stimulated the offense, leading Reich to announce on Nov. 15 that he would resume calling plays starting the Sunday against Dallas, giving Brown just three games to prove himself in the position. 

There are rumors that Reich wanted Stroud with the first pick, and that owner David Tepper wanted Young, thanks in part to his high S2 cognitive test score, which Stroud reportedly did poorly on. 

If that were the case, can Reich be blamed for the status of the team now, especially when you see how Stroud has taken a team coming off a worse season than the Panthers and placed them in the midst of the playoff race? A lot was invested in Reich and his staff, not to mention all of the assets the Panthers gave up to draft Young. 

Is Reich the problem? Or is it Young? How about the offensive line? Or the owner who took over a playoff team and hasn’t seen a winning season since? 

Could Stroud be the difference right now? Would he be as good with the Panthers as he has been with Houston? These questions are impossible to answer, but it appears that something has to give. 

It has gotten so bad, a group of fans, following the lead of Panthers Nation Podcast hosts, were prepared to March on Mint Street before last Sunday’s game to protest the state of the team. 

“We love our team, but it’s time to demand better performance on the field. Let’s show our passion (peacefully) and push for change!” the hosts wrote on Twitter before eventually canceling the march after realizing there was a children’s event scheduled for Bank of America Stadium at the same time. 

From what I’ve seen on the field and heard off it, I say Young’s not the problem. I think the issues are much deeper than the quarterback. You can’t just pop a quarterback into the lineup and expect immediate results, especially when you don’t have the pieces around him to help him succeed. 

The offensive line has been a sieve. Young rarely has the necessary time to scan the field before he’s forced to escape the pass rush or get thrown down for another sack. The running game has been abysmal and, outside of Adam Thielen, there haven’t been any reliable receivers to throw to. 

The Panthers offense lines up against the Cowboys
The receiving core hasn’t been impressive this season, either. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers)

Young is not without fault. At times he holds the ball too long trying to find open receivers. There are stronger arms out there, but he’s got the intangibles. My main concern is if his confidence is taking as much of a beating as he has. He sometimes looks beaten when you see him on the sideline. Is the fear of getting sacked or the experience of leading a losing team for the first time going to have long-term effects on him? 

Not everyone is doubting Young. National analyst Kirk Herbstreit remarked on the Pat McAfee Show, “The Panthers don’t have the personnel to run the kind of offense that they wanna run with Bryce Young. I’m just saying a quarterback is a product of the system that he plays in and the people that he has around him,” adding that he’s a believer. 

In a slightly contrasting opinion voiced in an Athletic article ranking the rookie quarterbacks, Randy Mueller, a former NFL GM for three teams, said about Young, “You’re gonna have to really build a perfect group around him. Your interior offensive line has to be built different, like the Saints did with Drew Brees.” 

The Saints bulked up their center and guards then brought on smaller tackles to help Brees, who was 6 feet tall during his playing days, which is still 2 inches taller than Young, see clearly. “His vision can’t be compromised,” Mueller said, adding that Young could benefit from having bigger receivers to target. 

Reich has been under fire and doesn’t enjoy his weekly meetings with Tepper after a loss. He talked about it earlier this season saying, “It hasn’t been fun … Some owners kind of stay away and don’t engage a whole lot. Other owners do. And his philosophy is he’s gonna engage.” 

Reich has to take some of the blame. He was brought in for his offensive aptitude and that hasn’t translated so far this season. He has seemed rattled at times, including at the end of the Bears game. For an experienced coach, he hasn’t always looked prepared or had his team ready to play. 

When asked following the Dallas game if he was frustrated with the time it was taking the Panthers to turn things around, Reich gave a short answer: “You want it to happen overnight. Sometimes it takes longer than you want.” 

Tepper isn’t going to change. He’s going to be hands-on because that’s who he is. He wants results and he wants them now. Unfortunately, the Panthers don’t have the talent to make that happen at this time. 

Regardless of how some people see Tepper himself as the problem, he doesn’t have to worry about the hot seat. He does the hiring and he does the firing. Reich is on the hot seat. General manager Scott Fitterer, who put this roster together and made the trade to move up in the draft and select Young, is right there with him.  

In fact, Fitterer’s seat might be the hottest of all. There has to be a scapegoat if things don’t change, and he’s the likeliest candidate. 

There are seven games left for the Panthers to try to turn this season into something salvageable, or at least gain some measure of respectability. 

And for Young, despite all of the flak that he has taken, he can take solace that his start isn’t necessarily indicative of where his career will end up. Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Steve Young (1-4), Troy Aikman (0-11) and Peyton Manning (3-13) have had slow starts. 

As the saying goes, it’s not where you start but where you finish. Nothing has been pretty thus far for the Panthers and Young, but this fairy tale isn’t finished yet.

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