Part 24 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 23 here: Tampa Bay Bucs. Part 25 now available: Los Angeles Chargers.
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Let’s go back to Week 3. The Carolina Panthers were 3-0. Sam Darnold was averaging over 8 yards per attempt and nearly 300 yards a game. Carolina was one of the top overall teams. Sure, they had dispatched the Jets in Zach Wilson’s first game, the Texans in Davis Mills’ first start, and an undermanned Saints team. Some regression was anticipated. But the rest of the season went much worse than expected. Why did they struggle so much?
The schedule got tougher. Injuries hit the Panthers on both sides of the ball. But primarily, Sam Darnold came back down to earth (and got hurt). It’s probably time to write off the idea of Darnold having a good NFL career. Unfortunately this has happened before and will happen again. A talented quarterback with potential to be a good NFL player gets drafted into a bad situation and his growth as a player is stunted, permanently. We saw this with David Carr. Darnold played behind a bad offensive line in New York with one of the worst coaches in recent memory in Adam Gase. He lacked a supporting cast. He formed bad habits in these formative years and brought those bad habits to Carolina.
Despite an upgrade for Darnold in just about every way, particularly the weapons around him, the Panthers’ passing offense was dead last in the NFL. He held the ball too long, allowing the NFL’s highest pressure rate despite spending the 9th-most time in the pocket. The offensive line obviously deserves its share of the blame, but when a player has time in the pocket and great receiving options who excel picking up yards after the catch, the quarterback has to get the ball out. This offense was better in 2020 when Teddy Bridgewater was negating pressure with quick throws. But in 2021, the Panthers finished with the 2nd-lowest on-target percentage as Darnold and Cam Newton were both unable to make the throws that mattered.
They did run the ball somewhat effectively, particularly when McCaffrey was healthy. It wasn’t great, but given that they had a weaker offensive line and did not threaten much downfield, the running backs did what they could. And the passing game was most successful when the running game was a true threat. Darnold thrived on play-action and situations where teams had to account for the run, particularly McCaffrey. This is partly why he looked so good in those first three games. The Panthers held the lead throughout all of them, so the run game was on the table.
This created a downward spiral when they were losing games but a positive feedback loop when they were winning games. When Darnold was comfortable and they were able to run, they played like a respectable NFL offense. But when they were behind, Darnold struggled in obvious passing situations where he could not rely on check downs or play action. As a result, Panthers games were typically not close: their average margin of victory was 13.8 points and their average margin in losses was 14.1 points. So the injuries they suffered on defense had a direct negative impact on the offense’s performance.
Coming out of 2020, I thought the team somewhat unfairly placed all the blame on Bridgewater for the offense’s failures. I was skeptical that Darnold would move the needle. But I didn’t realize it would be this bad. Granted, the Panthers were better with Darnold than the other quarterbacks they rolled out there, but they simply need better quarterback play. They almost certainly won’t get that from Darnold, so perhaps third-round rookie Matt Corral can bring something that Darnold did not. They have talented skill players and hopefully an improved offensive line with rookie Ekwonu. If things don’t get better fast, it could be a short year for Matt Rhule.
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By contrast, the Panthers defense performed fairly well in 2021. They played a lot of man defense, blitzed at a high rate from all over the field, and got to the quarterback. They wanted to close the window of decision-making as quickly as possible, which helped them thrive against inexperienced NFL quarterbacks or teams that lacked receivers who could get separation quickly.
In every win, the Panthers faced a weak passing offense: They beat the Jets in Zach Wilson’s first NFL game, Davis Mills in his first start with the Texans, backup Colt McCoy and Arizona, Jameis Winston (with Lil’Jordan Humphrey leading the receiving corps with 27 yards), and Matt Ryan with Tajae Sharpe as his top wideout. That’s every win the Panthers secured in 2021, and their quick-pressure defense is largely to thank for these wins. They forced quick decisions by the quarterbacks, who lacked reliable weapons on the outside.
By the numbers, the Panthers defense performed well, even relative to the poor quality of opposing offenses they faced. But an easy schedule on paper was made even easier by injuries and Covid, inflating their defensive numbers. They finished 23rd on defense in 2020 and their biggest additions to the 2021 roster were Hasson Reddick, Jaycee Horn, and Stephon Gilmore (after Horn got injured). Horn’s rookie year came to an early end due to injury and both Reddick and Gilmore have already moved on. It’s tough to build a narrative where this is truly an ascending elite defense. Rather, this is probably a good-but-not-great unit that excels against bad or inexperienced quarterbacks.
I like this approach on defense for a team that is trying to establish itself. It likely is not the ideal way to beat the best teams in the league, but it can help establish dominance against the bad teams. That’s step one: beat the bad teams. Unfortunately, when looking ahead at the 2022 schedule, the Panthers should face a much more imposing set of opposing offenses, barring injury. Even one of their at-large matchups as the fourth-place team features Russell Wilson and the Broncos. They’ll need to get healthy and Horn will need to resume his early growth immediately. It could be a lot to ask.
When to bet on the Panthers: The Panthers have a chance against teams that struggle to pass the ball, particularly with inexperienced quarterbacks or bad receivers. Alternate lines are definitely in play when they can run the ball and take the pressure off the quarterback.
When to fade the Panthers: But if the opponent has a competent quarterback and a good run defense, look away. Things can get ugly when this team is put in a hole, and does not make an ideal backdoor team.
Evaluating the offseason so far: For a team in a rebuild, they lacked the draft capital to really move the needle. The gambit for Sam Darnold did not pay off, which puts this team in an awkward spot. They do have the future cap room to improve, but it’s tough to see how that takes shape in 2022.
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