Carolina Panthers 2021 Team Study

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.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
4.47 -0.49 27th

Offensive Eff. Rating (blue) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
32nd 20th 21st

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.

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