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The Optimist: So that’s what was behind the curtain. . .

They had their suspicions, but now the Panthers know what is going to hold them back from the play offs this year.

Carolina Panthers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers lost in every phase of the game to the Dallas Cowboys. Fans can tell themselves all they want that 3-1 is not a bad record ( it isn’t), but that one is still going to sting for at least a few weeks. Everything fell apart. Their offense was a joke and the defense was a shadow of the league-leading unit of ten days ago. That is until it wasn’t.

We’ll talk about all four phases of the game today, but first let’s give kudos to the Panthers for bringing that disaster back into a one-score game. The defense, or at least the defensive players still walking, came to play. Chuba Hubbard found holes behind a line that got no push. Sam Darnold kept his head on his shoulders after bad decisions and missed opportunities help build much of the Panthers’ deficit. They fought for four quarters when they were clearly out matched. That is a winning culture in search of a team.

The answer is on a roster

Head Coach Matt Rhule said third down was going to be one of the stories on offense, and that’s technically true. but first and second down were just as much of a story. The common thread in those stories was the competency of the offensive line. Matt Paradis, Dennis Daley, and Cam Erving each had plays that significantly contributed to the end of an offensive series. Sacks are drive killers, and the unit gave up five plus eleven other hits. Darnold was saw so much contact that his jersey was torn in the third quarter.

This team has one glaring weakness and if the answer is on a roster then it is clear that roster does not belong to the Carolina Panthers. General Manager Scott Fitterer has been a breath of fresh air after the past three GM tenures in part because he is constantly looking to acquire new and/or better players. If he and Rhule are serious about being "in it to win it" and seeing themselves as contenders then expect to see some movement along this offensive line in the next couple of weeks.

You can't play with a lead when you're behind

The Panthers defense is predicated upon using speed and multiplicity to confuse offenses and swarm to the ball. They are currently missing starters who, both from an experience and an athleticism stand point, are vital to that effort. Couple those absences with the quality of offensive line, quarterback, and running back play that they faced (best yet, probably some of the best in the league) and you have a recipe for disaster in a given game. The Cowboys posted 245 rushing yards. That’s five times the 48-yard average they allowed across the previous three games.

Meanwhile, neither Brian Burns nor Haason Reddick notched a single sack. That isn’t the defense we were getting used to seeing. In part, that is because Phil Snow built a team that is best when playing with a lead. They need the capacity to be creative, to threaten the passer with overwhelming speed and stop the run game with penetration from linebackers and safeties. None of that happens when a team with a bruising offensive line runs up a lead on you in the second half and is getting eight to ten yards per carry en route to that.

Should we be worried? Absolutely. The Panthers missed Jaycee Horn desperately. They need to get Burris back and AJ Bouye and CJ Henderson up to speed as soon as possible. The sky isn’t falling yet, but you can see the gathering clouds.

Special teams

I said we were going to talk about all four phases of the game, so here’s my take on where the Panthers special teams are. They oughta kick the can down the road. There are enough problems and clearly they don’t have a good eye on a solution for their kicking woes. Deal with it later and pay attention to the parts of their tent that are currently on fire, instead of the flap that won’t quite tie shut.

If there were a kicker waiting out there that could fix this then they would have signed him right now. I’d rather find out what is available at center, guard, and tackle.

The refs

What are you going to do? This often feels like the ‘fourth phase’ of a football game and if the Panthers lost the first half yesterday then the only conversation about this game would have been about the officiating. As it turns out, they brought the game back close enough that the horrible forward progress/fumble call—among others—feels highly relevant again (Expect Fitterer to send video of that fumble/non fumble call to the league as part of a rules change proposal next summer). It is also relevant to mention the Cowboys (7-50) were the more penalized team yesterday. The Panthers drew six flags for 32 yards. There were enough other mistakes that it all got a little lost in the wash.

We talked a lot under former head coach Ron Rivera about how minimizing risk is sometimes the same thing as minimizing opportunity. In the NFL that often leads (because mistakes will always happen) to a game becoming a coin flip. That is, at it’s most generous, not a winning strategy.

The point of that conversation was that all it takes is changing a couple of things in a game to flip the result. Ultimately, the officiating yesterday may have been a factor that worked in the Cowboys favor. But it wasn’t the only thing. It was one thing that was included in totaling the margin of victory. The Panthers had many other things under their control, or that could have been under their control, that ended up erring in favor of Dallas. Change those, and the officiating doesn’t matter.

What’s next

I liked what I saw from Darnold yesterday. The two picks were less than great mistakes from a quarterback who was pushing to get back into an escaping game. I’m not happy about them, but I won’t crucify the kid either. When not hit, Darnold was still accurate and still making good decisions—mostly. He stayed poised even after the game got away from the Panthers. As soon as the Cowboys dialed back the pressure and fell into softer coverages, Darnold was able to pick them apart and get the Panthers within a couple plays of forcing overtime. I’ll take that.

Remember that the team ultimately lost by one score in a game where the defense gave up 245 yards rushing and came home with zero sacks. If you had told me that yesterday I would have bet real American dollars that the Cowboys would have won be 20+ points.

Next week has the team back home, facing more of the dumpster fire side of the NFC East. The Panthers need to go back to beating up on bad teams. Otherwise it will be hard to believe that they belong in games against good ones.