The Panthers dropped their first game of the season after a disappointing Week 4 performance and now sit at 3-1 after four games. Carolina made it exciting in the fourth quarter by making it a one-score game late, but they just didn’t have enough juice left to pull off an upset and fell 36-28 to the Cowboys. Losing sucks, but I don’t think anyone expected this Panthers team to run the table, and losing on the road to an opponent who is also 3-1 isn’t the worst thing that could have happened.
OK, that’s enough rambling from me. Below are four takeaways I had from yesterday’s game, in no particular order.
Sam Darnold is human after all
We knew the day would come when Sam Darnold finally made mistakes, and that day was yesterday. His stat line was mostly fine: He was 26-of-39 for 301 yards, 2 touchdowns (plus 2 rushing touchdowns), 2 interceptions and he was sacked five times for a total of 35 yards. Overall he was OK, but those two interceptions came at the worst possible time, and one of them was a truly awful decision. (It can be argued that the second one was just a good play by the cornerback, but the first one was indefensible.)
On the bright side, Darnold — and the rest of the offense — didn’t give up after they dug themselves into a 33-14 hole in the third quarter, but the downside is they didn’t shy away from putting their shovels to work in the first place. The Panthers have to find a way to avoid disasters in the third quarter. We’ve talked about this multiple times already, and we’ve often made the point that they won’t be able to get away with it against quality opponents. Well, we learned that yesterday, and hopefully the coaching staff can find a way to stop it from happening.
I still think Darnold is good and I’m not going to let one game define him, but I hope we don’t see too much of the guy we saw in the third quarter yesterday. I’d much rather watch the guy who played in the first, second and fourth quarters. He’s a lot more fun.
The Panthers need Christian McCaffrey back ASAP
One unfortunate reality is that the Panthers offense is simply not as good without Christian McCaffrey as they are with him. This was evident in the second half of their Week 3 game against Houston, and the point was amplified even more yesterday afternoon.
I feel the need to point this out now: This is not an attack on Chuba Hubbard. He’s a fine No. 2 running back, but that’s just it: he’s a No. 2 guy, not a No. 1 guy (at least not right now). He was mostly alright yesterday with 57 yards on 13 carries and 14 yards on 2 receptions, but that’s not going to get the job done as a feature back.
The Panthers need to run the football to be successful, and with the way the roster is currently structured, they need someone of Christian McCaffrey’s caliber to accomplish that goal. Hopefully he’s back in 2-3 more weeks so the Panthers don’t lose too much ground in the standings.
The Panthers need to build a quality offensive line
I’m not making excuses for Sam Darnold because he did make some bad decisions yesterday, but the Panthers have to build an offensive line if Darnold is going to have any chance at success here. He was constantly facing pressure from Dallas’ front seven, and while he did move around in the pocket and make some plays at times, there were a lot of moments where he didn’t have a pocket to move around in.
It’s time for the Panthers’ brass to face facts: They simply cannot focus on guys who are good at multiple positions on the line, and instead they need to focus on guys who are great/elite at one spot. Taylor Moton is an elite right tackle, and John Miller is a good right guard (when he’s available to play), but they don’t have an elite left tackle, left guard or center. They have a few guys who can play both guard and center and do a decent job, but those kind of players should only be used in emergencies. They need to solidify the interior of their line to give Darnold — and Hubbard, and Freeman, and McCaffrey — a chance to succeed. And for goodness sake... can we please get a left tackle? We’ve only been trying to solidify that spot since 2011. I think it’s about time we actually did so.
This isn’t the end of the world
There are good things to take away from this game. DJ Moore is a certified boss, for example, and he showed out with 8 receptions for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns yesterday. He seems to have built a rapport with Darnold, which is something that we all wanted to see develop this year. Brandon Zylstra came up big when it counted in the fourth quarter with a 55-yard catch and run to set up a touchdown.
The defense wasn’t spectacular (and they were also missing key players), but that’s partially because Dallas has built their offensive line to protect their quarterback and running backs. They also had a solid game plan to scheme against our speed. It also doesn’t help that the offense couldn’t get anything going so the defense was on the field for much longer than they should have been. Full credit to the Cowboys, though: They came in and punched us in the mouth, and sometimes that just happens in the NFL. The real test is how the Panthers will respond to the adversity, and we’ll find out more about this team in the coming weeks thanks to this setback.
And despite the loss, the Panthers are still in pretty decent shape. They’re 3-1 and they lost to a quality opponent. I’m sure the pundits are going to point out that we’ve been a paper tiger all along, and losing to their first big challenger proves that point, but I’m just going to let them talk for now. The Panthers are alright, and if they can patch a few holes, get some quality players back on the field, and avoid disaster in the third quarter, they’ll be in the playoff conversation later in the year.
What do you think, Panthers fans? What stood out to you yesterday? Share your thoughts with us!