The Panthers opened the 2021 regular season with a 19-14 win at home over the Jets, and while the gap between the two scores should have been higher, the Panthers left Week 1 with the one thing they had to: a win against an inferior opponent. Sometimes wins are exciting and fun, but sometime — like yesterday — they’re ugly. But at the end of the day, they all count the same in the standings.
We learned a few things about the Panthers yesterday, so let’s take a look back at five takeaways from Week 1, in no particular order.
Christian McCaffrey is back
This doesn’t come as a surprise, but Christian McCaffrey is pretty good at running with a football in his hands. The Panthers utilized his skills right out of the gate, giving him the football on the first four plays of the game. McCaffrey ended his day with 21 rushes and 9 receptions for 187 total yards (98 rushing, 89 receiving). He didn’t find the end zone yesterday, but he was effective in moving the chains for the offense and did an admirable job in the passing game. In short: Christian McCaffrey is back doing Christian McCaffrey things, and that’s a good thing for the Panthers’ offense.
Sam Darnold is ‘pretty good’
The Panthers made the call in the offseason to move on from Teddy Bridgewater in favor of former Jets first round pick (No. 3 overall) Sam Darnold. This move has split the fanbase into three camps: those who think this is going to be a disaster, those who think this is probably not going to work out very well but are willing to wait and see what happens before saying ‘I told you this wasn’t going to work out!’ and those who thought Darnold was a victim of his surroundings in New York and had a chance to be good if he was put into a better environment. Regardless of where anyone stood on Darnold, everyone was interested to see how he would play with a better roster around him, and we finally got to see him in a non-preseason offense coached by Not Adam Gase.
In his Panthers debut, Darnold was much better than a lot of people — even those who thought he was better than he was given credit for with the Jets — expected him to be. He finished the day 24-of-35 for 279 yards with 1 touchdown through the air (a gorgeous 57-yard bomb to Robby Anderson) and a 5-yard rushing touchdown. He was only sacked once — which is more of a testament to the offensive line doing an admirable job — and had one fumble on a botched handoff (which is arguably Giovanni Ricci’s fault).
He ended the day with -1 rushing yards* but ran the victory formation at the end of the game, so don’t let the stats fool you there: Darnold had a pretty good day all things considered, and several of his 11 incompletions were due to his receivers dropping the ball. There were some moments where he looked like the Jets version of himself (like the two straight incompletions in the end zone that both should have been touchdowns), but overall he showed that he has the potential to turn things around in Carolina. He looks like he’s already comfortable with his three primary weapons — CMC, DJ and Robby — and he’s also building a rapport with Terrace Marshall Jr. and Dan Arnold. With time, I think this move could work out for the Panthers.
I’m not saying that Darnold is ‘the answer’ and I’m not saying that he’s going to be the Super Bowl MVP this year (though that would be nice). I’m just saying that he surpassed expectations and showed the traits that made him attractive to the coaching staff, and I’m saying that there looks to be some juice left to be squeezed out of the lemon we thought we were going to get. (And for what it’s worth: that 57-yard touchdown pass to Robby Anderson doesn’t happen if Bridgewater is still our quarterback.)
The Panthers are still not settled at kicker
The Panthers traded a conditional draft pick to the Giants for kicker Ryan Santoso before the preseason finale and declared him the winner of the starting kicker competition over Joey Slye. We were hopeful that we finally had a solution to the inconsistency at kicker, and unfortunately that was not the case on Sunday.
While Santoso made both of his field goal attempts — both were chip shots under 30 yards — he was 1-for-2 on extra point attempts. The Panthers went through the effort to replace Slye primarily because of his inconsistency, and Santoso missing an extra point almost makes the whole thing moot. We can’t rush to judgment yet, and it was just one kick, but it’s something to make note of as the weeks go by.
The offense needs to learn how to play with a lead
The Panthers held a 16-0 lead at halftime — and would have had a bigger lead than that if not for two failures in the red zone — but played the third quarter like they were trying not to lose. As expected, the Jets outscored the Panthers 14-3 in the second half and made it an interesting game in the fourth quarter when it never should have made it to that point. The Panthers ran 11 plays and gained 19 total yards — and punted three times — in the third quarter, and they allowed the Jets to cut their lead in half by giving up a long 8-play, 70-yard touchdown drive.
Playing conservative in the third quarter gave the Jets something they didn’t have in the first half: momentum. To put it simply: This is not acceptable. In the NFL, you cannot afford to take your foot off the gas because when you do, you give the other team the chance to catch up to you. We saw that yesterday with a team coached by a rookie head coach that was playing a rookie quarterback in his first NFL start, so imagine what it would have looked like if the Panthers decided to take their foot off the gas against a team like the Saints or the Buccaneers. The end result wouldn’t have been the same, and you can’t just turtle up and play not to lose when you build a lead. You have to go for the throat, and hopefully we see that mentality going forward.
The defense has a chance to be special
There are two caveats here: 1. The Jets were missing two of their receivers, and 2. Zach Wilson is a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start. With that being said, the defense showed up to play yesterday. The sacked Wilson six times (Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson, Haason Reddick, Derrick Brown, Marquis Haynes and Daviyon Nixon all participated in the sack party) and pressured him all afternoon. The Jets had 252 total yards (207 passing, 45 rushing), averaged 4.2 yards per play and were 4-for-13 on third down. The defense started to struggle a bit in the second half — mostly due to being on the field so much in the third quarter after the offense went into turtle mode — but held their ground and prevented the Jets from completing their comeback attempt.
With all that being said, I think the defense has a chance to be the unit that carries the Panthers this season. Shaq Thompson looked like a new man yesterday with 10 tackles (5 solo), 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit, 3 passes defended and 1 interception (and he should have had another one, to be honest). Brian Burns was a menace in the backfield, Haason Reddick wreaked havoc up front, Donte Jackson made an amazing pass breakup to force a fourth down and Derrick Brown was a monster in the middle.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Jaycee Horn, who made a solid play in run support in the first half but didn’t do much else because the Jets decided not to throw in his direction. He was beat once on the Jets’ second touchdown, but there wasn’t much he could have done other than commit pass interference on that play. (Full credit to Zach Wilson: it was an elite throw.)
Again, it was the Jets playing a rookie quarterback who was playing without two of his receivers, but I liked what I saw from the defense yesterday. If we continue to see them play like that, we’re going to be in the conversation for playoff spots at the end of the year as long as the offense doesn’t completely implode.
What do you think, Panthers fans? What stood out to you yesterday? Who do you think deserves a shoutout? Share your thoughts with us!
*- According to the box score, Darnold had five rushing attempts for -1 yards. It appears the fumbled handoff is considered a rushing attempt for no gain by Darnold, because there are no mentions of a rush attempt by Darnold except for his touchdown and the three victory formation plays (each kneel down counts as a rushing attempt for a 2-yard loss). In short, don’t worry about the fact that he rushed five times for -1 yards. He scored a touchdown on his only intentional rushing play, which is what really matters here.