The Carolina Panthers lost at home to the Dallas Cowboys 33-10 to drop the NFL’s worst team to 1-9 on the season. The final score masks just how close the Panthers were to keeping this game competitive, though. Carolina trailed 17-10 with 11 seconds left in the third quarter with Dallas facing a third-and-5 from their own 40. Had the Panthers defense been able to come up with a stop it would have been a one score game going into the fourth quarter with Carolina possessing the ball.
Instead, the Cowboys gained 24 yards to convert the third-and-5 to end the third quarter, scored a touchdown three plays later to go up 24-10, then snagged a pick-six off Bryce Young on the very next play to suddenly go up 30-10. Game over.
After another bad loss, here’s what’s rising and what’s falling for the Panthers:
The fourth dimension
Early in the third quarter the Panthers trailed 17-3 against a clearly superior team and needed a touchdown to keep the game within reach. What happened next was a small glimmer of sunshine in an otherwise dreary season. Carolina’s offense engineered a 17-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that included three (!!!) successful fourth down conversions. Adam Thielen, the team’s only viable receiving option, converted two fourth downs with clutch receptions while Miles Sanders picked up a fourth-and-1. The promising scoring drive made it a one score game at 17-10 going into the fourth quarter before the wheels fell off for Carolina.
Derrick Brown and Adam Thielen, again
The Panthers stellar defensive tackle and wide receiver should just have a standing section in this “Risers” column. What they are doing is incredible. Brown recorded six more tackles, including a beastly tackle for loss, giving him an incredible 55 tackles through 10 games. He’s on pace for 94 tackles this season which is an absurd number for an interior defensive lineman. Just put him in the Pro Bowl already.
Speaking of absurd - Old Man Thielen had another eight receptions for 74 yards in a game in which Bryce Young threw for just 123 yards. The veteran now has 76 receptions for 726 yards on the year. The Panthers next leading receiver is DJ Chark with - wait for it - 229 yards. Despite playing for an inept offense with a terrible passing attack, Thielen is somehow on pace for 129 receptions and 1,234 yards. That’s mind blowing.
Old Mother Hubbard and Colonel Sanders
The Panthers impotent running game emerged from nowhere in Week 11. Against the Cowboys, Chuba Hubbard continued to overdeliver by rushing 10 times for 57 yards. Miles Sanders rebounded from a dud last week to carry the rock 11 times for 50 yards against the Cowboys. A rookie quarterback’s best friend is a consistent, effective running game. It’s promising the Panthers discovered one against Dallas.
The pressure cooker
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words…or a thousand remotes thrown against TV screens. There’s no need to elaborate beyond the stat in the lower right hand corner of this image.
Being rough, unnecessarily
Carolina needed to play a sharp, disciplined game in order to hang with one of the NFL’s better teams in the Cowboys. The Panthers were anything but sharp and disciplined, especially when it came to absolutely dumb unnecessary roughness penalties.
First, Xavier Woods did something in the second quarter that I’ve never seen before. On third-and-19 from the Carolina 32 he tackled Brandin Cooks well short of the first down marker but somehow committed two major penalties on one tackle. Woods was flagged for both a facemask and a horse collar tackle, a two-for-one penalty extravaganza that’s rarely seen at any level of football. Way to multitask, Xavier! The drive was extended and the Cowboys ultimately kicked a field goal.
Second, in the third quarter the Cowboys faced third-and-10 from the Carolina 41. Dak Prescott scrambled for a three-yard gain setting up what should have been a long 55-yard field goal attempt. However, reserve Amare Barno made a bad decision by drilling a sliding Prescott in the head for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. Then, three plays later, the Panthers stopped the Cowboys on third-and-16 but DeShawn Williams committed an egregiously boneheaded unnecessary roughness penalty by shoving a Cowboys player in the back after the play was dead. These two penalties extended a drive that led to a Cowboys touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
Freefalling free agents
Outside of the aforementioned brilliance of Adam Thielen, Carolina’s 2023 free agent class has been a bust.
Miles Sanders (4-years, $25 million) went from a Pro Bowler last year averaging 75 rushing yards per game on 4.9 YPC with the Philadelphia Eagles to 30 yards per game on 3.3 YPC with the Panthers. There were high hopes that tight end Hayden Hurst (3-years, $21.8 million) and wide receiver DJ Chark (1-year, $5 million) could open up Carolina’s passing game but the duo has combined for just 35 receptions and 413 yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, safety Vonn Bell (3-years, $22.5 million) has been “okay” (for lack of a better word) with 44 tackles through seven games but is ranked 52nd of 88 safeties by PFF. Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle (3-years, $19.5 million) has recorded 21 tackles, one quarterback hit, and 0.5 sacks and is ranked 78th of 125 at his position by PFF. Veteran defensive end Justin Houston (1-year, $6 million) has nine tackles and half a sack through seven games and is currently on the injured reserve.
Roster construction rests on the shoulders of Panther general manager Scott Fitterer. The individual pieces he collected actually look somewhat promising on paper, but the frustrating reality for the 2023 Carolina Panthers is the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. The fit between players, schemes, and play calling has been a complete mess from Week 1 and has not improved as the season has progressed.