As he tried to process the Panthers’ fifth loss in their last six games, the frustration of Haason Reddick was evident as he addressed the reporters gathered at Bank of America Stadium and, when a particular subject came up, Reddick made sure he made something very clear.
“I just ask that anybody that has questions about the offense please don’t ask me those,” said Reddick. “I don’t play the offensive side of the ball. I try to make that clear every time I come in here and y’all ask me about the offense.”
At the midway point of the 2021 season, the Carolina Panthers’ strengths and weaknesses as a team have become very clear. Defensively, they are as good as any team in the NFL, boasting a ferocious front seven that complements a talented secondary. They can rush the passer, make plays on the football, and do all the things that constitute winning football.
The same cannot be said for their offense, whose ineptitude reached new levels in the latest loss to the New England Patriots. Despite the return of All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers could only generate a measly six points, all of which were set-up by defensive turnovers. They have now scored only a single touchdown in their last three games and Sam Darnold has looked every bit like a damaged goods quarterback, as he completed just half his passes for 172 yards and three interceptions, including one returned 88 yards for a touchdown.
In a league where complementary football is the ideal, the Panthers’ offense and defense lying at opposite extremes is a maddening development. And it carries a very real and nefarious danger with it.
No matter how talented, an NFL team is only as good as the harmony of its locker room, and there are few things that can divide a locker room quite like one side of the ball excelling while the other struggles to muster anything positive. This is especially true when a dominant defense feels put-upon with a lousy offense, as the feeling of having to do the heavy lifting for a unit that cannot score is one that has been experienced by more than a few defensive units.
If a situation is created where the defense feels that it’s them against the offense, and the offense in turn feels attacked by the defense, it can create significant turbulence. If left unchecked, it can lead to a negative spiral that few coaching staffs have recovered from.
For this reason, ensuring that the offense and defense remain in harmony is as important as any of the many challenges that Panthers Head Coach Matt Rhule must navigate in order to keep their once-promising season from completely unraveling.
However, while it is ultimately up to the Head Coach to keep the peace, it’s also the responsibility of the players in the locker room to keep things from reaching that point. A responsibility which Rhule believes Haason Reddick took on by making it known he would not answer for the offense.
“It’s really easy to sit on the other side of the room and say ‘Well, they should be doing this’ or ‘This guy should be doing this.’ Haason’s leading by example saying ‘I don’t want to talk about things I’m not involved with. I don’t want to talk about execution in the passing game or should we run the ball more or all these different things,’” said Rhule. “Haason’s job is to go out there, set the edge, make tackles and get sacks. And he’s leading by example in doing that.”
The presence of Reddick as well as others in the Panthers’ locker room – particularly those added and trusted by Rhule – is essential to Carolina’s players not turning on one another. Since his arrival in 2020, Rhule has seen to it that the Panthers’ roster consists of players who buy into a long-term process and vision, and who are willing to seek it through the peaks and valleys of the short-term.
No one has signed up to be a Panther as a means to the service of their own ends. Plenty have endured the pain of losing streaks just as they enjoyed a 3-2 start in 2020 and a 3-0 start this year. All this comes in handy when it comes to handling highs and lows without assigning blame or pointing fingers.
“At the end of the day, this league is very much a league of ups and downs,” said defensive end Morgan Fox. “And there’s times where we (as a defense) have not played well, and the offense has been someone we’ve had to lean on and they’ve answered the bell. It’s just how this business goes: Sometimes they’re gonna need us, and we’re gonna need them. And we understand that and that we’ve got a ton of guys who are talented.
“So there’s no divide. There’s no people getting upset and pointing fingers. This business is this business. And it’s the ebbs and flows and ups and downs. They’re gonna need to lean on us sometimes, and we know down the road there’s gonna be times where we’re gonna need to lean on them. And they’re definitely gonna be there to answer that bell.”
“There’s never gonna be no finger-pointing, man. We’re gonna stay together. We’re in this together. We brothers,” said linebacker Shaq Thompson. “They got our back, we got they back, and we gonna get this thing goin’ and rockin’.”
Strong locker rooms have long been a hallmark of Carolina football. And time and again, those strong locker rooms have been able to emotionally handle great adversity instead of letting it overwhelm them or sow discord. Through Rhule, and through the roster he and others have assembled, that looks to continue.
“You get to these moments where it feels like the sky is falling and you want to just panic – Why? I mean, why panic? We’re not a bad football team. We played bad football yesterday – There’s a big difference,” said Rhule. “… We don’t need to panic. We just need to keep improving the football and getting the football right. And I’d say we have a bunch of really good guys in this locker room. A bunch of guys that want to win, a bunch of guys that have been on winning teams in the NFL and they understand that it doesn’t come easy. I have really no concerns about that.
“Guys can be frustrated. We all should be frustrated. I’m frustrated, everyone should be frustrated. But sometimes you have to take a deep breath and regroup. We’re gonna hit the second half of the season right now and take all the lessons we’ve learned and just try to be the team that played against the Falcons and Saints – Not the team we saw out there yesterday.”
Granted, the Panthers should very much be concerned about the state of their offense. While McCaffrey’s return should help matters, particularly when it comes to being more dynamic, injuries along a poor offensive line combined with poor play and injuries for Darnold have created a situation that could easily get worse before it gets better. And make no mistake, the situation within the offense itself is quite volatile – As evidenced by wide receiver Robby Anderson giving Darnold an earful on the sidelines after his third pick of the day.
Darnold after his 3rd INT. This one in the end zone. pic.twitter.com/zMZtY3zSVW
— Carolina Blitz (@KeepBlitzin) November 7, 2021
If Carolina cannot find answers to stop its offensive malaise and play better complementary football, the storm they are currently navigating will only grow more intense and more damaging. In order to weather the storm and become the sort of team they want to be, It will be imperative for Matt Rhule and his players to stay the course together and keep the team’s offense and defense from dividing against themselves.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)