Seven times this season, the Panthers have had the ball down by a score or less with a chance to either tie or win the game to end the game.
All seven of these times they have failed to score – whether it has been turning the ball over, missing a long field goal or running out of downs, the Panthers haven’t come through in late game situations consistently in Matt Rhule’s first season at the helm.
While on two of these occasions, the Panthers have been very much up against the clock to get the ball into the end zone, in both of those cases the Panthers effectively had two bites at the cherry, having forced a quick punt on the previous possession by the opponent. These seven drives are the difference between the Panthers being 4-9 and debating whether to take a QB in the top ten or sitting at 11-2 with a clear path to a division title and a first-round bye.
Ultimately, when you are 2-7 in games decided by eight points or less, you’re not going to be able to compete for anything in the end. But in a season that’s meant for evaluation and growth, finding your weaknesses is just as important as building your strengths.
“It’s very difficult. It’s frustrating but you understand that everything happens for a reason,” said Teddy Bridgewater after one of those losses in Minnesota. “Obviously, you learn a lot from games like these – hopefully, you don’t have to keep experiencing this.”
A lot of the blame for this failure to execute with the money on the line late in games has fallen on Bridgewater – this is broadly in line with the emphasis placed on wins and losses for a quarterback. However, how fair is it to lay the blame for these losses at Teddy’s doorstep?
In order to try and work out who deserves what proportion of the blame for the Panthers’ torrid late-game record, it’s worth taking a look at where these drives went wrong and what lessons the Panthers can learn from them as they enter what could be yet another tumultuous offseason.
While a young defense that has given up scores late in many of these games certainly deserves a look, we’ll only be examining an offense that had a chance – no matter how fleeting – to win games late and ultimately failed.
Game One: 55 yards in 3:22 vs. the Raiders
The Panthers actually got the ball back on their own 30 with 4:03 left but a 15-yard carry by CMC gave them a new set of downs to work from – this is where things went wrong. The Panthers clearly wanted to make sure they didn’t give the ball back to the Raiders with enough time to get a score of their own and so their drive ultimately fizzled out one yard short of the chains after four straight runs. Ultimately, the Panthers’ failure to convert here came down to execution – on the first play, CMC decided to bounce the play outside right rather than heading left where the Panthers’ had the numbers to block the Raiders up:
Here, Curtis Samuel just fails to block the linebacker who makes the tackle:
And here the double block of Schofield and Paradis fails to work up to the linebacker:
And even having failed to execute on three straight plays, the Panthers still had a chance to convert on fourth-and-1, but are unable to pick up the first down:
On this final play, some blame should fall on the play design as asking a TE to reach-block a defensive end is not ideal – but ultimately, it is Schofield managing to go backwards on a double-team that really gives Armah little chance.
Blame Game: McCaffrey, Samuel, Schofield and Joe Brady all deserve some blame – but really this was an issue of multiple players failing to execute over four plays.
Game Six: 46 yards in 3:56 vs. the Bears
Yes, Teddy ultimately threw an ugly pick on the Panthers’ only play of their final drive, but with no timeouts left inside and needing to go 80 yards in 92 seconds, the Panthers had to throw the ball deep against one of the best pass defenses in the NFL. Instead, the bigger wasted opportunity was on the previous drive when the Panthers turned the ball over on downs at the Bears’ 38.
The Panthers had moved the ball well from their own 17 prior to the final set of downs, but here they get behind the chains early with a one-yard run after Akiem Hicks made a mockery of John Miller on an attempted reach block:
Things then went from bad to worse with a screen losing four yards to set up a long third down. Facing a third-and-13, Teddy then bails them out – with nobody open, he scrambles 11 yards to set up a more reasonable fourth down. While the Panthers’ ultimately got away with it here, this was a really questionable play call in the situation and it is hard to blame either Teddy, the offensive line or the receivers from not executing here:
The Panthers are able to get DJ Moore wide open on the fourth down call, however, but a slight miscommunication in the route leads to a frustrating incompletion:
Verdict: Final play is on some combination of Teddy and DJ Moore, but the second and third down play calls by Joe Brady required a terrific scramble to put them in any reasonable position to convert.
Game Seven: 38 yards in 3:20 vs. the Saints
The Panthers had managed to drive the ball from their own 25 while draining just over 4:30 off the clock to this point, including a key scramble on third-and-5, but they end up attempting a would-be-NFL-record 65 yard field goal on 4th-and-19. On first down, the play design and receivers don’t allow for a quick outlet and the timing on the in-breaking route by Samuel, the only realistic chance of a non-contested catch, is disrupted by Scott allowing inside penetration at RG and Teddy is forced to throw the ball away:
Having tried unsuccessfully to hit on a deep shot on first down, the Panthers try another screen which gets completely blown up for a loss of a yard. While the first down play could be put down as a calculated risk, the screen on second-and-long seems like a questionable call and sets up another third-and-long.
Again, the Panthers allow early pressure as Mike Davis gets abused in pass protection – but even without that it is hard not to question a play call that does look to give Bridgewater any chance of getting the ball out quickly against the blitz:
Verdict: Pass protection didn’t really give Teddy a chance on first and third down but play calling again has to be questioned with pressure issues being exacerbated by slower-developing concepts
Game Eight: 34 yards in 1:16 vs. the Falcons
Here, a sack had forced the Panthers into a third-and-18 from their own 24 – but a 42 yard pass from Bridgewater to Moore gave them a chance to keep the game alive.
On first down, Teddy just misses an open throw to DJ Moore, and this is the first play that can be placed solely on Teddy’s shoulders:
But on second down, there is really not much to criticize as Teddy does a nice job of scrambling for positive yardage after another really questionable play call which would have given Teddy nowhere to go with the ball however long he kept hold of the ball:
This third down is ultimately on Teddy as well – while there is once again a fair amount to critique about the playcall, he can’t throw the ball into double coverage when there is a chance to come back and try and get the first down again on fourth down. With that said, there really isn’t anywhere to go with the ball and Moton’s hold would have negated any play regardless, and this is ultimately a really good play by the DB to bail on his receiver and jump the route over the top:
Verdict: Teddy can’t throw that pass and the miss on first down is ugly, but the play calls on second and third down really didn’t give him much of a chance. This one probably goes to Teddy.
Game Nine: 77 yards in 65 seconds vs. the Chiefs
This is possibly the hardest of the drives the Panthers were tasked with trying to score on – while they only needed to get into field goal range, they were also right up against the clock after getting the ball back with 1:26 left at their own nine-yard line. While the Panthers were able to get a first down on the Chiefs’ 49 with nine seconds left once they had spiked the ball, Chris Reed’s penalty to force the Panthers back to a second-and-20 from their own 13 really did much of the job of killing this drive.
While the Panthers would ultimately convert on third-and-5, they were forced to run off 56 seconds to do so:
Some criticism should probably be leveled at the fact that they took 16 seconds to spike the ball on on a 23-yard completion, but it’s hard to get too irate about this.
However, there are also some useful lessons from the two downs the Panthers ran before attempting another very long FG. First, with 25 seconds left they maybe should have taken the pass they were being offered over the middle as in their attempt to get to the sidelines they passed on a potential touchdown down the seam to Curtis Samuel.
Yes, if that ball doesn’t get into the end zone the Panthers would probably have run out of time, but if you are going to run a play here against this defense rather than just attempting the field goal, you have to really take a shot at the end zone – there really isn’t a chance of getting yardage down the sidelines:
Similarly, it is hard to know what the Panthers hoped to achieve by throwing the ball into double coverage here other than risking a potential turnover:
Verdict: Reed’s penalty really put the Panthers up against the wall here, and they were pretty close to start with, but it’s hard to know what the Panthers stood to achieve by trying to throw the ball to the flat on consecutive plays.
Game Twelve: 87 yards in 43 seconds vs. the Vikings
The other strong contender for toughest ask is this drive against the Vikings – while Teddy deserves a significant amount of criticism for the miss to Moore on third down on the previous drive that would have put the game beyond doubt, after Minnesota was forced to call a timeout following a long completion to Samuel, the Panthers had the ball on their own 48 with 25 seconds left.
Ultimately, the Panthers did manage to give themselves a 54-yard field goal attempt to win the game, and this 12 yard completion to Anderson on the previous second-and-6 was a really nice throw and catch:
But the first down playcall of running four receivers vertical and playing for the short reception to the running back really could have been better – they had more than enough time to spike the ball had they pushed the ball further down the field, which they ultimately ended up doing on the next play:
Verdict: Not an easy situation by any means, but Teddy did about as well as could be expected, while Joe Brady could have been more willing to push the ball down the field with 25 seconds left. Ultimately, a 54-yard field goal is in Joey Slye’s range, so it’s got to fall on his shoulders.
Game Thirteen: 73 yards in 2:48 against the Broncos
And so we come to the Panthers’ most recent disappointment – this drive started about as badly as possible, with Teddy getting sacked for a loss of six on first down off of play-action. While Teddy might get some criticism for taking the sack, the issue here is all in the play call and protection. Manhertz gets beaten inside and Paradis is unable to cut off the 1-tech, which leads to Teddy getting hit from both sides.
While these two players deserve some criticism, the fact that even without the pressure the Broncos were able to completely blanket the Panthers’ receivers isn’t great.
On second down, they managed to get eight yards to give themselves a manageable third down with a short completion, but with time running down before the two-minute warning, Teddy rushed into a play that the coaching staff didn’t want him to run.
Rushing in to the play is clearly on Teddy – this is something that Matt Rhule has made it clear they need to get cleared up – but even with that in mind, it’s hard to know why he went for the read on the far side on the field. The receiver had a bigger cushion on the near side and while Anderson slipped slightly on the route, there was still a chance of a quick completion on the near side.
We all know what happened on the ensuing fourth down, with the Panthers failing to execute the pick on the mesh leading to an easy tackle short of the sticks:
Matt Rhule said Monday that he would have preferred Teddy to take a shot past the sticks but with the safety over the middle it’s hard to blame Teddy when the best option he had was probably a contested fade to the near side after the defender failed to really bite on the double move.
Verdict: Teddy is definitely to blame for the third down failure, but the play calls on first and fourth down are really questionable once again – neither gave him anywhere to go with the ball other than lofting it up on a prayer.
As you have no doubt realized at this point, it has been a lot of different things that have gone wrong for the Panthers.
“Of course you’re frustrated in the heat of the moment. You want to do well in those situations and it’s going to continue to bother you until you actually excel in that situation,” Bridgewater said after the game. “It’s easy for Coach [Rhule] to say it’s his fault and things like that but us as players, starting with me, we have to take some ownership in this as well and be accountable and understand that the coach’s job is to get us to Sunday; it’s our job to go out there and execute on Sundays.”
While Teddy does deserve some blame, especially for the Falcons game, there has been a lot of blame to go around.
The pass protection just hasn’t been good enough when it really matters, the skill position players aren’t completely blameless, but it is hard not to think that the majority of the blame has to go on the offensive playcalling. Joe Brady is still very early in his coaching career so there should be some leeway for how this season is viewed, but in situations where it is crucial that the Panthers are able to get the ball out for positive yardage quickly, his focus on trying to push the ball deep has made the Panthers’ overly vulnerable to being blitzed.
Teddy might not have been the hero Panthers fans would have loved to see so far this season – but the idea that he is fluffing his lines late in games and you can place the blame for seven losses in his lap just isn’t backed up by the tape.