The Carolina Panthers host the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. The big question is which Carolina Panthers will be at Bank of America Stadium for the opening kick.
The Panthers are a different team when running back Christian McCaffrey is on the field. With him, Carolina is 3-0 this season. Since he went down with an injury in the Houston game, the team is 0-2 with him on the sidelines in street clothes.
Going back to last season, when McCaffrey was out of the lineup more than he was in while suffering from a variety of injuries, the Panthers have won just two of their last 12 games when the All-Pro running back was not available.
It’s nothing against the running backs filling in for McCaffrey. Veteran Mike Davis had several strong games last season starting in his place, and rookie Chuba Hubbard turned in a 102-yard performance against the Eagles on Sunday, adding 33 receiving yards. You can’t ask for much more from a running back.
McCaffrey’s dual-threat, running and receiving, puts pressure on opposing defenses, both during the game and in the days leading up when the opponent needs to devote time to preparing ways to stop him. When McCaffrey isn’t on the field, there’s more pressure on the quarterback — both mentally, since he feels he has to do more, and physically, from the opposing pass rush.
Sam Darnold has certainly been a different quarterback since he lost McCaffrey. After completing 68.2% of his passes in the first three games, with one interception in 107 throws, he’s completed just 61.8% in the last two with three picks in 76 passes. His quarterback rating has fallen from 98.97 with McCaffrey lined up in the backfield to 65.57 without him.
After being sacked twice a game with McCaffrey, Darnold has been taken down four times a week in the last two losses. For a quarterback who has been very open about struggling when he’s worried about the pass rush, that’s a very dangerous trend.
“Certainly, the tale of this week and last week is our inability to protect the quarterback,” coach Matt Rhule said. “We had two holding calls that got us out of whack. It wasn’t that they blitzed us. It was just a four-man rush, sometimes a five-man rush. At times they won, and when they didn’t win, they pushed us out of the pocket and the quarterback was running around. We’ve got to get to the point where the quarterback feels good about his protection and can stay in the pocket.”
So, Panthers or Can’t-thers — which team will line up against the Vikings?
McCaffrey practiced on a limited basis on the three days leading up to the game last week, but he was ruled out for the game at the last minute.
This week will be another waiting game. Rhule said on Monday that he was “hopeful” McCaffrey would be able to answer the bell against the Vikings.
While McCaffrey is getting all the attention, there are plenty of other areas of concern on the Panthers after the team blew a 12-point lead to lose to a 1-3 Eagles team on Sunday.
“I know a lot of the questions will be about the offense, but if you have the lead in the fourth quarter with the players we have on defense, we should never lose,” Rhule said. “We should never lose.”
Special teams also had a punt blocked.
“We practice that a lot. We have to make those blocks. We didn’t make those blocks,” Rhule said. “They came around, we block that, and we just didn’t make the block.”
That came with four minutes left in the game and the Panthers clinging to a five-point lead. It gave the Eagles the ball on the Carolina 27, setting up the game-winning touchdown.
Of course, even in that turning point play, it comes back to the Panthers’ offense. Rewinding the tape to one play before the decisive block, we see the Panthers facing a third-and-3 with a chance to get a first down and continue running time off the clock.
A Darnold pass bounced off the hands of Robby Anderson, stopping the clock and forcing the Panthers to try the ill-fated punt.
“That was a bad ball,” Rhule said of Darnold’s throw.
“Just missed him,” Darnold agreed. “Just missed him, have to put the ball on him.”
Darnold called that play, not the blocked punt, the turning point.
“I think, I should have hit that throw,” he said. “I should have hit that throw to Robby, and who knows what happens after that.”
A visibly frustrated Anderson had an animated conversation with Darnold on the sideline after the play.
“I am going to keep that between Robby and everyone that was involved,” Darnold said.
It all comes back to the offense, and, when looking for what’s wrong with the offense, it all comes back to the man who wasn’t there.
It comes down to which Carolina Panthers team is on the field.