In his first series, Bryce Young faced third-and-long. For the first time, he was going to be forced to throw the ball downfield. He’d thrown five passes so far, completing four, all to running backs, and all near or behind the line of scrimmage.
This time, he was going to have to look deep.
It didn’t go well.
Young was hit and went down for what would have been a drive-ending sack — except the ball didn’t go with him. He fumbled it away, ending any chance that special teams could salvage anything from the disappointing final play.
The date was Sept. 28, 2020, late in the second half of No. 2 Alabama’s season-opening win at Missouri, and Young’s sack and fumble kept Alabama from adding to its 35-6 lead. Young had come on in mop-up duty. The inauspicious start to his college career didn’t linger. He led ’Bama to a field goal on his next drive. A year later he won the Heisman, and a year after that he was selected first in the NFL Draft.
Which brought him to the second first series of Young’s career.
It also didn’t go well.
Starting the preseason opener for the Panthers, Young again played it safe, throwing passes close to the line of scrimmage. Of the six passes he threw in his NFL debut, five were designated as “short” in the official league play-by-play.
The strategy eventually led to a third-and-long, and Young was forced to look downfield. DJ Chark was running up the left sideline. Young got set to throw, but starting left tackle Ickey Ekwonu was struggling to contain Jets defensive end Bryce Huff.
Showing poise and savvy, Young — instead of cutting and running as many rookie quarterbacks would do — stepped up. Huff flew by behind him. Unfortunately, Young’s step up took him right into the path of linebacker Jermaine Johnson, who had stunted around right guard Cade Mays and right tackle Taylor Moton to get a clear path to Young.
Unlike his first struggles at Alabama, Young didn’t cough up the football. He got the pass off but overthrew it, the ball skimming off the hands of Chark as he leaped for the ball. Young took the hit, went down, then trotted off the field so the Panthers could punt.
The play was representative of Young’s first game as a Panther — not ideal, but not a disaster. He was sacked once, hit a few more times, and one of his three drives started at the Panthers’ 2-yard-line, forcing him to play even more conservatively than he might otherwise have.
“We had a little too much pressure at times,” said Panthers coach Frank Reich. “Bryce was accurate. He got rid of the ball quickly. There is some good in having to try to overcome some bad field position which we did not do. We (were) backed up there pretty much.”
Reich, a former quarterback who is familiar with taking a big hit or two, took special notice of the blow Johnson delivered on the third down play.
“Obviously, that first hit was pretty big,” he said. “I asked him on the sidelines, ‘Well, that was a pretty good welcome to the NFL hit. How did that one feel?’ He said that he was fine. He said he barely felt it.”
“I mean at the time there’s adrenaline,” Young said. “You’re just focused on the next play. It’s part of football. It wasn’t a stop and pause and figure out. That’s the position that we play. At the time it wasn’t really something I processed or took in. It was just, again, throw the ball, you get hit, what’s the next call.”
Young, who has taken a level-headed, analytic approach to his fledgling NFL career, doesn’t seem likely to be rattled by growing pains.
“That’s part of the game,” he said. “Football is a physical sport. That’s part of the job description. You’re going to get hit. Again, that’s the game that we play. That is part of the job, you know that that is coming. That is not something I think of. You can’t let that affect your decision making or what you’re going through. It happens, and I’m just focused on the next play and trying to make sure I execute every time I get a chance to out there.”
It worked well as he was learning the ropes in Alabama. The Panthers hope he’ll reach similar heights in silver and blue.
“We talk about this all the time,” Reich said. “Let’s get the tough situations and put ourselves to the test. We had a couple of those today. We didn’t pass those tests, but those are good to learn from.”