The Panthers’ honeymoon phase with Cam Newton ended a while ago. Feel-good homecomings and reminders of their young roster won’t shake this harsh reality. Carolina entered Sunday in need of leadership, explosive plays and a victory, yet left Hard Rock Stadium in defeat behind an uninspiring offensive performance filled with costly turnovers, defensive mishaps and another quarterback benching.
By losing to Miami 33-10, the Panthers’ season is on life support. Aside from a 64-yard reception by D.J. Moore on their second possession, there was little productivity in Carolina’s offense. Short fields plagued the Panthers’ defense and its special teams allowed a blocked punt for a first-quarter touchdown.
In all three phases, the Panthers were either outplayed or coached. Usually both. With a 5-7 record, they enter the bye with far more questions than answers looming over the decision-makers that have gotten them to this point.
Coach Matt Rhule must consider changes across his order of operations. Perhaps it’s time for a new play-caller. The Panthers offense has scored seven touchdowns over the past four games. On Sunday, Carolina had a minus-5.2 EPA (expected points added) on passing plays. That mark was more than five points worse than the Dolphins’ 0.12 EPA on dropbacks.
Offensive coordinator Joe Brady and his system crumbled around Newton and the offense. Even the things he does well were absent from his game plan. Running back Christian McCaffrey didn’t catch a pass. The Panthers’ run game didn’t threaten Miami effectively with zone reads or quarterback runs.
McCaffrey did roll his ankle in the first half. The team cleared him to return but he only played one series in the second half as the game was already out of hand.
Brady’s scheme looks predictable. It lacks creativity and cannot overcome the Panthers’ lack of talent across the offensive line. Brady took football by storm calling plays for LSU’s 2019 championship team. He exploited mismatches with a stacked roster. Without those built-in advantages, NFL defenses are forcing him to evolve and he hasn’t yet.
As the offense struggles, the defense is forced to play more. Miami held the ball for nearly 16 minutes more than Carolina and ran 18 more plays. Eight of the Panthers’ 12 possessions totaled five players or fewer.
“We lost footing early. And we have to find ways to get back on track. That’s what it came down to,” Newton said. “It’s hard to get on a rhythm. We have to find ways to sustain drives and stay out on the football field. I think offensively we wore our defense down today.”
That’s a product of Carolina’s offense regressing back to the Sam Darnold days. Newton finished with a passer rating of 5.8, the lowest of his career, and was benched in the fourth quarter for backup P.J. Walker.
Coming off an efficient outing against Washington, Newton practiced all week focusing on expanding his comfort with the playbook. But the offense never found a rhythm aside from their second possession — Carolina’s only touchdown of the game, a 1-yard Newton scoring run.
The Panthers’ pass defense was supposed to be their strength. Instead, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw comfortably from the pocket and rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle exploded for 137 yards on nine catches. Once again, Carolina struggled on critical downs. Miami converted six of 14 third downs. Four of those pickups came on through the air.
Tagovailoa completed 27 of his 31 passes for 230 yards, leading touchdown drives of nine, 73 and 80 yards on a Panthers defense that was pushed around up front and couldn’t get off the field. The Dolphins rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores came from within three yards, a sign Carolina continues to struggle in run defense.
There is plenty of blame to go around. Panthers receivers couldn’t separate versus the Dolphins’ man coverage. Miami knocked Newton down eight times. Linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel hit him four times himself by executing a heavy blitz scheme that Carolina couldn’t protect against.
“Joe (Brady) and Phil (Snow) called the game kind of the way we planned on doing it. Chase (Blackburn) called the game,” Rhule said. “We faked a punt, we had a punt blocked. We have to be better in a lot of different areas. I just don’t know now if sitting right here is the right time to be responding to all that.”
The Panthers enter their Week 13 bye defeated and directionless. Newton will continue to start considering Walker threw an interception and was sacked four times in relief. Somehow, he still finished with a better passer rating than Newton. Defensively, their once stout secondary cannot handle No. 1 receivers. Their front seven keeps being pushed backward in the trenches.
This is no longer about the playoffs. Rhule and his staff are coaching for their jobs while damning questions hover around them.