When Sam Darnold connected with Robby Anderson on a 57-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter of the Panthers’ Week 1 win over the Jets, it appeared that the concerns of Panthers’ fans had been answered.
Among the biggest criticisms of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in 2020 were his arm and the lack of deep throws he’d attempt downfield. For a week, it looked like Darnold might solve that.
But for the Panthers (5-6), their offense has been kind of boring this season, and those explosive plays have come few and far between.
Since that touchdown pass to Anderson in Week 1, Carolina has had only two passing plays go for 40 yards or more. They include a 55-yard pass from Darnold to wide receiver Brandon Zylstra in Week 4 against the Cowboys; and a 41-yard pass from Darnold to tight end Ian Thomas in Week 6 against the Vikings. Both plays sparked drives that ended in touchdowns.
The three pass plays of 40-plus yards the Panthers have are tied for the fewest of any team in the NFL along with Washington, Detroit, Jacksonville and Philadelphia.
When asked why there’s a lack of explosive plays, Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said it’s been a combination of things, including players making defenders miss, and that he needs to do a better job of putting the offense in a better position make those big plays.
Explosive plays are critical in today’s NFL where the rules often favor the offense. A 40-yard pass play or a 25-yard run can be what kick-starts a stagnant offense.
“When you look at the statistics, having an explosive play in a drive raises the chances of scoring extremely high,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. “But let’s not get caught up into just having overall production. I couldn’t care less if it was an explosive play, if it’s a nickel and dime play, as long as we’re out there on the offense, and stay out there, producing, it’ll come sooner than later.”
Needing more explosive plays
The Panthers signed Newton on Nov. 11 after tests revealed Darnold had an incomplete fracture in his right shoulder blade. In Newton’s first start last week against Washington Football Team, he was 21-of-27 passing for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
Newton was responsible for the Panthers’ two longest offensive plays — a 27-yard touchdown pass to McCaffrey and a 24-yard touchdown run. Both plays were critical and kept the Panthers in the game.
But the Panthers need more of those plays if they want to make the playoffs and be contenders.
There are currently 12 other teams with at least six passing plays of 40 yards or more. Seven of those 12 teams would be in the playoffs if the postseason started today. Four of the remaining five are only a game or less behind the current playoff teams.
“The explosive plays, to me, comes with execution,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “You don’t go out and just say, ‘Hey, let’s have an explosive play.’ You have to execute it to make it happen.
“We have all that stuff there. We have to just execute to get into those situations. We have to be more explosive.”
Rhule is right. The Panthers have the pieces to make explosive plays happen. DJ Moore, Anderson and McCaffrey have all shown throughout their careers that they can be big-play threats.
It’s incumbent upon Brady and Rhule to calls those plays — and for the players to execute them.
Darnold struggled to do that. He regularly missed open players, or receivers dropped passes. And up until Oct. 31, the Panthers’ offensive line simply wasn’t giving him enough time to even attempt an explosive play.
But those two things have changed in recent weeks. The Panthers have a new quarterback in Newton, and the offensive line has given up only two sacks in the past four weeks. Now their biggest issue is committing penalties.
The Panthers have been called for the third-most penalties of any team in the NFL at 81. Only the Dallas Cowboys and Las Vegas Raiders have been called for more.
“We had two really good runs we had called back for penalties because we held,” Rhule said. “You can’t do that. So I think as our commitment to executing and not hurting ourselves, if that can increase, we can stay on the field longer, we can convert third downs. I think the big plays will come.”
The Panthers’ game against Miami Dolphins on Sunday (FOX, 1 p.m.) may be the perfect opportunity to execute those explosive and chunk plays and reverse the trend.
The Dolphins (4-7), which like to send the blitz on defense, have given up five passing plays of 40 yards or more and 48 passing plays of 20 yards or more, which is worst mark in the NFL. They’ve also allowed eight rushes for 20 yards or more.
Since Carolina’s loss last week to Washington, Panthers players have been preaching to each other to “do your job.” There were far too many mental errors in the loss.
The Panthers will try to take more shots downfield against Miami. It’ll be up to the players to run the play as it’s drawn up.
“Every guy has to have that WiFi password on the offense and just be connected,” Newton said, “understanding what their job is and executing to the best of their ability.”