Prior to the season if there was one game on the Panthers schedule that you would bet they would win, outside of the 49ers, the Chicago Bears would have been the answer. Carolina didn’t win, nor did they even make it a game, losing 17-3 to a Bears team that has been better than expected, but shouldn’t be better than the Panthers. The Bears were the better team Sunday and the loss created some unsettling questions for a fanbase that was extremely optimistic after reeling off wins against the Patriots and Lions.
Carolina dropped its second straight game and losing their division lead after starting 4-1. It was an ugly game that the Bears won without scoring an offensive touchdown, gaining only 5 first downs, and throwing only seven passes. Their offense didn’t have to do much when safety, Eddie Jackson, was setting NFL records by scoring two 75-yard touchdowns, one on a fumble recovery and another via interception.
Carolina’s offense managed to only put up 3 points after giving away the game by the beginning of the second quarter. Carolina opened the 2nd quarter with good field position and began moving the ball with Stewart and McCaffrey, which momentarily softened the loss of Ryan Kalil after less than a quarter of play after his return from missing 5 weeks with a neck injury. Kalil’s hurt neck surely must have made it difficult to look up as the ball popped high into the air on a Benjamin slant route. Kalil’s neck must have hurt more as he watched his brother not even try to tackle Jackson after he shagged the pop-fly and streaked down the Panthers sideline for a 77-yard touchdown return.
After a couple of drives in the first half that ended in disaster, Carolina had trouble getting much of anything going on offense. The run-game was improved from the past two weeks, but McCaffrey struggled to gain any yards between the tackles, Stewart looked better but still could only do so much, and Cam Newton yet again remained the motor of the rushing attack. The Panthers offensive line struggled to protect Cam, surrendering 5 sacks on the day and 4 of those in the first half. Even when Carolina started to muster a little life towards the end of the half, drives stalled in field goals or were dashed as the clock ran out before they could even try for one.
Sure, one can hang their hat on the fact that Carolina’s defense held the Bears to under 100yds rushing and kept them out of the endzone, even when they had four chances from the 1-yd line, but that would be just trying to find a silver lining in the darkest of storm clouds. The Bears offense never really had to take any chances or really be put in crucible type moments.
This loss was a story of ineptitude that leaves us asking questions about Carolina’s fortitude, preparation, and ability to win without being able to run the ball or block. Few are immune to these hard questions. When the questions are so widespread and disparaging they ultimately lead back to the coaching staff. Shula continues to struggle with adjusting when things either go wrong, the players fail to execute, or he just gets it wrong. When Carolina marched the field with a minute left in the second quarter and the Panthers slowly called a timeout after Dickson failed to get a first down or get out of bounds, only to squander an opportunity to get a field goal because of a false start penalty that forced a 10-second run-off, the team didn’t look prepared on any level.
Later when was starting to see the window of a comeback close, Carolina went for it on 4th down with a long to get. The Panthers tried a single wing play that showed Cam Newton run all the way, only to be swallowed up well short. The play seemed to have a low percentage of success and only highlighted problems with Mike Shula’s playcalling fans have been screaming about non-stop.
The questions are extending beyond just Shula at this point. Graham Gano showed his frustration when Rivera opted to punt from the Bears 38, bringing back memories of that loss to the Saints. The team’s struggles, Shula’s mistakes, they are creeping into the purview of Ron Rivera, wondering if something doesn’t change, will he be the change people are clamoring for. It’s one thing to struggle, but to look unprepared and just out of sorts, doesn’t bode well for the coaching staff.
The questions have to fall on the players also. Why can’t Carolina run the ball? Now that Trai Turner is hurt, Ryan Kalil could be done for what we are wondering maybe for his career, his brother continues to suck, how is this going to change? And while we are in love with Christian McCaffrey and he does play hard, he has missed several blocking assignments, given little to be optimistic about his ability to run the ball between the tackles in the NFL, and hasn’t done much of anything in the return game…all of this leaving us asking, is he going to pan out as a running back or be limited to a scat back or just made a slot receiver?
Carolina goes to Tampa Bay to face a wounded animal who is quickly seeing their season get away from them. It’s the first of two division games that mean a lot for the Panthers, and are turning into must-wins if Carolina wants to stay in contention of the division. Which begs the question no one thought we would ask just two weeks ago, could Carolina be on the outside looking in?
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By Tony Dunn
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