For just a moment — maybe for the first time all season — the Carolina Panthers held the tiniest shard of hope in their hands. Bryce Young, the No. 1 draft pick upon whom the Panthers have staked their future, had guided Carolina through a 17-play, nine-minute touchdown drive that pulled Carolina within a possession of the mighty Dallas Cowboys. The Panthers had converted three different fourth downs on the drive, which ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Tommy Tremble, the tight end with a name like a ‘50s pop star.
For a moment, it was all right there. And then it wasn’t.
On the next possession, Dallas effortlessly carved through the Panthers defense — eight plays, 75 yards, 3:01 of game clock — and Tony Pollard rolled into the end zone to extend the lead to 14. And then, on the very next play from scrimmage, DaRon Bland stepped right into Young’s passing lane to notch his NFL-record-tying fourth pick 6 of the season. That was pretty much that for Carolina, and the cheers of the thousands of bandwagon Cowboy fans in attendance were the grim icing atop the fetid cupcake.
No one seriously expected Carolina to beat Dallas; the Panthers were 11.5-point underdogs in their own building. But the way the Cowboys dispatched the Panthers — swarming over the offensive line like it was a sand castle at high tide and shoving aside the defense like it was a little brother in the back yard — that kind of humiliation stings, and lingers.
Add to that the fact that Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer named Panthers head coach Frank Reich as a man on a hot seat, and the mood is tense indeed in Charlotte. Reich was asked during his Monday media availability if he was concerned about Glazer’s report. He tried to brush it off, but really, what was he supposed to say?
“No, I’m just focused on getting ready for Tennessee,” Reich said. “Focused on today, getting into that film, learn from it, learn how we can coach it better, play it better then quickly get your eyes and ears and everything out towards your next opponent.”
It’d be best for Reich to focus on Carolina’s next opponent, because focusing on the previous few is a road to madness. Carolina (1-9) is now guaranteed its sixth straight losing season, the most ever in the history of the franchise. And all six of those seasons have come under the ownership of David Tepper, who went to great lengths to make Carolina a contender again — not at some indistinct date in the future, but this season.
You know the old line about when boat owners are happiest: The day they buy the boat, and the day they sell it. First-round draft picks, particularly those who have cost significant draft capital to get, fall into the same category. The Panthers aren’t quite ready to part ways with Young, but there’s definitely the sense that this season hasn’t proceeded the way anyone expected.
Young’s difficulties aren’t just game-to-game, they’re sustained and endemic. Note how his early career is trending below such, uh, notables as Kenny Pickett, Mac Jones, Justin Fields and Zach Wilson:
Kenny Pickett and Zach Wilson have had terrible starts to their NFL careers.
Bryce Young's has been worse. pic.twitter.com/6pvsv7ta0w
— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) November 20, 2023
The fact that C.J. Stroud, whom the Panthers bypassed to take Young, is rewriting the script for all rookie QBs has to burn like ghost peppers in Charlotte. Add to that the wincing pain of a vanished first-round draft pick in 2024 — it belongs to the Bears via the trade Carolina made to get Young — and even a serene owner would be getting antsy. “Serene” would not be a word to describe Tepper.
Like a poker player whose chips are dwindling rapidly, the Panthers are making increasingly big bets and drawing the same terrible cards. Reich took over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Thomas Brown earlier in the week, instituting a no-huddle shotgun offense designed to keep Young from getting hit too fast and too often … and Carolina responded by putting up only 187 yards of total offense and one touchdown against five punts, a fumble and an interception. And Young still took those six sacks.
“It’s very frustrating,” Reich said after the game. “When you work hard and you believe in the guys you’re doing it with, and I believe in our coaches and players, not getting results you want is frustrating.”
The Panthers came into Week 11 ranked 29th in scoring at just 17 points a game. They’ve topped 20 points just three times this season, and haven’t reached 28 points in 2023.
If there’s any salvation for the Panthers, it comes in their schedule: outside of a Week 17 game against Jacksonville, Carolina doesn’t play any truly scary teams — Tennessee, Green Bay and the woeful rest of the NFC South make up the remaining Panthers’ slate. A strong run through that chaff might not be enough for Carolina to recover much dignity, but continuing losses will certainly seal the team’s fate.