CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Frank Reich was filled with optimism when he took over as head coach of the Carolina Panthers in January.
Midway through the season that optimism has waned significantly with the Panthers (1-7) matching the worst start in franchise history.
They've been overwhelmed with injuries and face the growing prospect they may have drafted the wrong quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, a move that could potentially set the organization back years.
Carolina appears destined for its sixth straight losing season since David Tepper purchased the team from founder Jerry Richardson in 2018 — with this one being the most embarrassing one yet. That’s saying something considering the Panthers have gone 7-9 in 2018, 5-11 in both 2019 and 2020, 5-12 in 2021 and 7-10 last season under Tepper.
After the team traded away four draft picks and wide receiver D.J. Moore to move up eight spots in the draft to get Bryce Young, Tepper set the expectation that the franchise would win multiple Super Bowls.
Right now, the Panthers would settle for a few wins.
Young has been grossly outperformed by Houston's C.J. Stroud, whom the Panthers passed on with the top pick because Tepper, Reich and general manager Scott Fitterer all believed Young was the better player. They have continued to support Young, and Reich said the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner will continue on as the starter moving forward.
“I’ve seen this happen to the best quarterbacks in the history of the game,” Reich said. “They all have games like this. Sure, it’s easy to put it on the quarterback, but you bounce back. That’s what makes the great ones. It’s a long road. It’s a long road. I’ve said this many times. The quarterback journey, developing into the franchise quarterback, it’s a long road. I/we believe very strongly in Bryce.”
But while the Panthers aren't going to admit any buyer's remorse (in large part because they have so much invested in Young), the numbers don't lie.
Stroud is averaging more than 283 yards passing per game with 14 touchdowns and one interception this season for the playoff hopeful Texans (4-4).
Young is averaging fewer than 200 yards passing and has eight touchdowns and seven interceptions and admitted he needs to play better. He's is 1-6 as a starter.
The dramatic disparity in their production was never more evident than on Sunday.
Stroud threw for five touchdowns and a rookie-record 470 yards in a come-from-behind 39-37 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Young was picked off three times by the NFL's worst defense in a 27-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
WR Adam Thielen. Not too many players are having good seasons for Carolina other than the 33-year-old wide receiver, who is having a career season with 62 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns through the first eight games. Thielen has caught at least 11 passes in three different games this season and entered Week 9 as the NFL's leader in third down receptions.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Offensive line. Considered a strength of the team coming into the season, this group has been an utter disappointment. Young and Andy Dalton have been sacked a combined 29 times and hit 63 times in eight games and have been under constant pressure. They almost never have a clean pocket. The line was an effective run blocking unit last season and the team won a few games with the powerful RB D'Onta Foreman as its lead back. This season the Panthers have attempted to transition to a passing team under Young, but it is becoming evident that pass blocking is not the team's strength.
PK Eddy Pineiro. He has been a remarkable find for the Panthers since joining the team last season, converting 92.2% (47 of 51) of his field-goal attempts. To put that in perspective, that rate is better than Justin Tucker, the NFL's most accurate field goal kicker of all time. Pineiro is 14 of 16 this season and his game-winner against the Texans at the end of regulation resulted in the team's only win.
RB Miles Sanders and TE Hayden Hurst. The Panthers invested big money in the two veteran free agents this offseason, but their impact has been minimal at best.
Sanders has lost his starting job to Chuba Hubbard and Tommy Tremble is taking reps away from Hurst. Sanders is averaging a mere 3.3 yards per carry, 1.7 yards below his average during his four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. Hurst has only 16 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown with Carolina.
The Panthers have struggled with injuries all season, losing starting cornerback CB Jaycee Horn in the season opener to a hamstring injury. He's still not back. And LB Shaq Thompson (broken leg) for the season.
Several other starters have missed multiple games, and the team lost five more players to injury on Sunday, including Brian Burns (concussion), CB C.J. Henderson and S Xavier Woods (thigh). None of those players is expected to play this week given the short turnaround for Thursday night's game at Chicago.
14 — Number of touchdowns scored by the Panthers.
28 — Number of touchdowns scored by Panthers opponents.
A Panthers loss on Thursday night will only help the Bears chances of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 draft. Chicago acquired Carolina's first-rounder in the Young trade.
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