The Carolina Panthers might be the NFL’s most uneven team.
Last week, it was the offense that played well only for the defense to falter. This week, those roles were reversed. The Panthers’ special teams were not great either.
The Panthers’ 33-10 loss to the Dolphins’ was their largest margin of defeat of the season.
“I wouldn’t say we weren’t ready,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “I’d say we got outplayed today. That’s harder for me to say, but we got outplayed, we got out-coached. Credit to them.
On Monday, Rhule said he didn’t plan to make any changes to his coaching staff, but wouldn’t rule anything out.
“In terms of any moves roster-wise, the way we’re coaching things,” Rhule said. “I’m happy with a lot of things we’ve done, but obviously yesterday was just bad football. And that can’t happen.”
Here were five takeaways from the loss:
1. Christian McCaffrey out for season
Panthers star running back Christian McCaffrey is out for the season, the team announced Monday afternoon. McCaffrey suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the Panthers’ game against the Dolphins and was seen leaving the arena in a walking boot.
It’s unclear at what point he suffered the injury, but he played in only one snap in the second half.
“He rolled his ankle so he was trying to go in the second half, but was never quite able to come back to the same level,” Rhule said.
Rhule said on Monday that he had an X-Ray on the ankle, which was negative. But an MRI Monday revealed that the ankle injury was severe enough to place him on IR. This is the second time McCaffrey has been placed on IR.
He had a rushing attempt with 4:26 left in the second quarter and was stood up at the line of scrimmage. He was subbed out of the game and cameras caught him grimacing.
McCaffrey has dealt with a number of injuries over the past two seasons. He has missed 18 games because of injury, including five this season because of a pulled hamstring.
2. Panthers need to invest in the offensive line
The Panthers need to continue to invest in their offensive line this offseason, and it needs to be their first priority.
It doesn’t matter who their quarterback is if the offensive line can’t protect him, the quarterback will struggle. That has been the case with Sam Darnold, and it was the case with Cam Newton, too.
Though he was sacked only once, Newton was hit at least six times through three quarters. He was too often under duress against a blitz-heavy Dolphins team.
The Panthers’ offensive line had played well over the past four weeks. It had given up only two sacks in that span.
But they allowed five against the Dolphins.
Not only were sacks a problem, but penalties continue to be a problem, as well. Four Panthers offensive linemen were called for penalties. Center Pat Elflein and guard Michael Jordan were called for holding penalties, while guard Trenton Scott and tackle Dennis Daley were called for false starts.
“I mean, obviously, it’s not — five sacks is not good enough,” Rhule said. “Penalties are not good enough. Brady (Christensen) had to go in and play at left guard and Dennis battled through it.
“But I think we all know it’s not good enough, the result, in terms of why it happened or what happened and all that. I’d probably need a little more time to look at that, but just never got anything going.”
3. Cam Newton to remain starter
Newton was benched in the fourth quarter in favor of P.J. Walker.
Rhule said he put Walker in the game in the fourth quarter because he had a better grasp of the two-minute offense. But Newton had played terribly. He was 5-of-21 passing for 92 yards and two interceptions.
Still, Rhule said Newton would be his starter in Week 14.
The Panthers signed Newton on Nov. 11 and immediately thrust him into the lineup, starting him after only a week and a half of preparation.
Newton played well in that first start, completing 21-of-27 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
But he admitted his lack of knowledge of the team’s two-minute offense finally caught up to him.
“I spoke with coach,” Newton said. “He said we’re going to put P.J. in because he has a better grasp of the signals and the two-minute thing because there are obviously things that’s not necessarily in the game, the base game plan. And I was fine with that. And at the end of the day it’s about being a professional. At this particular time I had more than enough opportunity to keep the game in the balance and there’s no need to put up a fight with that.”
Newton said he played to self-scout and dive into the playbook during the bye week.
Rhule said quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan will continue to work with Newton and have him ready when they return.
“A quarterback is only as good as the people around him, but he does have to make those people better,” Rhule said. “We’ll just evaluate everything each week.”
4. Haason Reddick’s taunting penalty
Perhaps one of the biggest plays in Sunday’s game was a penalty called on Haason Reddick. The penalty occurred with 6:42 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers had just stopped the Dolphins on second-and-long, forcing a third-and-14, but Reddick was called for taunting, an automatic first down. That penalty kept the Dolphins’ drive going and eventually led to a Miami touchdown.
It’s unclear what exactly happened on the play, but Reddick said something happened that he didn’t like, and he let his emotions get the best of him.
After the game he took responsibility for the blunder.
“I should have had my emotions in check,” Reddick said. “But what happened I didn’t like. And I reacted, which is unacceptable. Being a leader on the team, a veteran, completely unacceptable. I take all responsibility for that.”
Rhule wasn’t happy. It was uncharacteristic of the veteran edge rusher, who has been the Panthers’ best defensive player all season. At the point of the penalty, the Panthers trailed 21-10.
But the touchdown made it 27-10.
“We needed those plays to win the game,” he said.
5. Panthers continue to fall in playoff race
Had the Panthers won Sunday, they’d be 6-6 and back in seventh place in the NFC standings.
With the NFL playoff expanding to 14 teams earlier this year, that was good enough for a wild-card spot. But their latest loss to the Dolphins drops them to 11th place in the conference. The only good news from the loss was that it didn’t come against an NFC team.
While only half a game separates the Panthers from the seventh-place Vikings, the Panthers have an uphill battle to climb with a 3-5 conference record and have lost head-to-head matchups with teams ahead of them.
Panthers defensive end Brian Burns said at this point he’s not even thinking about the playoffs.
“It’s more about pride in my gut,” Burns said. “I’m fighting for pride out there.”