The Panthers’ newly revamped coaching staff and the team’s best player both let the team down on Sunday, as Carolina lost, 21-18, to Tampa Bay.
Carolina edge rusher Brian Burns got himself ejected from the game for punching a Tampa Bay player’s helmet. Burns later apologized to his team and took full accountability for his actions, which he said had been brought on by a Bucs player (but not the one he punched) saying “something he shouldn’t have said.”
And the team’s new coaching staff — with interim head coach Chris Tabor running the show on a rainy Sunday in Florida and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown back to calling plays after former head coach Frank Reich was abruptly fired six days before — messed up Carolina’s final drive. Badly.
With a hot running back in the backfield, only a three-point deficit and plenty of time left on the clock, Brown called pass plays on both 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 and Tabor did nothing to overrule him.
On its own 40-yard line at the time but with 2:21 still left in the game, Carolina had rookie quarterback Bryce Young throw the ball rather than run it on both short-yardage plays. There was little chance of a completion on either — the first was incomplete, the second intercepted.
And that was that, as Carolina (1-11) continued to ensure it had the NFL’s worst record (but not the No. 1 projected draft pick for 2024, due to the trade for Young), while Tampa Bay (5-7) remained in contention in the off-brand NFC South.
The right call by Brown on at least one those plays that needed only one yard, of course, was to hand the ball to Chuba Hubbard.
Hubbard (25 carries, 104 yards) was having one of the best games of his career and had already scored both Carolina touchdowns from a yard out.
Carolina was still 60 yards away from the Tampa Bay end zone at the time, but had two timeouts and the two-minute warning to go, so time wasn’t a big issue. The first down was what was important at the moment, and Carolina had been running the ball much more effectively than passing it most of the day.
Still, there came the two passes, as Carolina bungled another short-yardage situation. Of the two play calls, Tabor said of the offensive coaching staff: “Those were the decisions. Those were the two plays that they liked. So that’s what we went with.”
Did Tabor, who was the Panthers’ special teams coordinator until six days before, think about intervening and changing the plays? As the head coach — for five more games, anyway — he technically could have. He did not.
“No, I let the coaches coach,” Tabor said. “And I’ve got a lot of faith in them. I think they do a great job. So that’s what we did.”
Panthers’ bad decisions
For a struggling offense, though — one that had already seen Young get sacked four times, throw a lateral pass under pressure that went out of bounds and lost eight yards and draw an intentional grounding penalty on another near-sack and lose 15 yards — was trying to get one yard with a pass the best idea? It was not.
The Panthers gambled when going conservative was the right move. And at the end of the first half, they made exactly the opposite mistake — shutting things down on the half’s final play when they should have tossed up a Hail Mary.
With a fourth-and-16 from their own 49 but only three seconds remaining in the half, Carolina could have had Young drop back and throw one into the heavens, aiming for the goal line and a possible deflection or pass interference call.
Instead, Carolina had Young drop back — and heave the ball 30 yards out of bounds on purpose. Yeah, yeah, I know there’s such a thing as the Fail Mary, too, but c’mon. Carolina has won one game all season and struggles to score every week. You have to try for points every time you have the chance.
But no, these are the 2023 Panthers, and so they for the sixth straight game failed to reach 20 points and again wasted what was a pretty decent performance by the defense (one turnover, eight punts forced).
Young, now 1-10 as an NFL starter, has still never thrown for 250 yards in an NFL game, much less 300. He had only 178 in this one, as he was harried constantly (as usual) and had receivers often fail to gain any separation (as usual). He made some bad throws all on his own, too.
Said Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield, who picked off that 4th-and-1 pass: “Unfortunately, I missed two (other) picks. I really should have had three today.”
The Panthers’ Era of Bad Feelings
Still, Carolina had two excellent scoring drives in the second half, one of 75 yards and one of 67 and both capped by 1-yard Hubbard scoring runs with Young playing well. The Panthers even led — for 10 seconds — after Hubbard’s first TD.
When Hubbard scored in the third quarter to go up 10-7, Carolina took its only lead of the game.
But on the first play from scrimmage after that, former Carolina quarterback Baker Mayfield hit Mike Evans over the middle, and Evans outraced the entire secondary until he dove into the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown. Evans was originally called out at the 1, but the ruling was reversed, and Evans said he knew it would be. He told an official after the original call: “That’s a touchdown, baby.”
And so it was, and Carolina never led again. Those 10 seconds of being in front were nice while they lasted for Carolina fans.
But they evaporated quickly, just like most good things do at Bank of America Stadium in this Era of Bad Feelings.
Burns, meanwhile, got DQ-ed from the game right after the Evans touchdown, when he punched Tampa Bay offensive guard Cody Mauch in a scrum following the extra point.
A subdued Burns said in the locker room later: “I’ve never been ejected from a game, especially for doing something like that. But emotions got the best of me. One of the offensive lineman (for Tampa Bay) said something in the beginning that he shouldn’t have said… and ever since then I was pretty much on 10 (on a theoretical anger scale of 1-10)... I got pushed, turned around and reacted. I take full accountability for my actions.”
Burns didn’t want to say who the comment was from, except for saying it wasn’t the guy he punched who said it. Burns also didn’t want to say what the comment was, twice declining comment about whether or not the comment had been racially tinged.
“He said something he shouldn’t have said,” Burns repeated.
The Panthers thus played the entire fourth quarter without Burns, who had to take the walk of shame back to the locker room after his ejection. Still, they were in decent position to win the game, or at least to tie it with a field goal, on that final drive.
Then came the two suspect play calls and the two unsuccessful passes with only one yard to go.
And a few minutes after that, the Panthers were walking off the field, dejected again.