Offense is running out of options. What we learned from Panthers’ loss to Cardinals

Before reminding yourself the Carolina Panthers lost by 10 points at home to a team it had beaten six consecutive times, take a look around the NFL.

Wizards like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson and Aaron Rodgers are playing at levels unobtainable by most quarterbacks in the league. But it’s not just the All-Pro signal callers who are winning or doing well.

Jared Goff and the Lions scored 48 points against Seattle. Goff (a stationary pocket thrower) tossed 379 yards and four touchdowns. Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith sparked 22 fourth-quarter points against Detroit to nearly bring Seattle back from a 15-point deficit.

After starting 0-2, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has Tennessee winners of two straight. The Cowboys have won three consecutive games behind quarterback Cooper Rush — a former undrafted free agent. Rush became the first quarterback in Cowboys history to win the first four starts of his career.

Then there’s Baker Mayfield, who is 1-3 in his first four Carolina starts. Mayfield threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in a shaky performance in Sunday’s 26-16 loss to Arizona. The game marked the 10th time Mayfield had three or more turnovers in a game, most since 2018. He entered Sunday with the lowest total quarterback rating (18.9) in football and leads the league in passes batted at the line of scrimmage. His five batted balls against Arizona caused one interception and stalled out several drives.

A lot of Mayfield’s issues are self-inflicted. He ranks 33rd in completion percentage from a clean pocket, according to advanced NFL statistics. Meaning, he’s either creating his own pressure by moving around for no reason, or he’s simply missing throws from the pocket. Either way, his erratic throws are costing Carolina explosive plays, and some are resulting in turnovers. Carolina lost the turnover battle by two on Sunday.

No quarterback has a worse CPOE (Completion Percentage Over Expected) than Mayfield at minus-14.8%. That means he is completing nearly 15% fewer passes than data expects based on factors such as field position, down and distance, pass location and quarterback pressure with each throw.

This is the ugliest stretch of Mayfield’s NFL career. Entering Sunday, Mayfield was last in success rate and 22nd in EPA (expected points added). He did nothing to improve those marks or the Panthers’ record.

Here are two other takeaways from the home loss:

The future of the offense is a mystery

After the game, Panthers coach Matt Rhule said he would not make any “big picture” comments until Monday when he is scheduled to speak to reporters around noon.

It would be surprising if Carolina benched Mayfield. Backup Sam Darnold is eligible to return after spending four weeks on injured reserve with an ankle sprain.

Assuming the Panthers continue with Mayfield, it’s unclear how the passing offense can or will improve.

Sixty-three percent of star receiver D.J. Moore’s targets have come within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. The lone deep shot he earned on Sunday was intercepted when Mayfield missed high and inside after Moore ran a deep corner and opened on the left sideline.

Laviksa Shenault disappeared from the game plan. He entered the game with a hamstring injury and re-aggravated it in the first half. He played just four snaps. The team desperately missed his game-changing potential.

But it’s an indictment on Mayfield and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo that the offense missed Shenault. Without his 67-yard Week 2 reception, the Panthers defense has outscored the offense 14-12 over the past seven quarters.

At times, McAdoo and the offense looked freshly inspired. There were packages filled with pre-snap motions, including Moore using a backfield-orbit motion to open for a swing pass that gained 12 yards. But nothing else ever materialized. A double reverse intended for Moore was fumbled on an exchange between Rashard Higgins and Mayfield and recovered by Arizona.

After consecutive 100-yard rushing games, running back Christian McCaffrey had just eight carries for 27 yards. He finally had a throwback CMC receiving game, grabbing nine passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. But most of that came late in the fourth quarter when Carolina trailed by 16 points.

The team is running out of solutions. Playing different receivers is not happening, nor making a difference. Second-year receiver Terrace Marshall was a healthy inactive for the second consecutive week. Higgins played three plays. The Panthers’ tight ends had multiple drops.

This mysterious Panthers offense seems doomed.

Panthers defense finally broke

For nearly three quarters, the Panthers defense again executed a bend-but-don’t-break game plan against one of football’s most explosive quarterbacks in Kyler Murray.

But after Mayfield’s second interception (created via a J.J. Watt tipped pass), the Panthers allowed a 4-yard morale-crushing rushing touchdown by Murray with 10:26 left to play.

Carolina’s defense is on the field too long. They are getting physically (and likely mentally) exhausted. For example, from the 5:48 mark of the third quarter to 10:32 in the fourth quarter, Arizona ran 17 plays and scored 10 points. Over that same stretch, Carolina ran one play and threw an interception.

Carolina is wasting another stout defensive season. Linebacker Frankie Luvu looks like a Pro Bowler. For a second consecutive week, he generated a first-quarter turnover that led to the game’s first touchdown. His 32 tackles (11 on Sunday) rank 24th in the league.

During the game, a staff member of the Arizona Cardinals sent me text messages that rained praise on the Panthers defense, Luvu and the sheer brilliance of what defensive coordinator Phil Snow was scheming.

The last message read: “just need a better quarterback.”