The Carolina Panthers are about as bad of a football team as there is in the NFL. They’re completely adrift as a franchise: a lame-duck head coach, no short- or long-term answer at QB, misused skill players, anonymous defense. They’re exactly the sort of team a playoff hopeful franchise like the Cardinals should beat.
And we did. After another slow start, we handled business and finally beat the Panthers after losing our previous 6 games against them. Wins are always tough to come by in the NFL no matter the competition, and the team deserves plaudits for picking up a conference win on the road.
But no one should be fired up about this win, and picking up this W against one of the worst teams in the league shouldn’t make anyone forget that this is still a flawed football team. Kliff’s decision-making and play-calling both deserve a ton of scrutiny, the offense looks broken, and it’s tough to give much credit to the defense for shutting down a team led by Baker Mayfield, who might be the worst starting QB in the league.
Let’s briefly discuss each of those three areas.
Let’s start with what I liked: both decisions to go for it on 4th down in the 1st half. The first one was a no-brainer: 4th-and-1 from the 10. No reason not to try to extend the drive and get a TD instead of a FG. If you don’t convert, the opposing offense is pinned deep. That’s an easy call. The other one was a little ballsier: 4th-and-1 from our own 42. I like the aggression and, c’mon, it’s just a yard. Totally fine with going for it there.
Now what I didn’t like: both play calls. The first one is almost indefensible. A jet sweep to Rondale Moore in his first game of the season? Get outta here. It was promptly blown up by an unblocked Brian Burns for a loss of 4 yards. And who knows what the other play call was, since Rodney Hudson tried to snap the ball to the moon. But… why are you in shotgun on 4th-and-1 in the first place? Kliff got too cute both times. Nothing new for him.
I think coaching is one reason why the offense is struggling, so let’s continue to take a look at what Kliff is doing with this offense. He’s been oft criticized for making his offense more horizontal than vertical, and that was on full display against the Panthers. Just look at Moore’s numbers: 3 receptions on 5 targets for 11 yards (to go with that 4-yard loss on his one rushing attempt). Imagine having a QB like Kyler Murray with his combination of arm strength and rushing ability and trying to turn him into a checkdown artist. Let Kyler cook! I’d love to see what he could do with someone who is even half the playcaller that Kliff’s reputation says he is.
Speaking of Kyler, he deserves blame for the offense’s struggles as well. He still takes bad sacks, his throw on that pick-6 was as bad as you’ll see, and he’s far from elite at going through his progressions. Not that he has a ton of receiving talent around him right now. Maybe things will get better when DeAndre Hopkins is back, but a franchise QB is supposed to elevate the offense around him, and that largely hasn’t happened this season outside of the 2nd half of the Raiders game. Kliff needs to change what he’s doing with the offense, and Kyler needs to execute better. Bottom line.
First things first, these guys played their asses off on Sunday. The D-line was dominant, harassing Mayfield and shutting down the run game. Zach Allen has been a revelation, and J.J. Watt reminded everyone he’s one of the best to ever play. The linebackers made some plays, especially the unheralded Dennis Gardeck. Zaven Collins even led the team in tackles (although Isaiah Simmons barely made a peep…). And the DBs did what they needed to against a low-wattage Panthers passing attack. Kudos to Vance Joseph and the guys for a job well done.
But. (It’s always “But…” with this team.) But the Panthers have the worst offense in the league right now by yardage, so this game shouldn’t really be anything to hang your hat on. I’m much more confident in the front 7 than I was at the beginning of the season, although Simmons’s lack of development has to be concerning. And it’s easy to hide Marco Wilson against Baker Mayfield, but he still gets beat way too often, giving up several easy completions a game. He does make some nice plays here and there, but he’s still ranked #98 (out of 102) CBs in the league per PFF. He’s just not a starting-caliber corner and he’s going to get burned, likely against the Eagles this weekend. There are still concerns about this defense even coming off this strong performance. Can Vance continue to keep this unit together with spit and duct tape?
A running theme in my columns the past couple of weeks has been asking what we have learned about the Cardinals so far this season. And this team has me flummoxed. We got manhandled by the Chiefs—no shame in that—and were beaten soundly by the Rams (even if the score made the game look closer than it was). We probably *should* have lost to the Raiders. And now we beat one of the worst teams in the league on the road after looking clueless in the first half.
It all adds up to 2-2, like every other team in the NFC West. The division looks up for grabs, but is this team ready to take charge and make a statement? They’ll get their chance this weekend when the undefeated Eagles come into town. I’ll be back later in the week with some thoughts on that matchup.