CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Two games into the season the “tank for Trevor” talk has already begun in earnest in Carolina.
The Panthers have stumbled to an 0-2 start and local sports talk radio is abuzz about how they should lose as many games as possible in an effort to secure Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft.
The loss of All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, the team’s most productive offensive player, for “multiple weeks” to a high right ankle sprain only added to that sentiment. McCaffrey left Carolina’s 31-17 loss to Tampa Bay in the fourth quarter and did not return. High ankle sprains are generally cause players to miss four-to-six weeks.
Players, of course, are having none of the talk about tanking.
“It’s not a rebuilding year,” cornerback Donte Jackson said. “We’re trying to take this thing to February, we’re trying to take this thing to the big dance, so it’s never ever a thought in our minds in the locker room that this is a rebuilding year, or that this is whatever people like to say, a tank year. It’s none of that to us.”
The reality is the Panthers may not have enough talent to compete, particularly on defense where they start three rookies.
Panthers first-year coach Matt Rhule is a big believer in the phrase “trust the process.” He certainly knew it was never going to be easy putting a competitive team on the field after losing 57% of last year’s roster, including a number of star players: Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen, Mario Addison and James Bradberry. The wacky offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the task more challenging.
But while Rhule wasn’t thrilled with his team’s performance on Sunday, he does see a never-give-up mentality among his players - which could pay off down the road.
“With all that being said, nine penalties, four giveaways and it’s a one-score game in the fourth quarter,” Rhule said. “We have to find a way to overcome that and build off the competitive nature that we seem to have.”
Newcomer Robby Anderson is integrating himself well into Carolina’s offense with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games to open the season. The former Jets wide receiver caught nine of 10 balls thrown his way on Sunday for 109 yards, although he did fumble once.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Carolina’s run defense has been abysmal, a carryover from last season. The Panthers allowed a league-high 32 touchdowns rushing in 2019 and have already surrendered six this season. That puts them on pace to give up an NFL-record 48 this year.
Cornerback Rasul Douglas is looking like a real find. He was claimed off waivers four days before the start of the regular season and forced to step in and play every down in Week 1 after Jackson went down with an ankle injury. On Sunday, Douglas got the start over rookie Troy Pride Jr. and made a team-high seven tackles.
The Panthers drafted Derrick Brown No. 7 overall to make plays, not to cost them games. But the rookie defensive tackle had two bad penalties Sunday. He was flagged for unnecessary roughness after the Panthers appeared to stop Tampa Bay on a third-and-9 in the red zone in the first quarter. The penalty gave the Bucs a first down and Ronald Jones scored on the next play for a 7-0 lead. Brown was flagged in the third quarter for illegal hands to face on third-and-11, giving Tampa Bay another first down. Brown finished the game with one tackle.
The Panthers will turn to Mike Davis at running back with McCaffrey out for multiple weeks. Rhule said he considers Davis a “starting running back in the National Football League” and praised him for his performance in training camp.
10 - The Panthers’ current losing streak dating back to last season. Carolina’s last win was Nov. 3, 2019 vs. the Titans.
Aside from dealing with the McCaffrey injury, the Panthers need to make sure they don’t dig themselves a big hole. In the first two games they’ve battled back from double-digit deficits to make it a close game with strong play late in the third quarter, but haven’t been able to pull out wins.
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