CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers backed up to the 2-yard line in the third quarter of a three-point game. Outside linebacker Shaq Thompson was confident the Bucs would run a dive play, or "duo run," as Panthers coach Matt Rhule described it.
“Shaq only screamed it to us 30 times while we were in the huddle,” cornerback Rasul Douglas said. “Everyone, all the coaches, everyone on our team knew what play they were running.”
It didn’t matter.
Rookie defensive end Yetur Gross-Moss didn’t slant to cover a right-side blitz by outside linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn. Middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead went left with the motion of wide receiver Chris Godwin, leaving the middle of the defense wide open.
Ninety-eight yards later, running back Ronald Jones was in the end zone for the third-longest touchdown run in NFL history and longest run ever against the Panthers, who were on the way to their fifth straight loss.
And the most lopsided one of the season, 46-23.
Afterward in the locker room, Thompson unleashed a profanity-laced speech that Douglas summed up as: “We didn’t fight hard enough; we didn’t want it more.” Even Douglas let a few curse words fly during his postgame Zoom call.
Injuries to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (right knee sprain) and running back Christian McCaffrey (shoulder) could keep them out of this week’s game against Detroit, but the frustration that's setting in among the players is what should concern Rhule moving forward.
The hard work and energy that Rhule demands is being overshadowed by mistakes and lack of execution that can’t be overcome by a team that has little margin for error.
“Wouldn’t you be embarrassed at what happened at home?” Thompson explained Monday of why he was so upset. “We’ve got a damn good football team. We’ve just got to play as a football team."
Said Rhule, “We are in a stage right now where we have to do our job and everyone has to be right to be successful.”
The Panthers aren’t successful because they’re still relying on young players such as Gross-Matos to win games, and young players make mistakes. They aren’t successful because they still haven’t learned to trust each other to be in the right spot as more veteran squads do, thus allowing everyone to play more freely.
The result is a 3-7 record that easily could turn to six straight losses if both Bridgewater and McCaffrey can’t play Sunday. Rhule says he’s optimistic Bridgewater will practice on Wednesday and be ready Sunday. He’s still hopeful McCaffrey can return from the shoulder injury suffered Nov. 8 against Kansas City despite reports the All-Pro running back will miss another game.
While Rhule insists backup quarterbacks P.J. Walker and Will Grier are good enough to win in the NFL, neither has. Walker has made two brief appearances for Bridgewater and has completed only 3 of 8 passes for 15 yards. Grier was 0-2 as the starter in the final two games last year.
They’re no different than Gross-Matos, who has been limited to six games because of an ankle injury, so he hasn’t had as much time to develop as other rookies.
Rhule doesn’t make excuses, and this isn’t one. It’s just reality for a team that has one of the youngest rosters in the NFL.
That’s why Thompson’s postgame speech could be pivotal for the team moving forward. He’s one of the few veterans on a defense that needs veteran leadership. He’s one of the few players who can get everyone around him to refocus to get ready for the Lions instead of wallowing in the losing streak.
“I thought what he said was warranted,” Rhule said. “It was well said. It’s not that we lost the game. It’s just as the end of the day, let go of the rope a little bit and give up 17 points in the fourth quarter.”
Thompson did what former teammates Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson did when he was young and impressionable. His message was one that Rhule hopes will allow the Panthers to compete for a win on Sunday no matter who lines up at quarterback or running back.
“I know my teammates will show up Wednesday,” Thompson said. “That’s my message. I know they’re going to show up. That’s going to be their response to my message.”