As the 2021 NFL season dawned, the Carolina Panthers looked poised to have a breakout year.
Head coach Matt Rhule was about to begin his second year with optimism that the Panthers would easily improve on their five-win performance from 2020.
After the first three weeks of the season, Carolina was the feel-good story in the NFL.
Darnold looked better than advertised and the team was 3-0.
The good vibes didn’t last.
Since Week 4, the team has lost seven of nine games and also lost Darnold to injury.
Even with former All-World quarterback Cam Newton returning to Carolina, nothing has gone right.
Here are three reasons that Panthers fans should be in full panic mode.
3. The Running Game
Christian McCaffrey is one of the best young running backs in the league, when he’s on the field.
In April of 2020, the Panthers signed McCaffrey to a four-year, $64 million contract extension.
The move made him the highest-paid running back in NFL history.
Since then, McCaffrey has played exactly 10 games.
He left during Week 3 with an injury, came back, then suffered an ankle injury this past Sunday.
On Monday, it was announced by the team that McCaffrey will miss the remainder of the year because of said injury.
The #Panthers have placed RB Christian McCaffrey on Injured Reserve. Out for the season.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 29, 2021
Hubbard has done his best to replace McCaffrey.
However, he has 427 yards on 122 carries for 3.5 yards per carry and five touchdowns.
Only one of Hubbard’s starts cracked 100 yards (101 versus Philly in Week 5) and his next best game was an 82-yard effort versus Atlanta in Week 8.
Currently, the team’s rushing attack is ranked 18th in the NFL.
With scant options backing him up, Hubbard has to carry the load.
If not, opponents can key almost exclusively on the passing game.
2. The Quarterbacks
As mentioned, the quarterback situation is grim.
Before suffering from a fractured scapula in Week 9 against the New England Patriots, Darnold looked like he was back in New York.
In his past five games (including the Patriots game) Darnold had passed for over 200 yards once.
He also tossed 10 picks in his last six games after throwing one in the first three weeks.
During that same stretch, Darnold had four touchdown passes.
Newton returning after a year away in New England hasn’t helped.
In his two games as the starter, Newton has gone 0-2.
Cam Newton was benched after a tough day against Miami: pic.twitter.com/2TraD8j3At
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 28, 2021
Even worse, after completing only five passes for 92 yards, two interceptions and an ugly 5.8 passer rating, he was benched for P.J. Walker this past Sunday.
1. The Future
The Panthers currently sit in fourth place in the NFC South.
Thankfully, the two teams above them aren’t much better.
With a little luck, Carolina could move into second place by only winning a few games.
However, that’s what it’s going to take: luck.
The Panthers cannot rely on their defense to carry the team the rest of the season.
Darnold could return soon, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Carolina has a good receiver in D.J. Moore (66 receptions) but no one steady behind center to get him the ball.
By now, it should be obvious to the front office that quarterback is the top position of need in the 2022 draft.
Of course, if that happens, there are more lean days on the horizon until (or, if) that new QB can contribute to the franchise.
Sorry, Panthers fans.
It may get a lot worse before it gets better.