Panthers’ QB change provides only a brief spark, not a win

Published 11:23 pm Sunday, January 2, 2022

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Starting Sam Darnold in place of Cam Newton at quarterback provided only a brief spark for Carolina before the flailing Panthers reverted to form.

Darnold completed his first nine passes for the first time in his career while leading scoring drives on his first two series. But the Panthers did not score again, falling 18-10 on Sunday to the Saints for their sixth loss in a row and 11th in 13 games.

It was yet another anemic offensive performance in a season full of them, with star running back Christian McCaffrey limited to seven games by hamstring and ankle injuries. Darnold was sacked seven times, matching the number the Panthers allowed last week to Tampa Bay and raising the season total to 50 — fourth most in the NFL.

“We weren’t able to get them blocked,” Carolina coach Matt Rhule said. “It’s the same story we’ve had when we haven’t played well offensively. When Sam had protection, he was able to complete balls and had some nice throws.”

Darnold, who missed five games with a fractured shoulder blade before splitting time with Newton last week, still had a chance to engineer a tying drive in the final minute. But safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson intercepted an errant toss near midfield with 46 seconds left.

Newton, who went 0-5 as a starter in the previous five weeks, played only one down this time. He gained 5 yards on a keeper one play before Chubba Hubbard scored on a 21-yard run to give the Panthers a 10-3 lead with 13:09 left in the second quarter.
After that, with Darnold pressured constantly, Carolina managed only 46 yards in eight series.

“The bottom line is everyone’s not playing good enough,” Darnold said. “Everyone on offense, we’re just not playing good enough to win games. That’s as simple as it is.”

Carolina’s defense played well enough to give the Panthers a chance. They led until late in the third quarter, when the Saints kicked their fourth field goal to go ahead 12-10. They held New Orleans out of the end zone until midway through the fourth period.

They finally cracked after Lirim Hajrullahu missed a 47-yard field goal that would have put them back in front with 12:04 left in the fourth quarter. Saints versatile running back Alvin Kamara, who was limited to 2 yards on his other 12 carries, broke off a 30-yard run up the middle before scoring on a 12-yard reception for New Orleans’ first touchdown in three weeks.

Rhule has spoken repeatedly this year about the Panthers’ small margin for error, and they could not afford the errant field goal, which sailed right of the upright. Hajrullaha has been their kicker for just three weeks, stepping in after Zane Gonzalez was ruled out with a quad injury in pregame warmups at Buffalo.

Gonzalez was 10 for 10 on kicks from 40 to 49 yards.

“That field goal was definitely something that we needed,” linebacker Frankie Luvu said. “We’ve just got to be better.”

The Panthers remained within one score when New Orleans kicker Brett Maher banged an extra point off an upright with 7:49 left. But the Saints sacked Darnold four times during the Panthers’ final two series.

“We have to do a better job up front in protecting the quarterback, obviously,” guard John Miller said. “It starts with me. I didn’t play well enough.”

That was a team-wide sentiment, even for the defense, which held New Orleans to 280 yards.

“It’s tough because we keep talking about the same thing each and every week — do your job,” linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “How much more do we need to keep saying that for it to actually click in? It’s OK to have a missed assignment once, but not repeatedly. Hell yeah, I’m frustrated. To go out there and fight to win and not have that outcome is frustrating.”