The Panthers are playing scared football. As in scared of Bryce Young and their offensive line.
On Monday night, Carolina fell 20–17 to the Saints, running its record to 0–2. The offense was a mess, totaling 239 yards (75 yards coming on a meaningless drive late) while failing to score a touchdown until the game was out of hand.
Yet the bigger story is the usage of Young over the first two weeks.
In March, the Panthers sent a massive haul to the Bears for the No. 1 pick, including two first- and second-round picks, along with star receiver DJ Moore. As a result, Carolina general manager Scott Fitterer and new coach Frank Reich selected Young to be their franchise quarterback.
Over the first two weeks, Young has been treated more as a concern than a solution.
In Week 1 against the Falcons, Carolina turtled. Young threw 38 times and only nine times did the ball travel at least 10 air yards. The results were underwhelming, with the stat line being 2-of-9 with two interceptions.
On Monday night, the game plan was again rife with short, safe throws, which were often met with a reception and no yards after catch. All told, Young was 22-of-33 for 153 yards with a touchdown and lost fumble.
Instructively, Carolina was 4-of-14 on third down, with Young being 4-of-8 for 32 yards on those plays, while taking two sacks and suffering the aforementioned fumble. The only positive was a 26-yard scramble in the fourth quarter, helping Carolina draw to within 13–9.
All told, Young has thrown for 4.2 yards per attempt across two games. This would have ranked dead last in 2022, a full 1.9 yards behind any qualifying quarterback.
How big of a difference is 1.9 yards per attempt? It’s the same gap as Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts had a season ago, with Hurts ranking third and Murray being 33rd.
While at Alabama, Young threatened every blade of grass with impeccable accuracy, totaling 79 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions over his final two years with the Crimson Tide, while averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. That’s why the Panthers made Young the first quarterback taken in the draft.
Nobody is asking Carolina to make Young a deep-ball specialist. But Reich, a former longtime NFL quarterback, is essentially removing any threat of a chunk play. The consequence is costing Carolina the ability to stretch a defense, while also conditioning Young to throw quick and short.
Of course, part of Reich’s conservatism is Carolina’s lackluster offensive line, which has allowed six sacks and 14 quarterback hits in two games after a disastrous preseason. This despite both the Falcons and Saints barely blitzing Young, knowing they could get home with a four-man rush while dropping seven.
However, Young is 22 years old and nimble. And, considering his diminutive stature of 5'10", it’s not the worst idea to get Young outside the pocket, giving him both space and defined reads.
The strategy is also keeping a talented defense on the field, and wearing them down. On Monday night, Carolina had nine drives before garbage time (excluding a one-play kneel-down to end the first half), and only three lasted more than four downs.
So far, nothing Carolina has tried is working. Young is playing a safe game with safe play-calls, and he still has arguably the worst stats of any starting quarterback in the early going. Although the Panthers don’t have great weapons, they have veterans in DJ Chark Jr. and Adam Thielen, who understand how to sit in open zones and use leverage against man coverage.
The bottom line? It’s not surprising Young doesn’t look like Patrick Mahomes, but it’s surprising he has struggled to this extent.
The Panthers have three tough games on the road in the next four weeks, including trips to Seattle, Detroit and Miami. None of those defenses are elite, but all of those teams profile anywhere between playoff contenders and Super Bowl hopefuls.
If Carolina doesn’t want its season circling the drain by mid-October, improvement along the offensive line has to be the first priority.
But a close second is to stop being scared of Young, and put fear into opponents along the way.