What's wrong with the Carolina Panthers offense?

2RKP9NJ August 25, 2023: Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) before the NFL matchup against the Detroit Lions in Charlotte, NC. (Scott Kinser/Cal Sport Media)

Their worst start to a season since 2010: The Carolina Panthers have started 0-6 in 2023 while the offense ranks 26th in EPA per play.

Bryce Young has struggled behind poor pass protection: Young’s 51.0 overall grade is 32nd out of 35 quarterbacks, and the Panthers offensive line is 30th in pass block grade.

The problem is multiple offenders: There isn’t just one name to blame in Carolina, the problem extends deeper.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

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The weather is changing as we move deeper into winter, but there’s been an ugly storm brewing in Carolina since early September, as the Carolina Panthers are 0-6, remain the last winless team in the NFL and the offense is in a funk. To make matters worse, they don’t own their 2024 first-round pick and are showing little sign of turning the ship around. But what’s gone wrong?

Hopes were high for the Carolina Panthers heading into the 2023 NFL season. After walking through the desolate quarterback wilderness for the last few years, with everyone from Kyle Allen to Baker Mayfield taking snaps under center in the post-Cam Newton world, the Panthers finally got their quarterback in the 2023 NFL Draft, selecting Alabama’s Bryce Young with the No. 1 overall pick.

With a new quarterback and the NFC South up for grabs, hopes were high for the Panthers. Through six games, those hopes for success have been replaced by hopes for a semblance of competency on offense. The Panthers have the 29th-graded offense and rank 26th in EPA per play and 19th in +EPA%, which measures consistency and success rate. Those numbers don’t bear particularly great reading, but it looks worse the deeper you dive.

It’s fair to say that Young hasn’t played well so far. His 51.0 overall grade ranks 34th out of 35 quarterbacks this season, and he’s completed 63.2% of his pass attempts for just 967 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. The raw numbers, aside from the low passing yards totals, are fine. However, Young’s play has been erratic at times.

Young's essence is creativity. We saw it in college. He likes, occasionally maybe needs, to work and move around the pocket, evading pressure to hunt for the big play. It’s not all he is, but it’s a big part of his aura. However, that aura hasn’t manifested itself in the NFL yet.

Young’s average time to throw is the ninth-highest in the NFL at 2.74 seconds and, so far, bad things have happened when he holds onto the ball. He has a 47.0 overall grade when he holds onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds, the second-lowest in the league, and averages just 5.3 yards per pass attempt. On top of that, Young’s big-time throw rate is the second-lowest in the league at 1.9%. Those big plays that he’s been hunting? They’re not coming.

And it’s hard to blame Young for that. Despite his spotty play, the flesh and bones of a real starting NFL quarterback are there. His accuracy rate is one of the highest in the NFL at 63.7%, and his plus-accuracy rate (call it pass attempts with excellent ball location) is also seventh-highest. The arm talent is still there, evidenced by the touchdown pass that Young ripped to Adam Thielen in the back of the end zone against the Miami Dolphins.

Thielen has been the rare bright spot in the receiving department for Young, and that in itself is a worry. Thielen’s 86.1 receiving grade ranks 11th in the NFL, and he comfortably leads the Panthers offense in targets, catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. No other Panther comes close to his 49 receptions on the season — the next closest is Terrace Marshall Jr. with 16. 

This is a team that just lacks playmakers. Receivers that can consistently get open and make plays. That makes things tough for Young. Sometimes the post-snap picture is too muddy because there’s nothing for Young to look at, everyone is covered. There’s little to suggest that anything will change soon with this set of receivers. Aside from Thielen, no other wide receiver on the team has better than a 59.0 receiving grade. Yikes.

It doesn’t stop there. Even when the picture is clear downfield, Young often isn’t even afforded the time to navigate his surroundings in the pocket. The Panthers' 46.9 pass-blocking grade ranks 29th, and Young is being pressured on 39.1% of his dropbacks. The amalgamation of everything is that that’s no way to live and survive as an NFL quarterback.

However, when Young is on time and working within the rhythm of the offense, things look good. When he holds onto the ball for less than 2.5 seconds, Young is playing well. He’s completing 75% of his passes, throwing five touchdowns and zero interceptions, and has a 63.2 passing grade. It’s not perfect, but it’s a stark improvement compared to when Young holds onto the ball for too long.

Getting the ball out quickly can’t be the only answer though. Sometimes it’s just not viable. The look you want isn’t always there, and it’s there even less when you don’t have a set of playmakers that can consistently create separation and win their matchups. Yet, Young doesn’t have the freedom to hold onto the ball without being pressured. That’s where the struggles really begin. It’s a vicious cycle. 

It would help if the Panthers had a counter-punch in a consistent running game, but they don’t. Miles Sanders has been an abject disappointment after signing a four-year, $25 million contract in the offseason. He’s averaging just a career-low 3.1 yards per carry and his 0.08 missed tackles forced per attempt is sixth-lowest among all ball carriers with at least 25 attempts. It also doesn’t help that he’s averaging just 0.9 yards before contact. That’s down to the poor play from the offensive line again. Things looked better with Chuba Hubbard against the Miami Dolphins, but there’s still a long way to go.

The deeper we dive, the clearer it becomes: There isn’t just one problem with the Panthers. There are multiple issues that all need multiple solutions. And that’s before we even take into consideration the coaching staff. Is Frank Reich the right coach to get the best out of Bryce Young and the offense?

The Panthers’ head coach has turned over playcalling duties to Thomas Brown, his offensive coordinator, so maybe things will take a turn in the right direction. But the looming aspect of all of this is whether or not Young was even Reich’s preferred choice of quarterback. For a while, it seemed like the Panthers were heading toward picking C.J. Stroud. Reich has been more acquainted with bigger pocket passers during his coaching career, guys like Andrew Luck, Phillip Rivers, and briefly Carson Wentz.

The situation may become clearer and the cogs could start to turn in the right direction as the season grows, but there are just so many things working against the Panthers offense right now. It might get worse before it gets better.

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