The Carolina Panthers are not a smart football team.
I don’t mean their collective IQs – the Panthers have a locker room that bulges with college graduates.
But put those guys together on the field in critical moments and what you are getting from the 1-4 Panthers is a professional team that makes the sort of dumb mistakes that you would expect from a recreational flag football team full of 10-year-olds.
In fact, flag football is often what the Panthers seem to be playing, for the yellow flags have been flying all season. The Panthers rank as one of the most penalized teams in the NFL, and that statistic showed up again Monday night in the team’s bumbling, stumbling 17-14 loss to Tampa Bay.
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Critical penalties at the end of both halves hurt the Panthers badly. Combine that with their four turnovers compared to the Buccaneers’ zero and you get a Carolina team that managed to lose at home to a Tampa Bay team that is not as talented as Carolina but simply played smarter.
I asked Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil in the wee hours of Tuesday morning what went wrong in the Tampa Bay game. He did not mince words.
We’re just not very disciplined. I think we’re inconsistent. I think that’s from a lack of discipline. I think that explains the penalties.
Panthers center Ryan Kalil
“We’re just not very disciplined,” Kalil said. “I think we’re inconsistent. I think that’s from a lack of discipline. I think that explains the penalties. I think that explains the turnovers. So those are game-killers.”
Let’s take a closer look at the four penalties the Panthers incurred in the final six minutes of each half, because those were some of the “game-killers” Kalil was speaking about.
Second quarter. The Panthers had the ball, second-and-3 from the Tampa Bay 35 with 15 seconds remaining. Offensive guard Andrew Norwell false-started.
Because of NFL rules governing a half’s final seconds, Norwell’s brain cramp meant the Panthers had to either take a 10-second runoff – which would have brought the clock down to five seconds – or use their third and final timeout. They chose the timeout.
Second quarter. The Panthers had the ball, first-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 20 with 10 seconds left. Offensive tackle Mike Remmers false-started.
This penalty – which, like Norwell’s, would be more understandable in front of a road crowd – meant the Panthers had to move back 5 yards again (there was no runoff because the clock had already stopped on an out-of-bounds play). Graham Gano came in to kick a 43-yard field goal instead of a 38-yarder – and missed it.
Fourth quarter. Tampa Bay had the ball and was about to have a third-and-3 on the Carolina 43 with 5 minutes, 31 seconds left. Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein came flying up late on a pileup. With the play already over, Klein blasted a Tampa Bay offensive lineman to the ground.
On ESPN, former NFL coach Jon Gruden growled of Klein’s penalty: “A ridiculous penalty, really. He should be ejected for that.”
Tampa Bay’s Roberto Aguayo bailed out Klein by missing a 46-yard field goal at drive’s end.
Fourth quarter. Tampa Bay had a first-and-10 on the Carolina 32 with 41 seconds left. A handoff to Jacquizz Rodgers went for no gain, but defensive end Kony Ealy was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty on Rodgers. Of these four penalties, this was the only one that occurred during game action. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday he believes Ealy was held on the play and shouldn’t have been called for the facemask.
However, Ealy’s 15-yard penalty turned what would have potentially been a 50-yard field goal for Tampa Bay into something much easier. Aguayo made a 38-yarder on the game’s final play.
On Tuesday, Rivera talked about his team’s penchant for critical penalties this season. According to NFLpenalties.com, the Panthers are the NFL’s second-most penalized team by flags thrown (trailing only Oakland) and sixth-worst in penalties accepted by opponent.
“The hard ones to accept are the pre-snap and post-snap penalties,” Rivera said. “Those are the tough ones, and those are the ones we can’t commit.”
Some penalties are smart
Penalties are unavoidable to some extent if you are playing hard, much like fouls in basketball. Not every flag constitutes a “dumb penalty.” Some make sense. Rookie cornerback Daryl Worley, for instance, probably knew he was badly beaten by wide receiver Mike Evans’ double-move in the third quarter.
If Worley had tackled Evans on the way by, he would have been called for pass interference but Tampa Bay wouldn’t have scored. Instead, Worley let Evans dash right by him, and Evans hauled in a 26-yard touchdown pass.
The Panthers’ penalties during this 1-4 start have not been smart. Remmers committed three penalties in one four-play stretch. Cam Newton taunted an opponent in the same game by flipping the ball at him. Kelvin Benjamin nullified a 56-yard Fozzy Whittaker touchdown by throwing an illegal block that Whittaker didn’t need.
Trai Turner, a Pro Bowl offensive guard for Carolina in 2015, leads the Panthers with five accepted penalties. Former Panther Josh Norman leads the entire NFL with seven.
Pro Bowl offensive guard Trai Turner leads Carolina with five accepted penalties (former Panther Josh Norman leads the entire NFL with seven).
To use Kalil’s word, the Panthers have a lack of discipline. They are just not a smart football team.
If that continues, Carolina will have nothing to celebrate around Christmas when NFL games count the most.
On the other hand, the Panthers are getting to celebrate Flag Day every week.
The five NFL teams with the most total penalty flags, through Week 5 of the 2016 season:
3) Washington (tie)
3) Jacksonville (tie)
5) Los Angeles