If it wasn’t clear by the multiple drops, miscues and flat-out misses all throughout Carolina’s offensive side of practice on Thursday against Tennessee, the frustration with the Panthers’ lack of offensive execution was broadcasted all over the face of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey.
“We have a standard and it’s higher than this, for sure,” said McCaffrey, as he scrummed with media after practice. “We had a good day yesterday and I think we let it get to us. ... I think a lot of times, we had a lot of self-inclicted wounds, dropped passes, missed blocks, etc. We just have to learn from it and get better.”
Coach Ron Rivera bluntly remarked that they had reason to look somber as they walked off the field. Not only did coaches bless out players throughout the practice as mistakes accumulated, Rivera also said a few words in the final huddle as practice ended.
“They needed to be serious,” he said. “I basically explained to them that if they expect to be great, they have to be great every day.”
Practice started poorly for the offense, and stayed there. Though quarterback Cam Newton threw a few balls in one-on-ones and seven-on-seven drills, his timing was off and at one point he and receivers Devin Funchess and Brenton Bersin miscommunicated, causing Newton to fire a bullet through the end zone that smacked incomplete off the back wall, untouched.
Newton was audibly frustrated with that play. Rivera, who watched the offense while the defense worked on the opposite field just as he did on Tuesday, said the quarterback was clearly a little rusty as he continues to rehab his surgically repaired shoulder.
Newton stayed frustrated. And when training camp standout Damiere Byrd dropped his third ball of the day not even halfway into the workout, he spoke up.
“C’mon, y’all, we have to give these fans something to talk about,” Newton said, trying to boost the energy level of the offense as the team moved to another set of drills. “We have to give them something to tweet about.”
But the drops continued. Two particularly egregious miscues came from tight end Chris Manhertz, who, wide open, had a chance on a nice pass from backup quarterback Derek Anderson, but it sailed right through his arms. Another was from the usually-consistent Bersin, who tried to contain a pass against his body with one hand but accidentally passed it behind his back right to a defensive back for a pick six.
And when Carolina tried to get the ball moving with run plays during team drills against Tennessee, McCaffrey, Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker were either stuffed within about 3 yards, or pushed backward.
“When you run the ball, you want to gain at least 4 yards per carry,” said Rivera. “When you throw, if you throw 10 (passes) you want to catch eight. We didn’t do that today.”
Receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess had more rest time than usual on Wednesday, and running back Jonathan Stewart, tight end Greg Olsen and center Ryan Kalil took veteran rest days. Rivera said that missing a few of their key pieces, plus not running their no-huddle offense at all (they did on Wednesday), made it hard for Carolina to find its rhythm.
“Those (veteran) guys create consistency and not having them out there on the field was huge,” he said.
But that only pertains to cadence, said Rivera, and not to execution.
“It doesn’t matter because the guys that dropped the balls were guys that got opportunities,” he said. “They were good balls, they got dropped. When the ball hits you in the hand, you have to catch it. And that’s just the way I look at it.”
Even the biggest offensive play of the day wasn’t without a massive flaw.
Kaelin Clay leaped for a contested 30-yard catch with two defensive backs draped all over him, and came down with it. He then spiked the ball in celebration, drawing a flag from the referees monitoring practice. Rivera was irate.
“You don’t do that,” he said, his anger apparent. “You really don’t. I’ll have a conversation with him.”
Carolina’s offense full of new, versatile pieces has largely been exciting to watch through training camp and the preseason so far. Rivera said it was a fair assesment that Thursday was really the first day the unit looked anything but.
“Today there were some things that were terrible that we looked at and are most certainly going to work on and get corrected,” he said bluntly. “Because we can’t have this. We expect to win football games. We can’t do the things we did today.”