Amid the wreckage of the Panthers’ lost offense Saturday at the end of another long week away from Charlotte, a glimmer of hope flashed through the middle of the Titans’ defense.
Three times, in fact.
Christian McCaffrey couldn’t save the Panthers from Devin Funchess’ first-play fumble or shore up their goal-line defense, but the kid from Stanford represented the lone bright spot from the first-team offense on an otherwise blah day at Nissan Stadium.
McCaffrey scored his first NFL touchdown and showed off the speed and big-play ability that prompted the Panthers to draft him No. 8 overall.
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McCaffrey broke off runs of 16 and 17 yards and had a catch-and-run for 38 yards in the Panthers’ 34-27 loss. He looked like he was in a different gear than everybody else on the field, including some of his offensive teammates who had buried the Panthers in a 17-0 hole.
McCaffrey came out for the second half wearing a baseball cap. His numbers:
▪ Three carries for 33 yards, TD;
▪ Two catches for 39 yards;
▪ One reason for optimism.
“He’s got great vision. You just give it to him and see what happens,” quarterback Derek Anderson said. “He makes plays. He’s done a great job (after) missing OTAs, missing minicamp (and) adjusting to the things we’ve been doing. And I’m sure his workload will increase as we get going.”
Anderson has a point: McCaffrey did his damage on some pretty straightforward plays Saturday – a counter run, a screen pass. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has yet to unveil all his McCaffrey wrinkles.
“It’s preseason so it’s pretty vanilla right now. But it’s definitely real good and getting loose a little bit,” McCaffrey said. “But it’s also kind of a tease because as soon as you feel like you’re in a rhythm and you’re ready to go, you get pulled. But that’s what the preseason is for, just get ready to roll.”
The Panthers’ offense wasn’t ready at the start Saturday, and you wonder if Ron Rivera might need to rethink these weeklong road trips.
The low point of last year’s West Coast excursion came when Cam Newton was benched for the start of the Seattle game, forcing Rivera to start Anderson in the nationally televised game.
Anderson’s first pass against the Seahawks bounced off Mike Tolbert and was intercepted by Seattle inside the Carolina 10, an ominous start in a game the Panthers would lose 40-7.
There were no wardrobe malfunctions Saturday and the game was televised regionally – maybe why not many locals bothered to show. But things unraveled in a similar fashion.
Anderson’s first pass was caught by Funchess, who promptly fumbled. Tennessee recovered at the Panthers’ 13 and scored seven plays later on a Marcus Mariota pass to tight end Delanie Walker.
Somehow things got worse for the Panthers’ offense.
After a three-and-out, Anderson began the next possession with an interception on a pass intended for tight end Greg Olsen. Jayon Brown batted the ball into the air, and linebacker Justin Staples picked it off and returned it 19 yards to set up Derrick Henry’s 17-yard touchdown run on the next play.
The carnage from the Panthers’ first three offensive series: Five plays, 0 yards, two turnovers.
The Panthers finally picked up a first down on their fourth series when Anderson hit Kelvin Benjamin for 20 yards on third-and-4. Then Anderson handed the ball to McCaffrey a couple times, which was the Panthers’ best offensive play.
On his 17-yard touchdown run, McCaffrey followed a nice lead block by H-back Ed Dickson on a counter play, then outran a couple of Titans to the pylon.
“Ed did a great job kicking out the backer,” McCaffrey said. “I just split both of them and just tried to use my speed from there.”
The Panthers’ second-stringers made things respectable in the second half. But the first-half performance was cause for concern, especially on the offensive side.
Certainly the absences of Newton and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil didn’t help (middle linebacker Luke Kuechly also sat with sore ribs). But the lethargy coming from the offensive huddle was disconcerting, coming two days after the offense’s “terrible” showing – Rivera’s words – in the second joint practice with the Titans.
The Panthers hope Newton’s shoulder is well enough that he can play Thursday at Jacksonville. And maybe three weeks from now, a healthy and energetic Newton will be leading the Panthers’ new-look offense down the field against San Francisco and Buffalo.
But all Newton could do Saturday was stand on the sideline and encourage his teammates.
He had to like what he saw from at least one of them.