CHARLOTTE - In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's loss to the Raiders, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule told his players they should be disappointed but not discouraged.
That adage certainly applies to the offense.
The Panthers are building their team, a process made more challenging due to the circumstances of the pandemic. It's an unprecedented event that complicated learning systems and building chemistry.
To that end, the Panthers' offense showed some encouraging signs in Week 1. The unit scored on each of its four possessions in the first half. Then it used touchdown drives of 17 and two plays to take a fourth-quarter lead.
Overall, Carolina's 388 total yards and 5.97 yards per play ranked eighth and 10th across the league, respectively. Running back Christian McCaffrey tied for third over the weekend with 96 yards rushing. His 134 yards from scrimmage ranked seventh.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater also came in at No. 10 with 270 passing yards.
"I walk away saying I can't wait to see (Bridgewater) get better, and better, and better within our offense," Rhule said. "I have full comfortability in who he is and full confidence in his ability to win games for us."
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The Panthers were one of only eight teams to score at least 30 points in the season's opening week, though they were only one of two to put up 30 and lose.
The difference in the game came at the beginning of the second half. After a penalty on the kick return, the Panthers started at their own 11-yard line. McCaffrey gained 2 yards on first down with a run to the right, but a quick pass to wide receiver Curtis Samuel went for no gain on second down. Bridgewater completed his third down pass to wide receiver Robby Anderson, but it was well short of the sticks resulting in a three-and-out.
"I wish we could've had that drive back," Bridgewater said.
Following a Raiders' field goal, the Panthers started their next drive at their own 24. Bridgewater's first-down pass to McCaffrey was too high. Then Bridgewater took his only sack of the game for a 10-yard loss. Left guard Michael Schofield was flagged for holding on the play as well, but Las Vegas declined the penalty to bring up third-and-20. Bridgewater's pass to wide receiver DJ Moore was a bit behind the receiver, went off his hands and fell incomplete.
The Raiders capitalized on the second straight punt, as running back Josh Jacobs' second touchdown gave Las Vegas a 27-15 lead.
"It's a couple things here, a couple things there," McCaffrey said. "There were a couple drive starters that we wish we had back."
Rhule has mentioned the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half as critically important for a team's success. The Panthers did well to score on their two-minute drive before halftime, but opening the third quarter was a different story.
"We've just got to approach each snap as if we're down 14 points, 21 points," Bridgewater said. "As you watch the game, we were down two scores, and no one panicked, and there was more of a sense of urgency. So I think if we can start every drive with that sense of urgency, there will be more positive plays and less negative plays."
The third quarter may have been disappointing, but the fourth was encouraging. The Panthers were able to erase the 27-15 deficit by scoring 15 straight to start the final period.
"One thing I loved is how we responded," McCaffrey said. "We went three and out, three and out and no one blinked an eye. Everyone stayed poised and went out there and put together a heck of a drive."
The Panthers displayed in Week 1 that they have elements to build upon over the rest of the season. But starting the second half fast should be a point of emphasis as they move on to play the Buccaneers this week.