Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold wasn’t the only party that was denied on his failed sneak attempt in the first half of Sunday’s game. And if you’re thinking we’re referring only to Cam Newton in that statement, then you’re almost as mistaken as Matt Rhule was on the call.
Rhule’s lowly squad, losers of six straight games and 11 of 13 coming in, somehow managed to build themselves a 7-3 lead over the defending Super Bowl champions almost 19 whole minutes into their regular-season finale. That edge, presumably, was then set to be extended to 14-3 off the heels of a highly-productive six-minute, 73-yard possession.
All it needed was the easy call, the only call. Alas, that was not the case.
On fourth-and-inches from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 1-yard line, there was just one man the Panthers should’ve gone to. If there was ever a situation that was made for this very moment in time for this very version of Cameron Jerrell Newton, it was this one.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton has made a living out of pushing himself into the end zone, amassing 75 career rushing touchdowns—32 more than the next closest quarterback on the NFL’s all-time list. In fact, if you just counted the 52 rushing scores that’ve come from five yards out or fewer, he’d still have nine more than Steve Young’s entire second-place tally of 43.
Instead, Carolina opted to stick with Darnold, who was subsequently stuck by the Tampa Bay front on his feeble bid for the marker. It was then, when the Panthers proceeded to turn the ball over to Tom Brady and his Bucs, that the tide totally turned.
At the half, Rhule described his team’s head-scratching decision to CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson by saying it was a play “both” of quarterbacks could do. His postgame explanation, while less insulting to Newton, was even more perplexing.
“The fourth-and-inches from the one that was just a quarterback sneak. Had it been maybe a fourth-and-1, where it was going to be a quarterback power – that’s more of Cam’s specialty,” Rhule said. “But really fourth and inches, you’re assuming your line is going to knock them back. You know, Sam is 6-foot-4, [you think] he’ll get the first down. From the field, I thought he got the first down, to be quite honest with you, and the spot came up short. So, looking back, would I have put Cam in there at that point? To me, if it was a designed quarterback run, putting him out there made sense but Jeff [Nixon] made the call to go quarterback sneak and I thought the call was the right call, so we went with it.”
Interesting. So if Newton is good enough to rush it for one yard, why is he not good enough to rush it for half that of distance? (20 of those 75 scores, by the way, have come from exactly one yard out.)
While we can’t assume Newton would have scored, chances are his sneak would’ve very likely resulted in end-zone visit No. 76 and an 11-point advantage for Carolina with under five minutes left in the half. Instead, the Buccaneers would soon respond with a quick 92-yard touchdown drive and take their 10-7 lead into the locker room—a potential 14-point swing at the expense of the Panthers.
For all his talk over the past two months of how much a two-quarterback system was most beneficial to the offense, Rhule’s choice not to get Nixon to dial up Newton seemed rather counteractive. If you’re trying to win, why are you not calling upon history’s most effective short-yardage quarterback in a critical short-yardage spot?
Had Rhule definitively stuck with Darnold as his starter right upon his return in Week 16, this would be a non-issue. If he’s the guy, he’s the guy. But Rhule’s consistent nods and usage of a multi-man approach told us otherwise.
You’d also think, at a time where his popularity is at an all-time low, that he’d throw the fans a bone and give them one final Cam Newton moment. The Carolina faithful, particularly throughout the course of Newton’s comeback, have grown to appreciate their franchise’s greatest player more than they ever had.
If that was indeed his final day suiting up in the black and blue, wouldn’t you want your fans to have that lasting image? What are you trying to prove in keeping with Darnold in such a high-risk, low-reward choice?
Sadly, Rhule may have been trying to prove he’s been right on his choice of quarterback when he’s been absolutely wrong. His and the staff’s continued stubbornness not only cost Newton at least a slither of a dignified sendoff, but it also potentially cost his team a chance at winning and you—the fans—of a beautiful memory in what has otherwise been a hideous season.