WESTFIELD, Ind. — The Panthers kept talking about their joint practices with the Colts being a measuring stick.
Thursday, they definitely got the short end of it.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule wasn't pleased with a number of things about his team after their first session with another team, and he made it clear to his team afterward how he felt.
Specifically, when he talked to reporters, he mentioned a sluggish start on offense — he spent the entire practice with that side of the ball — along with a number of other issues. Near the top of that list was a bad day for his receivers, and that's supposed to be a strength for this team.
"Not real happy with our receivers today," Rhule said. "Not a lot of discipline in terms of route running, wrong depths, a lot of missed assignments today. Put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks to adjust to guys not running routes at the right depth, . . ."
He went on, but the point was it wasn't nearly as sharp as they were hoping it would be, but the reality of facing a team that went 11-5 last year and went to the playoffs made clear that this was still very much a process.
"That's one of the reasons we came here, to see how far we are away from them," Rhule said.
The answer is a fair amount, and players realized what was coming when they got back to their downtown Indianapolis hotel (about a 45-minute bus ride away), anticipating there would be a considerable discussion of what went wrong and how to fix it.
Backup quarterback PJ Walker acknowledged as much, saying he was surprised they came out as flat as they did.
"As a team, we've got to sit down and talk about the opportunities we have and take advantage of them every day; the team won't be the same in a couple of weeks," Walker said. "I thought the way we approached the last couple of days, practice has been intense, guys been flying around and getting better every day as well.
"For us to take a step back today, I feel like we need to come out here tomorrow and take two steps forward."
— The wind started whipping, particularly the second half of practice. Coupled with the receivers not having their best day, it was a difficult situation for any of the quarterbacks.
But when asked particularly about starter Sam Darnold, Rhule said he didn't make the top of the list of issues.
"I thought Sam was the least of our problems," Rhule said. "The main thing with Sam, don't turn it over, protect the ball, and I thought we did that. Just a play or two away from a couple of deep balls. So we've just got to connect on those."
That's pretty far from an endorsement, but indicative of the day.
— The offensive line did not look particularly settled either, but there was at least some degree of explanation for that.
Center Matt Paradis made the trip with the intention of practicing Thursday, but felt some more tightness in his back and didn't go.
Left tackle Cameron Erving was back after missing the last two days of practice in Spartanburg with a shoulder issue, but he wasn't taking the normal load of reps.
Dennis Daley, who could compete for a tackle or a starting guard spot, didn't make the trip, as he was excused for a family matter.
That left an odd lot of players being used in new combinations, as they were also using Taylor Moton some at left tackle instead of right. They were rolling new guys through drills every few plays, so it wasn't necessarily conducive to a cohesive performance.
With that much mixing and matching, you can expect it to have rough spots. On one snap, running back Christian McCaffrey was behind the second offensive line, and was swallowed in the backfield by a Colts defensive line that's talented at the top, as well as deep.
— Cornerback Jaycee Horn mixed it up with Colts receiver Michael Pittman, and ended up taking a swing before they were separated.
Horn has a reputation as a physical player, and you can sense that opposing receivers may try to goad him into things. Steve Smith Sr. used to do that to cornerbacks all the time, particularly the young and confident ones. Horn has to be ready for that kind of treatment.
— Tight end Dan Arnold is a tall target across the middle, but not a particularly big one.
As such, he took a savage beating from the Colts, absorbing a number of hard shots on the day. At least once, he lost the ball after a hit. It was a rough day for a guy who has had an exceptional camp otherwise, and one they're counting on to add to the offense.
— In addition to Daley, the Panthers came to Indianapolis without six other players.
Wide receiver Keith Kirkwood, cornerback A.J. Bouye, safety Myles Hartsfield, and linebackers Julian Stanford, Denzel Perryman, and Clay Johnston didn't make the trip.
— New linebacker Josh Bynes was out on the field Thursday, wearing the rather unconventional number 32.
All the 40s and 50s are either occupied, retired (51, Sam Mills), or on the shelf after being worn by recent franchise greats (Thomas Davis' 58 and Luke Kuechly's 59).
If Bynes hangs around, he'll likely find a more standard number, although the league's new rules for uniform numbers allows linebackers to wear anything between 1-59, or 90-99.
— Before practice, Colts coach (and former Panthers quarterback) Frank Reich spent some time talking to Rhule and the Panthers' veteran leaders about the structure of the day.
View photos from Thursday's joint practice with the Colts at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind.