Lackluster finale creates more questions than answers

Teddy Bridgewater on sideline

CHARLOTTE – Head coach Matt Rhule didn't think Teddy Bridgewater looked right.

Of course, that might also be the answer to a bigger issue than the status of his quarterback's ankle Sunday night, and could lead to another set of questions the Panthers may not have anticipated asking this offseason.

After the 33-7 loss to the Saints, Rhule said he pulled Bridgewater in the third quarter because he didn't look the same after an ankle injury in the first half — though the two interceptions in the end zone made it look like a reasonable decision. Backup quarterback P.J. Walker came in and threw three more picks (tying a franchise record), but Rhule said the decision was based on Bridgewater's physical status.

"He got banged up," Rhule said. "Didn't look like he was moving great, didn't look like he had a lot of velocity pushing off that foot, so I pulled him.

"I thought P.J. may have gone in there and given us a little spark. Again, Teddy didn't look healthy to me."

In the context of Sunday's game, Bridgewater said he could tell something was wrong after he was hit in the ankle on a draw (which came just before undrafted rookie running back Rodney Smith scored the Panthers' only touchdown late in the first quarter). Bridgewater said when he tried to throw a deep shot to wide receiver DJ Moore, he wasn't himself.

"I really just tried to fight through it," Bridgewater said. "I think coaches noticed, ... I wasn't able to get everything on the ball, so I think they noticed right there. It was really just a decision to protect me, with the way the Saints were pressuring. I wasn't as mobile as I wanted to be, couldn't get the velocity I wanted on the ball."

It was an ugly end to a year that started with such promise, as the Panthers signed the veteran quarterback to a free agent deal to help shepherd the first year of Rhule's rebuild in Carolina.

For the season, the veteran quarterback was 340-of-492 for 3,733 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

And in a vacuum, throwing 69.1 percent completions, and registering a 92.1 passer rating while playing without Christian McCaffrey and with four different starting left tackles might have been reasonably acceptable.

But there have been a number of instances in the waning weeks of the season in which Bridgewater was answering uncomfortable questions after losses.

Against the Broncos, it was rushing a play-call before the two-minute warning, and throwing short of the sticks on fourth down.

Against the Packers, he fumbled while trying to reach into the end zone on a first down.

Against the Saints Sunday, it was the pair of interceptions in the end zone, killing scoring chances.

Rhule waved off questions about Bridgewater's status Sunday night, preferring to focus on the game itself.

That only creates another layer of problems.

The Panthers tied a franchise record with five interceptions, joining a 1995 game in their expansion season, and the two Jake Delhomme nightmare games (in the 2008 playoff loss to the Cardinals and the 2009 opener against the Eagles).

That was the easy-to-see issue, but there were plenty. The Panthers finally looked like a young and short-handed team after fighting through so many issues lately and generally being competitive. They were 3-8 in games decided by one score or fewer this year.

The 26-point margin was their biggest of the season, eclipsing the 23-point blowout at the hands of the Bucs, which had been the one time Rhule saw his team let things get away.

"That hasn't happened, but it happened today," he said.

Now, the questions will turn to the future.

Bridgewater said he saw bright things for the offense, particularly the way they moved the ball in the absence of McCaffrey, pointing out career years by players including Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel, and Mike Davis.

"I applaud that locker room behind me," Bridgewater said. "Those guys didn't quit. They fought all year, through the ups and downs, with our backs against the wall. We've been in so many games we could have threw the rag in and said forget it. But guys came in every day and continued to make the game fun.

"That's the type of culture you want to create around here. The winning will follow. For this year, being a young team, the seeds of success were planted this year, with the experience guys were able to gain. I'm excited for this organization moving forward."

Whether he's around to harvest will be another question, for another day.

View in-game photos from Carolina's Week 17 game against New Orleans at home.

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