CHARLOTTE — There are small things the Panthers can point to, like that one drive that got to the end zone or the way they ran in the first half.
But as the weight of the season bears down on them, the reality is the offense, as presently constructed, is not fulfilling the basic obligation.
In a 33-10 loss to the Cowboys Sunday, the 1-9 Panthers gained a season-low 187 yards, allowed a season-high seven sacks, and tied a season-low with just 10 points.
All the other things they might talk about after Sunday's loss are corollary at this point. Not that the long-term prognosis of certain players isn't important, but right now, the Panthers aren't moving the ball well enough to win.
"It's always about points," Panthers head coach Frank Reich said. "We know that that's the test for us as an offense. That's a very good defense; we knew coming in, statistically in every way, shape, and form, that's a very talented defense. I thought we ran the ball and dominated up front, that showed a lot of good stuff against a very good team. We dominated at the line of scrimmage in the first half. There's just no two ways about it. That's what we did. That's on tape.
"But what we didn't do is we didn't score points. So, you know, we've got to be able to convert when we're running at 6 yards a carry, and our O-line is blocking up front on the run as well as we're blocking. Those things have got to get converted into touchdowns."
They didn't, other than that one time.
The Panthers did manage a touchdown late in the third quarter, but it required a running into the punter penalty and three fourth-down conversions along the way to be in position to cap a 17-play drive with Bryce Young's pass to Tommy Tremble.
"I think just some resiliency, some fight; you know, just make it happen," said wide receiver Adam Thielen, who caught the first two of the three conversions (running back Miles Sanders ran for the other). "(It shows) a little bit of trust in coach by going for it on fourth down a couple of times to say, hey, let's go make a play and find a way to get the first down and move the ball and try to score some points.
"But yeah, I think we're doing a lot of good things. It's just not getting all put together right now."
That was an understatement.
The Panthers ran for 110 yards, with 85 of those in the first half. So Reich's contention that they played well up front, at least in the first half, had some merit. The Cowboys had three third-down sacks in the first half, which stopped that progress from mattering more.
In the second half, it became target practice, with the Cowboys sacking Young on three straight plays, the last of which resulted in a fumble and his second turnover of the day (it came right after his third pick-six of the season).
"QB one is getting hit too much," left tackle Ikem Ekwonu said. "It's a problem, so we've got to get it fixed."
Also an understatement.
Young has taken 36 sacks in nine games this year (backup Andy Dalton was dropped three times in Seattle), but on Sunday, the pressure was actue and a factor even on plays when he wasn't getting sacked.
Since they invested the number one overall pick in Young (and traded considerable assets to do so), allowing him to continue to develop is the priority this season.
Reich pointed out how disruptive the Cowboys have been this year (they entered the game with 26 sacks, 13th in the league, and seven tied their season-high) and how they could pressure from many angles across the front.
"I thought we would protect better," Reich said. "I thought we had a good protection plan, to try to double (Micah) Parsons when we could. So we had a variety of things in the protection scheme up, but we just weren't able to execute."
At this point, the goals have shifted to the future. Reich said he's not worried about Young from a physical standpoint.
"He physically is one tough dude," Reich said. "He never wants to come out, can take hits. I think that's a credit to his physical toughness and his tenacity.
"That's been week in and week out. He doesn't flinch."
But at a different level, Reich said he's continued to be impressed with the way Young has handled adversity the likes of which he never experienced at Alabama. And he said he's not worried about this season becoming an avalanche that does irreparable harm because of what he's seen out of Young.
"I don't, because of who he is as a person," Reich said. "I just think that's one thing that was clear in the draft process: his mental toughness and character are unquestioned to me. Nobody's perfect, right? I mean, we all have weaknesses. We all struggle at times mentally. Even the most confident guys, the best players in the world, everybody does, and I'm sure Bryce has his struggles.
"But I also believe that he's got an inner strength that has helped him get to where he's gotten to, even though we all know he's won a lot of games in high school and college. I think he's made to handle stuff like this, and I don't think he'll accept it. And I think he'll continue to elevate his game and elevate this team. It might just take, it's taken longer than we all wanted it to. But I can tell you this is not on his shoulders. We all have a part of it, right?"
Young's not one to talk about topics of import beyond the immediate. He's kept his focus on the day-to-day throughout, and when asked about his own trajectory, he talked about leaning on his faith "through ups and downs."
I don't expect anything, good or bad," Young said. "I'm well aware; I believe God guides my life. You know, the big picture is that what happens is out of my control, and I trust God through everything. So, I lean on my faith, I lean on my teammates, lean on the coaching staff.
"And yeah, of course, it's not ideal. It's tough, it's hard. But it's for a reason. What that reason is, that's not for me to know, not for me to dwell on."
And while the results haven't been there, Young has done enough to prove to those around him that he's the one to lead them out of this current funk, whenever it may be.
"He's a dog. That's our guy, that's our leader," Ekwonu said. "Some of the things that you don't see when it comes to this motivation and just leading men, that's something that he already has at a young age. So it's been impressive.
"It's been fun to watch him being able to kind of guide us where we need to go, and we're all behind him. And the team goes, we know, where he goes, and we're always going to have his back no matter what. And at the end of the day, you know, keep him clean. You see what he can do."
Now, they just have to find a way to keep him clean and do it more often.
View all the action from the Panthers' game against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11.