NEW ORLEANS — When Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was asked about his offensive line during training camp, he compared it to Interstate 85 between Charlotte and Spartanburg.
"It's under construction," he said then.
Now, it's a roadblock.
The Panthers lost 18-10 to the Saints Sunday, a winnable game that was again undone by the lack of protection up front.
For the second straight game, the Panthers gave up seven sacks, their most since 2019. A week ago, they were split between Cam Newton and Sam Darnold, but it was on Darnold to bear the brunt of them Sunday. From a sack-fumble which led to a Saints' field goal early, the Panthers were left trying to call a safe game, just to give him a chance to survive. The result was 132 passing yards on 26 attempts (5.1 yards per attempt), which is not a viable offensive condition.
"For us to truly see whether it was Sam or Cam or anybody else, to see what anybody can do, we have to just have a little more consistency up front," Rhule said. "There were too many sacks we took, and as a result, the sack-fumble that led to points changed the way you call the game. You want to be very, very careful on third down."
Rhule credited the job their defense and special teams did giving the Panthers a chance. But the Saints scored a late touchdown after so many times having to defend short fields.
It's an issue of offensive construction, and the Panthers know they're missing pieces.
No one figured it was a strength or sufficiently funded entering camp, beyond the extension they gave cornerstone right tackle Taylor Moton. But when a cast of young players and an odd lot of veterans began to fall victim to injuries and a COVID-19 pandemic, it became a hash. Sunday was the 12th different combination of starters they've used in 16 games this year, and it showed.
Rhule hesitates to make global declarations after games — and after losing his sixth straight and 11th in the last 13, that's probably wise — but the causation of Sunday's loss and the struggles in general was obvious.
"When you have (12) different offensive line combinations, guys getting elevated from the practice squad, guys changing oppositions all those different things, you're not going to have the unity you want, you're not going to have the cohesiveness you want," Rhule said. "We've talked about it, you guys have asked about it, we have since the very beginning.
"We've had runs where we were able to protect the quarterback and be consistent. But I don't care who you are at quarterback, if you don't have a run game, or you don't have a pretty nice protection game, it's going to be difficult. I felt when Sam had protection, he was able to complete balls, and made some nice throws. But again, this is a good defense we faced. We knew they were going to put us under duress."
The Saints did just that, with Cam Jordan putting up 3.5 of their 7.0 sacks. But they had pressure coming from multiple angles, primarily because the Panthers have shown themselves to be susceptible this year.
"It's tough. It's the NFL. You're never going to get a lot of clean looks," veteran right guard John Miller said. "At the end of the day, we get paid to protect the quarterback, and obviously we're not getting that done up front."
Darnold completed 17-of-26 passes, and had a flourish early in the fourth quarter, before a missed 47-yard field goal that would have given the Panthers a lead in the fourth quarter. But he also wasn't in a position to criticize anyone.
Asked if he had a fair chance to prove himself, Darnold sidestepped the question.
"That's not even something that's on my mind," he said. "At the end of the day, I'm not playing good enough to win football games."
Miller grew a bit short during his post-game press conference, at one point noting that many of the questions were variations on a theme — "I mean, again, this is the same question, just a different way," he said.
When he was asked minutes later if the line had given Darnold a chance to succeed, Miller shook his head and said: "Next question."
And until the Panthers answer the question this offseason, it's hard to imagine the results changing.
View in-game photos from the Superdome during Carolina's Week 17 game at New Orleans.