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Panthers looking for answers on offense

Sam Darnold throw

TAMPA, Fla. — As they enter an offseason filled with questions, there were only so many answers the Panthers could provide after Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers.

Head coach Matt Rhule was peppered about his own status, and said again that all his conversations with owner David Tepper were focused on the future, and that he had no indication his job was "in peril."

Because he always tries to keep the focus on the immediate, Rhule talked about wanting to make sure he had the best game-plan possible for players, including Shaq Thompson and Taylor Moton. That didn't stop the focus from being about the future, after a second straight five-win season.

"I'm never going to speak for Dave; Every conversation I've had, he's been supportive," Rhule said. "I talked to him today before the game, and we talked about the offseason and things we have to do moving forward. Since I took the job, we've had a plan. I'd like to be further ahead in the plan. Nobody likes the results that we have right now. We've talked about it time and time again. We know the areas we have to improve. But I've never had a conversation about anything about my job status, or, 'Hey, you're in peril' or anything like that. It's been talking about football and the future. So I'll leave that to other people.

"What I told them, is I'm going to coach until someone tells me I'm not the coach. The minute I start making things about myself and not about the team, then I'm not about who I want to be."

Mostly, after the Panthers lost their seventh straight game to close the season 5-12, the questions centered on how to fix the mess the year became, as the team lost the momentum created by a three-game winning streak to start the season.

That momentum ended with Christian McCaffrey's ankle injury in Houston, as the star running back played just seven games this year. While he's just one player, he's so central to the Panthers' identity that the loss was a huge one.

"I think being able to run the football, play-action off of it, was big, especially early on," quarterback Sam Darnold said. "That was kind of our identity. And I felt like we kind of hit a lull after we won those (first three) games."

Since then, all facets of the game broke down, but the focus will be on quarterback play.

Darnold finished the year with a 71.9 passer rating, and just nine touchdown passes. Both were career lows. Cam Newton came in with much fanfare, but after his star turn in Arizona (the Panthers' last win of the year) and a quality start against Washington, he flatlined as a passer. His 64.4 rating was inflated by the Washington game, and he wasn't much of a factor lately, playing a single snap in each of the last two games.

Newton's a free agent, and Darnold's under contract for next year for $18.9 million guaranteed, so the Panthers have some weighty questions in front of them. Darnold evaded questions about his own future, because honestly, it's not up to him.

The Panthers also need an offensive coordinator, after the midseason firing of Joe Brady, and Rhule said that search would begin soon.

"I'd like us to have a true identity of being able to run the football, and play-action and protect the quarterback. We have some skill players that are excellent players," Rhule said. "So we're going to go through a process now, both internal and external candidates.

"Like we did in the GM search, we're going to talk to a bunch of people, a bunch of really smart people out there from a lot of places. We know what the strategy we want is; we want to be able to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball and protect the ball. We want to be able to do those things; it's just the tactics of how we do it. We're going to try to find someone who can get that done at a high level. There's lots of people who can; it'll truly be a process."

One of those skill players Rhule referred to was wideout Robby Anderson, who set career highs last season, but fell from 1,096 passing yards in 2020 to 519 this year. And Anderson was willing to admit the obvious, that this was not the way anyone planned this to work.

"This is my sixth year, and I'm not going to the playoffs," he replied when asked if he was frustrated. "I don't play this game to go home and sit on my couch to watch other people win it and hold up the trophy. If I didn't care, I wouldn't have worked hard all week to come play in what some people said was a meaningless game. I love football. This is what I do. It's not just about money with me. It means everything and more to me.

"Of course I'm frustrated. I'm not going to play football again until September."

By then, many things will have changed.

View photos from the field as the Panthers take on Tampa Bay in the season finale.

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