CHARLOTTE – Imagine you're Matt Rhule and you're just trying to get a good night's sleep. Think about how many things could keep you up at night.
First, you've got your family, including three children. Then there's your job, which requires you to manage more than 100 players and staff in a pandemic as a first-time NFL head coach while also trying to win with the league’s highest roster turnover.
So, yeah, plenty of that could cause insomnia. But right now, one specific factor making Rhule stare at the ceiling is the Panthers' lack of production in the third quarter.
"If you get a text from me at 2:30 in the morning, it's because I'm up thinking about that, how to improve it," he admitted this week.
Carolina's third-quarter stats aren't necessarily nightmarish, but they certainly don't match the rest of the output from an offense that ranks inside the top 10 of Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings.
Consider some of these numbers. In the third quarter this season, the Panthers have:
- Scored 24 points, which ranks 28th ahead of only the Bills, Dolphins, Giants and Bears.
- Totaled 440 yards for an average of 48.9 yards.
- Have had eight punts, three touchdowns, two fumbles, two missed field goals, a made field goal and a turnover on downs on 17 drives.
- Been shut out five times (they've been shut out a total of four times in their 27 other quarters).
- Have scored just three touchdowns, with only one coming in the current four-game losing streak (Curtis Samuel 5-yard run in New Orleans).
- Gone 10-for-27 on third down for a conversion rate of 37.0 percent (their season average is 43.9 percent).
- Have rushed 50 times for 216 yards for an average of 24 yards.
To be fair, the Panthers have scored 27 points in the fourth quarter on drives that began in the third. But they're clearly not clicking coming out of the halftime locker room.
"Statistics are statistics, right? At the end of the day, it's our job to put points on the board," offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. "I think there's a lot of factors that (go) into it. We've missed some field goals down there, we've been stopped on turnovers on downs. It's something that we've talked (about) internally — we have to come out in the second half and do a better job executing.
"I don't think it's necessarily anything that we're not doing. I just think we've got to have more attention to detail like we do in the beginning of the game starting the second half."
So let's compare those two situations.
Of the Panthers' nine opening drives at the start of games, they've scored three touchdowns, kicked two field goals, thrown two interceptions and punted twice. And in those nine drives, they've totaled 25 first downs and 352 yards on 69 plays with a 34:57 time of possession.
Now, of their nine drives at the start of the second half, they've punted five times, fumbled twice, had one turnover on downs and missed a field goal. And in those nine drives, they've totaled nine first downs and 188 yards on 45 plays with a 26:56 time of possession. That averages out to one first down, 20.8 yards, five plays and a time of possession just short of three minutes per drive.
Last week in Kansas City, it appeared the Panthers were going to score their first points of the season on an opening drive of the third quarter. But after driving to the Chiefs' 33-yard line, running back Christian McCaffrey lost a yard on second-and-2 and gained just 1 yard on third down before kicker Joey Slye hit a 51-yard field goal attempt off the left upright.
"We kind of shot ourselves in the foot on that drive," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. "It's always self-inflicted with us. If we can just not beat ourselves and not put ourselves in these bad situations, we'll be a better offense."
For his part, Bridgewater has been solid if unspectacular in the third quarter completing 52 of 67 passes (77.6 percent) for 456 yards with no interceptions. But he's also thrown just one touchdown and taken four sacks. Some of those have helped killed drives, as have a good number of offensive penalties.
In an attempt to light a third-quarter spark, the Panthers went into their two-minute offense against the Falcons in Week 8. Then they tried going no-huddle last week in Kansas City. They've even held a mock halftime at a recent practice. But they still haven't found a fix.
"I lose sleep about it as well," Bridgewater said. "When you look at the second half, whether we're getting the ball to start or we're on defense to start, obviously, us scoring points in the most important."
Perhaps things will turn this weekend against the Buccaneers. Their 31 points allowed in the third quarter ranks 13th, and back in Week 2, the Panthers racked up third-quarter season highs of 125 yards and eight first downs in Tampa Bay.
For Rhule, there's likely too much on his mind to allow him to have sweet dreams anytime soon. But if Carolina can get unstuck in the third quarter, at least that will be one fewer issue keeping him up.
"I think sometimes you start spending so much time thinking of things and trying new things, and it's just like we need to go back and settle down and do what we do and just try to do it better," Rhule said.
"I think it's one of those things where everyone is going to have to go out and do their job with tremendous focus and effort. That will, hopefully, lead to more results."
The Panthers practiced inside the Atrium Health Dome to avoid the rain on Thursday.