Panthers show resolve in loss even after Christian McCaffrey sidelined

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule started his Wednesday practice with an unusual lengthy meeting in the middle of the field in which you could hear him yelling over 100 yards away.

His message was simple: Keep improving. Don’t give up. Be mentally strong.

“It’s not about one game,’’ Rhule said later in the day. “It’s about who we are as a franchise. Who the Carolina Panthers are. ... We want a team that’s all in it together.’’

That came shining through on Sunday at Tampa Bay when the Panthers fought back from a 21-0 deficit to pull within a touchdown before losing 31-17 to Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.

In the first half, Brady looked like the future Hall of Famer he is, throwing for 198 yards and a touchdown, and the Panthers self-destructed with turnovers, penalties and mistakes. But a young, inexperienced football team kept fighting to give itself a chance. Brady had just 19 passing yards in the second half.

This wasn’t about a moral victory -- Rhule doesn’t believe in those.

This was about resolve, something Rhule preaches every day as a part of his “process’’ that helped him turn around college programs at Temple and Baylor.

Those teams got off to rocky starts as well ,with Temple going 2-10 in 2013 and Baylor 1-11 in 2017. Three years in, because those teams kept clawing in defeat early, they won double-digit games.

The difference is Rhule believes that the Panthers (0-2) -- if they can clean up the mistakes that plagued them in the first half against the Bucs -- can win now. They had a chance to win in the opener against Las Vegas before falling 34-30.

They had a chance again on Sunday even with their best offensive player, running back Christian McCaffrey, on the sideline with an ankle injury suffered on a 7-yard, fourth-down touchdown run that cut Tampa Bay's lead to 21-14 with 13:30 remaining.

If McCaffrey is out for an extended period, the resolve and the next-man-up mentality Rhule preaches will become even more important. He already convinced the Panthers this past week that a team missing two of three starting defensive linemen in Kawann Short (foot) and Yetur Gross-Matos (concussion) could have a chance to win.

QB breakdown: Teddy Bridgewater had a rocky start with a lost fumble, an interception and two sacks -- in the first quarter. The Bucs took advantage of both turnovers for a 14-0 lead. Bridgewater had a rocky finish, throwing an interception with 10:15 remaining, but -- like the rest of the team around him -- kept fighting to give Carolina a chance with McCaffrey on the sideline. His career has been all about playing mistake-free football, and that’s what it will take for the Panthers to have a chance moving forward.

Buy: Wide receiver Robby Anderson. He had nine catches for 109 yards a week after having six for 114 yards. DJ Moore might be Carolina’s No. 1 receiver, but Anderson has been right there with targets the first two games. His role could increase if McCaffrey misses time.

Promising/troubling trend: The lack of pressure by the defense on the quarterback. After having only five pressures in the opener for an NFL-worst 10%, the Panthers didn’t have a pressure in the first half as Brady built a 21-0 lead. If they can’t fix this issue, they’ll have a lot of long days.

Pivotal play: It’s hard to say one play was pivotal here, but this one was significant. The Panthers had a third-down stop on a short pass in the first quarter in a scoreless game when first-round pick Derrick Brown came in for a late hit and unsportsmanlike penalty. Instead of forcing the Bucs to kick a field goal and gaining momentum, the Panthers gave up a touchdown on the next play thanks to a missed tackle on running back Ronald Jones by safety Juston Burris and before you know it the score was 21-0.