All for 89 yards? Really? Eighty. Nine. Yards?
Panthers coach Matt Rhule challenged Sam Darnold to rush for 89 yards in last week's win over the Falcons. The reason why? Unclear.
He didn't get there. On his final carry, Darnold was concussed and knocked from the game. Now he might be out for Sunday's matchup with the Patriots. Fresh off of ending his team's four-game losing streak.
Because ... 89 yards?
"We have little keys to victory every week," Rhule said Sunday, "and one of the challenges to him this week was to run for 89 yards, and he ran for 66."
Maybe Rhule wanted Darnold to set a new career-high in rushing yards for a single game. (He ran for 84 yards in a game last season for the Jets.) Maybe Rhule wanted to commemorate the year in which Todd Marinovich set the record for passing touchdowns by a freshman at USC, 1989, because Darnold beat that record in 2016.
Anyone's guess, really. But after his eighth carry, his day was over.
"I didn't see it," Rhule added. "I didn't see, really, what happened. I thought it was an excellent called game and more importantly, guys made a lot of plays. And Sam I thought was excellent today."
Darnold was not excellent.
He was fine. The Panthers won a division game. He wasn't sacked. But Rhule was a little heavy on the praise considering Darnold completed 13 passes on 24 attempts for 129 yards -- good for a 5.4 yards per attempt figure. He threw no touchdowns and no interceptions, and he had a rating of 69.6.
Relative to his previous three games, when he posted a two-to-five touchdown-to-interception ratio and was sacked 10 times, Darnold was good. But the bar was low.
Since starting the season 3-0, Darnold has been arguably the league's worst quarterback. Out of 30 qualifying passers, he boasts the worst completion percentage (58.5), the lowest completion percentage over expectation (-8.9) and the third-lowest expected points added per play figure (-0.106).
And now, thanks to a seemingly-arbitrary rush yardage goal proposed by the team's head coach for the team's only semi-viable quarterback on the roster, the bar could be lowered even further.
Darnold practiced on Wednesday and was limited, meaning it was PJ Walker who took snaps with the team's starters.
The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Walker has seen snaps in seven games over the last two seasons, completing 49.3 percent of his passes at a clip of 5.6 yards per attempt. He's thrown five interceptions against one touchdown. He has a career rating of 42.0.
Walker could bring something in the running game because of his athleticism, Bill Belichick acknowledged Wednesday.
"I’d say, athletically, they’re quite different, but both (Walker and Darnold) have a strong arm," Belichick said. "Walker’s got a good deep ball. He’s quick, active in the pocket. Sam is too, but I’d say Walker has some ability to escape. But he can definitely throw the ball. Lot of long plays down the field, throwing the ball well in preseason and in a couple of games he played last year. Debrief for both guys and then whoever’s next. If Darnold can’t play, I guess it’d be [James] Morgan as the backup."
Rhule seems to be a do-what-we-do kind of coach, the antithesis of the game-plan-oriented Patriots. A few weeks ago, Rhule said his goal was for the Panthers offense to hit "55 or 56" rushing attempts and completions combined weekly. He got there against the Falcons, with his team completing just 13 passes but rushing a whopping 47 times in a 19-13 victory.
Confirmation of a sound plan, or something else?
It's an odd approach to coaching logic when compared to other barometers of success, like third-down efficiency or converting in the red zone. Accumulating a certain number of yards per play or a particular EPA per play would seem to correlate more to on-the-field success than a formula limited to "rush attempts plus completions."
For instance, what does Rhule's rule of "55 or 56" mean in terms of yards? Forty rushes at 3.9 yards per attempt (Carolina's 2021 average) and 16 completions at 10.9 yards per connection (Carolina's 2021 average) is a far different total than the reverse. But either one would be good enough to win?
More importantly, what does the rule of "55 or 56" mean in terms of points if his team has 10 drives that last 12 plays and none result in touchdowns?
Maybe hitting "55 or 56" would say something in terms of time of possession. Maybe it would imply there has been third-down success for a team to run that many plays.
But what if the opposition takes away the run game by putting eight in the box on a consistent basis? In that situation, a quarterback would have to approach 35 or 40 completions for the Panthers to win?
Rhule has an identity he's clearly been trying to establish over the course of the last month. He articulated it clearly after an overtime loss to the Vikings in mid-October.
"We ran the ball well, we just have not been committed enough to running it," he said. "And that's going to change, I can tell you right now. You'll see a vastly different look from us moving forward. We're not going to line up and drop back and throw it 40 times a game and think that's going to win the game for us. It hasn't ... So we're going to redefine who we are. We're going to run the football, and we're going to protect our quarterback, and we're not going to turn the ball over anymore. And that's the only way that we're going to win."
With Walker potentially behind center this coming weekend, the rushing attempt total would figure to make up a large percentage of Rhule's "55 or 56."
It's a tough position for Rhule and the Panthers this week, if they're without Darnold.
Relentlessly run when the team averages less than 4.0 yards per carry? Or put the ball in the hands of a fifth-year quarterback with seven total games and a season with the XFL's Houston Roughnecks under his belt?
But it's a position in which they could find themselves this week because ... a pursuit of 89 yards? En route to "55 or 56?" Looks that way.
If Christian McCaffrey can play, the Panthers will have one of the most talented offensive weapons in football on their side. They have a defense that ranks in the NFL's top 10 in yards allowed per game (2nd), pass yards allowed per game (2nd), third-down percentage (3rd), sacks (4th) and points (5th).
But based on some of the calculus being done Carolina, the coaching edge Sunday seems to favor the Patriots. Decidedly.