DAN BICKLEY

Belief in Cardinals difficult to find after another convincing defeat

Oct 4, 2020, 2:50 PM | Updated: 2:51 pm

Tahir Whitehead #52 and Jermaine Carter #56 of the Carolina Panthers react after stopping  DeAndre ...

Tahir Whitehead #52 and Jermaine Carter #56 of the Carolina Panthers react after stopping DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of their game at Bank of America Stadium on October 04, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers won 31-21. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

It’s too early for rash behavior and knee-jerk reactions. It’s not the time for pink slips and scapegoats. This is not the moment you fire Vance Joseph, even if that day seems inevitable.

But the Cardinals lost big on Sunday. They lost hard. They lost a lot.

They lost the confidence of the national media and the fuzzy buzz of the local diehards. They were physically pounded by a rebuilding Carolina team with a rookie head coach. They lost to a team missing Christian McCaffrey, arguably the best offensive weapon in the NFL.

Panthers 31, Cardinals 21. It was even worse than it looks on paper.

It was a brutal blow to our budding expectations in Arizona, along with our delusions of grandeur. The carnage was everywhere:

Two years ago, Matt Rhule apologized to Kliff Kingsbury for beating him in a Big 12 game that got the Texas Tech head coach fired from his alma mater. On Sunday, Rhule was even better prepared for the formations and distractions that come with a Kingsbury offense.

Blowout, Panthers.

Their offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, joined Carolina before the 2020 season, after installing and executing a championship offense for Joe Burrow at LSU. On Sunday, he destroyed Joseph with 29 first downs, rolling out an offense that exploited all of the Cardinals’ weak spots.

Blowout, Panthers.

Their running back, Mike Davis, was subbing for McCaffrey on Sunday. He ran like a rodeo bull on Red Bull, once tackled in the secondary by Chandler Jones because none of Arizona’s defensive backs wanted any part of him. And he was better than Kenyan Drake, who kept running to the edge, for the sidelines, just like David Johnson once did.

Blowout, Panthers.

Their quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, is a bridge to another era. He’s a backup signed by Carolina after Cam Newton was no longer economically feasible. He, too, was better than his counterpart on Sunday.

To be clear: Kyler Murray remains a scintillating player, a reason for optimism and a reason to watch. His 49-yard run late in Sunday’s game was a reminder of how he can instantly tilt a playing field. He also showed a lot of toughness, absorbing serious punishment in the pocket and earning that butterfly bandage on his chin.

But he still can’t beat a team by throwing the ball downfield. Until he does, the burden of proof will fall on the shoulders of Murray and Kingsbury.

“We have to have a better plan, starting with me,” Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury’s accountability is admirable, but the postgame apologies are happening far too often. Especially for an offensive guru 20 games into his NFL tenure. The addition of DeAndre Hopkins should’ve made this offense unstoppable.

To the contrary, it remains stagnant. The only consistent positives are Murray’s legs and Hopkins’ hands.

“No time to panic,” Murray said of the offense. “Just be better.”

The clock is ticking. The Cardinals’ sense of urgency was pitifully poor on Sunday, especially for a road game on the East coast. Murray noticed the entire team seemed, “sluggish,” and that’s worrisome for a team struggling to keep pace in the NFC West. A team that had just lost to the Lions at home.

The Cardinals offense needed to dominate this game, compensating for injuries and limitations on defense. They didn’t. And on cue, this game featured all of the defense’s not-so-greatest hits: Twelve men on the field. Ten men on the field. A defense coordinator who is not coordinating anything, a unit that has reps for Curtis Riley but can’t make Isaiah Simmons look good for even one play.

In two weeks, our NFL team has fallen from a Top 10 team in most power rankings to a 10-loss contender looking at a Top 10 draft pick. And on Sunday, the Panthers made it look easy.

As for Joseph, the beleaguered defensive coordinator:

You can’t fire him now. You can’t introduce that kind of variable and desperation before a winnable game against the Jets. But if things don’t get better, there’s a bye week slotted after an Oct. 25 game against Russell Wilson’s Seahawks. They might need a scapegoat after that one.

“We’re 2-2 (after) the first quarter of the season,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “I don’t believe there’s any reason to panic.”

Yup, no reason for panic. But reason to believe?

After Sunday’s game, we’re going to need a flashlight.

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