In Matt Rhule's first NFL game, the coach left Carolina Panthers fans scratching their heads.
Trailing 34-30 to the Las Vegas Raiders with 1:23 left in the game, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-1 on their opponent's 46-yard-line. With two timeouts remaining, a conversion would have put Carolina in a prime spot to swipe a home win to open the season.
Despite having the NFL's highest-paid running back at his disposal, Rhule chose not to hand the ball to his best player, Christian McCaffrey. Instead, fullback Alex Armah got the handoff and was stuffed. Ballgame.
Rhule was asked after the tilt why he didn't give his top player the handoff in that situation.
"It is a great question," Rhule said. "I'm not second-guessing anyone. That's a head coach decision type thing. To me, that's something I have to think about walking away from this. But we have confidence in all of our players. We have confidence in our plays and that inside of a yard, that sort of fullback belly/quarterback sneak, that's kind of the world we are in. It had worked before so we thought it would work again. I think when you write up who to blame for that, I think the one person you can blame is the head coach."
Perhaps Rhule anticipated blame being pointed at first-time pro-OC Joe Brady, but the head coach always shoulders the blame in these situations in the NFL. The finger, in this case, was always going to be pointed at Rhule.
The situation was simply a product of coaches overthinking the situation. You need a yard in the biggest spot, let your top players win you the game. Don't hand the ball to a player that played a total of 8 snaps all game. If not CMC, then at least a Teddy Bridgewater sneak could have been defendable. A fullback dive in that spot is near the bottom of the list of ideal play calls.
After the Raiders retook the lead with a Josh Jacobs TD with a shade over four minutes left, it was McCaffrey who put the Panthers in a situation to continue the drive in Vegas territory. The running back had toted the rock on the previous four plays, compiling 24 yards, including a 15-yard gallop. With a Raiders timeout coming before the crucial fourth down, fatigue shouldn't have been a consideration.
McCaffrey should have been given a chance to move the chains. The rookie coaching staff botched it. The hope is that the lesson was learned and it doesn't happen down the road.