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Panthers’ Rhule left pondering curious 4th-down play call

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — With the game on the line and needing a first down on fourth-and-inches to keep a potential winning drive alive, the Carolina Panthers on Sunday turned to … Alex Armah?

It was a curious decision by new offensive coordinator Joe Brady to say the least, particularly given All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey was lined up a few feet behind the 255-yard fullback in the backfield. And McCaffrey was in the midst of a hugely productive second half against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Armah was stopped cold on the play and the Raiders took over on downs with 1:11 remaining, allowing them to escape Bank of America Stadium with a 34-30 victory and spoil Matt Rhule’s coaching debut with the Panthers.

When asked after the game why they didn’t put the ball in McCaffrey’s hands, Rhule conceded, “It’s a great question.”

McCaffrey had already piled up 134 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in the game, including 64 yards on 11 carries on a crucial late third-quarter drive that helped the Panthers erase a 12-point deficit and temporarily grab the lead.

“I’m not second-guessing anyone,” Rhule said. “That’s a head coach type thing. To me, that’s something I have to think about walking away from this.”

The Panthers had gone to Armah, who entered the game with 27 career yards rushing on 11 carries (and three TDs), early in the game to pick up a third-and-1.

But the Raiders weren’t fooled twice.

“At that time, inside of a yard, sort of that fullback belly quarterback sneak, that’s kind of the world we’re in,” Rhule said. “It had worked before, so we thought it would work again. When you write up who to blame for that, the only person you can blame is the head coach.”

Players weren’t ready to question the coaching staff, including McCaffrey, who last season became only the third player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.

“I don’t think it matters if I was surprised or not” by the call, said McCaffrey, who ran for 96 yards on Sunday. “Alex is a heck of a fullback and is very capable of getting that. It’s a play we have scored on before. It’s a play we run before and had success.

“Maybe they make an adjustment or don’t (on defense). All I know is we have to move on.”

Added quarterback Teddy Bridgewater: “It was a call everyone had confidence in. The Raiders make plays, too.”

For the most part, it was a solid first outing for the Panthers’ offense considering they have a new quarterback in Bridgewater, a new coaching staff, and had no preseason to iron out the kinks.

Bridgewater completed 22 of 34 passes for 270 yards and one touchdown, a 75-yard TD strike to Robby Anderson.

Carolina stumbled with two three-and-outs to open the second half, but still managed to score on six of its first eight possessions, relying mostly on short passes underneath the coverage and McCaffrey on the ground.

What impressed Bridgewater the most was that the team didn’t give up after trailing 27-15 entering the fourth quarter.

“We have a group of guys who will continue to fight,” Bridgewater said. “When things didn’t go well, nobody was dropping their chins. They have the underdog mentality and I’m excited we have this group that is going to get better.”

Rhule said there were a lot of positives to build on with a young team that is in the midst of a rebuilding process.

“They should be disappointed, but not discouraged,” Rhule said.

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