Talk about a season quickly riding off the rails. After losing three of their first four games, Carolina Panthers coach Matt Ruhle is already answering questions about his job security and if Baker Mayfield will remain his quarterback going forward.
The answers Monday, a day after the Panthers fell to 1-3 after a 26-16 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals, were about what you’d expect as Carolina begins preparation for another home game Sunday against the 49ers.
Rhule sidestepped a question about his job security.
“If I make it about me I’m not the coach I want to be,” Rhule told reporters. “It’s always about the players. It’s always about the team. We’re 1-3. We’ve had some close ballgames. It just wasn’t good enough last night. As head coach, I’ll stand up first, put it on my shoulders.”
As for Mayfield, acquired from Cleveland after the Browns pledged their future to Deshaun Watson despite a scandal involving sexual misconduct toward numerous massage therapists, Rhule said the quarterback’s job is secure.
That’s because Sam Darnold, who started 11 games a year ago, is still at least a week away from being active and then will need time to get his rhythm back after an ankle injury put him on injured reserve.
“Baker’s our quarterback,” Rhule said. “We have to continue to find ways to help him. Sam’s not cleared right now.”
It’s been a home-field disadvantage so far, with what was left of the home crowd chanting “Fire Matt Rhule!” and booing the Panthers off the field after a tipped Mayfield interception.
Mayfield, a shade under 6-foot-1, had five tipped balls, two interceptions and a fumble against Arizona and former Oklahoma teammate and fellow Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. He took a defiant tone at the podium after the loss.
“Obviously I’m frustrated about the fact that we’re 1-3,” Mayfield told reporters. “That’s it, though. We’re four weeks into the year. We can sit here and let you guys pile on us or we’re gonna come together as a locker room. That’s exactly how we’re gonna handle it. I don’t really care about the fact that our fans are booing or what’s going on. We’re going to figure it out and when we win it’ll still be just us in the locker room and that’s all I care about. So we’re going to be just fine.”
Rhule, in his third season, is 11-26 and could be the first coach fired this season. Darnold could reassume the starting job as soon as he’s healthy.
Other than that, everything’s fine in Carolina with the 49ers coming to town.
GAME ESSENTIALS: 49ers (2-2) vs. Panthers (1-3) at Bank of America Stadium, 10:05 a.m., CBS. ODDS: 49ers (-5)
THREE REASONS FOR 49ERS OPTIMISM
A dominant roster in terms of talent
The roster talent simply isn’t comparable. While NFL.com’s list of the top 100 players is hardly the be-all and end-all of assessing the best players in the league, the 49ers had seven players on the list and five are active: wide receiver Deebo Samuel (No. 19), tight end George Kittle (No. 22), edge rusher Nick Bosa (No. 25), linebacker Fred Warner (No. 47) and fullback Kyle Jusczcyk (No. 100).
Two are on the inactive list — left tackle Trent Williams (No. 14) and safety Jimmie Ward (No. 96). Ward could return to practice this week but the 49ers don’t have a need to rush him onto the field the way Tashaun Gipson is playing at free safety along with strong safety Talanoa Hufanga.
Carolina had just one player on the list — Brian Burns, an edge rusher who has three sacks, five quarterback hits and five tackles for losses in four games.
The 49ers played somewhere close to their potential in a 24-9 win over the Los Angeles Rams Monday night, particularly on defense.
The stars have come out
Deebo Samuel looks on the verge of breaking out into one of those one-big-play-per-game streaks that were so familiar a year ago. He caught six passes for 116 yards and turned a basic pass to the left flat into a 57-yard touchdown.
Nick Bosa had two more sacks and looks primed for 20. Charvarius “Mooney” Ward looks like a legit free agent signing who should elevate the defense to something more than it was a year ago. And it was pretty good a year ago.
Finding the Jimmy G formula
The Rams have a way of reminding the 49ers who they are. At least they do with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.
And it’s conceivable the 49ers discovered that earlier this season as opposed to Week 10 against the Rams last season. Enough balance so that Garoppolo isn’t carrying the team with his arm. Leaning heavily on what be the NFL’s best defense. Put Samuel in position to be a difference maker.
THREE REASONS FOR 49ERS PESSIMISM
Underachieving on the road
The 49ers have already shown a propensity to be playing down to their opposition on the road.
A 19-10 loss to the Chicago Bears and an 11-10 defeat against the Denver Broncos were games the 49ers could have and should have won. The offense was awful in both games, the first with Trey Lance operating in a monsoon and Garoppolo fading badly in the second half in Denver.
“We had a lot of fun yesterday and last night. That was a big win for us, but how quickly you have to move on because we’re already behind schedule,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Tuesday. “We came in this morning really, I’ve already moved on. Finishing everything up last night and it’s been Carolina all day just having to sidetrack it for this press conference for a little bit.”
Eastern swing on a short week
Fortunately for the 49ers, they were spared the dreaded 10 a.m. kickoff in terms of their body clocks, but it’s still an East Coast swing against a desperate opponent on a short week following an emotion-charged win over the Rams.
Try as he might, it will be difficult for Bosa to convince the 49ers to have that championship-game intensity as was his message before the Monday night win. A slow start could mean trouble, because in the NFL, pretty much any team that finds itself in a game unexpectedly at halftime can occasionally pull off an unlikely win.
The 49ers, with a road game against Atlanta in the 10 a.m. slot coming up the week after Carolina, will stay on the East Coast and practice in West Virginia rather than return home after the Panthers game. That will help them against the Falcons but will have no effect against Carolina.
Mix-and-match offensive line
Burns is one of the NFL’s better pass rushers, and although the 49ers’ line held up well against the Rams, that was before the home crowd. As Shanahan has explained, home-field advantage is bigger in the NFL than other sports because it gives a team the chance to beat its opponent off the snap.
Williams is already out with a high ankle sprain. His replacement, Colton McKivitz, is out a couple of months with an MCL sprain. He’ll be replaced by either Jaylon Moore or Daniel Brunskill.
A subpar performance by the offensive line could help create another stall for a so-so offense.
PROBABLE DIFFERENCE-MAKER: RB Christian McCaffrey
McCaffrey had one of the best seasons any dual-threat running back has ever had in 2019 — 1,387 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns on the ground, 116 receptions for 1,005 yards and four scores as a receiver. The Stanford product hasn’t been the same since because of ankle, shoulder, thigh, hamstring and quadriceps injuries over the 2020 and 2021 seasons. With 270 yards on 58 carries and 19 receptions for 138 yards this season, McCaffrey is still a dangerous player and a difficult matchup whether in the slot or coming out of the backfield as a receiver.