For anyone who was worried about last week’s game between the Cowboys and Giants being a trap game, consider it practice for this week. As the Cowboys prepare to travel east for a road game with the Panthers, owners of the worst record in football, this is the real trap game.
A year ago, the Panthers were riding things out with an interim head coach after firing Matt Rhule just five games into the season. After an extensive search (that almost ended with Kellen Moore getting the job), the Panthers settled on former Colts head coach Frank Reich, who had been controversially fired during the season as well.
Reich’s hiring was immediately praised, as he had won 40 games in five seasons with the Colts despite having a different starting quarterback every year. His prowess as the offensive play-caller earned him plenty of accolades, and Reich’s willingness to buy into football analytics meshed well with the approach of owner David Tepper. Not long after Reich was hired, the Panthers made an aggressive trade to select Bryce Young first overall, anointing him as the new franchise quarterback in Charlotte.
Fast forward to today, and things have not gone well. Nobody expected the Panthers to be competing for the playoffs this year, but things have been worse than expected. Young has struggled mightily, ranking 31st in EPA/play, which is made all the more damning by the strong play of fellow rookie C.J. Stroud.
After entering the bye at 0-6, Reich made the decision to cede play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown (who interviewed for the same role in Dallas this offseason). The Panthers would go on to win their first game with Brown in charge of the offense, beating Stroud and the Texans 15-13. The offense remained stagnant, and Young continued to struggle over the next three weeks, leading us to this week.
The Panthers understand that this is just the first year of a rebuilding effort, but Dianna Russini of The Athletic recently reported that the sense inside the building is that Reich and his staff will have to show tangible improvement over the last half of the year in order to return in 2024.
"They are having conversations about if Frank Reich is the right guy to get the best out of Bryce Young— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) November 14, 2023
...I think the only way this staff can keep their jobs is if there is significant improvement."@DMRussini and @robertmays https://t.co/kitIV9M6Dn pic.twitter.com/OrF1dwwscE
The Panthers’ backs are up against the wall, and few things are more dangerous than a desperate team with nothing to lose. Reich especially seems to be feeling the pressure, as he announced on Wednesday that he would resume play-calling duties starting this week.
Panthers' HC Frank Reich said he is resuming the team's play-calling duties, starting Sunday with Dallas.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 15, 2023
Add all of this together with the fact that this game is on the road, where the Cowboys are 2-3 this season, and taking place in the early slate of games right before a quick turnaround to play that Thanksgiving game, and it’s easy to see all the ingredients of a trap game.
In fact, the Cowboys’ last trap game was eerily similar. Heading west to face the Cardinals after two blowout wins against the New York teams, the Cowboys were considered a safe bet to beat the team many considered the worst team in football. While there were several factors that played into that game’s outcome aside from simply overlooking them, the Cowboys admitted afterwards that they did get careless with their approach.
Let’s hope they learned their lesson. The Panthers have been really bad on offense, but Reich knows how to call a good offense. For context, his first four seasons in Indianapolis saw the Colts rank 10th in EPA/play, just one spot ahead of the Cowboys over that span. And while Young has struggled in his rookie year, he was the first overall pick for a reason.
This Panthers team has the combination of talent and coaching ability to shock some teams when they put it all together; they just haven’t done that yet this year. On paper, the Cowboys should win this game easily. They’re favored by 10.5 points as the road team, and for good reason. Their offense has exploded since the bye week, and the defense has made even average quarterbacks look terrible with their relentless pass rush and opportunistic secondary.
The only way that this game isn’t a runaway win for the Cowboys is if they neglect to take this team seriously. The Panthers desperately need something to break their way, and upsetting the Cowboys would be a huge win for them. Expect the Panthers to throw the kitchen sink at Dallas and leave it all on the field. The Cowboys will have to play with the same intensity to avoid falling into the same trap that cost them in Arizona earlier this year.