Bryce Young’s first NFL game was nothing to text home about on Sunday.
The Carolina Panthers lost Young’s rookie debut, 24-10, in a sloppy season opener on the road against the Atlanta Falcons that reminded everyone just how far the Panthers still have to go.
Young threw two remarkably similar interceptions, both to nearly the same spot and to the same Falcons player (safety Jessie Bates III). Those pickoffs gave the Falcons short fields and led to the first 10 Atlanta points for a Falcons offense that was dominated by Brian Burns and the Carolina defense for a decent part of the afternoon.
But with the Panthers playing a mistake-filled, grind-it-out offense that had no explosive plays to speak of from the passing game, the turnover differential was the killer. The Panthers led 10-7 in the third quarter, but Atlanta scored the game’s final 17 points.
Young used a number of phrases about his performance after the game: “Not good,” “unacceptable,” “critical mistakes,” “crucial turnovers” and “a poor job taking care of the ball” among them.
Bryce Young on his two INTs. pic.twitter.com/ZAmI6KdkRz
— Scott Fowler (@scott_fowler) September 10, 2023
“It’s tough in the moment,” Young said. “But eventually, as a team, we’ll get better.”
“Disappointing that we lost, and there are multiple reasons for that,” Panthers head coach Frank Reich said. “Obviously, we’ve got to protect the football.”
Bates, the Falcons’ veteran safety who was one of Atlanta’s high-profile free-agent acquisitions in March, told reporters after the game he had a hunch what the Panthers were going to do with Young. Several times, Bates said he knew the Panthers with Young directing the offense liked to throw digs, with receivers slanting on quick routes into the middle of the field.
“I feel like I had a good feel for what they wanted to do today, (knowing) that they had to get him comfortable,” Bates said during his media availability with Atlanta-based reporters. “They wanted to get the ball out quick. Keep the ball inside the hashes. So yeah, I kind of took advantage of that today.”
Bates also praised Young but also basically said he was... well... Young.
“I remember playing my first game,” Bates said. “I can only imagine what it’s like for a quarterback playing his first game. That’s a lot of pressure. You want to get in a rhythm and get that feel and, honestly, I feel like we had a good jump on him today.
“I’m sure he’ll be a really good quarterback in this league, but today we got the best of him.”
The loss wasn’t all Young’s fault by any means, although he did miss an open deep ball to wide receiver Jonathan Mingo in the fourth quarter that might have been a 99-yard touchdown and at least would have been a 40-yard gain if Young hadn’t overthrown it. “That’s a miss,” Young said. “Unacceptable from my standpoint.”
But apart from Mingo’s nice burst on that play, the Panthers’ receiving corps, as feared, often failed to produce any separation whatsoever. Young’s longest pass completion went for only 14 yards.
The Panthers ran the ball decently, but throwing for 146 yards in most NFL games simply isn’t going to cut it. Young’s final stats: 20-for-38 passing for 146 yards, one TD and those two interceptions.
“He handled himself great,” Reich said of Young. “He was in complete control. ... Bryce is the last person I’m worried about, you know, as to how he’ll handle this.”
The first 17 Atlanta points came off turnovers from the Panthers’ struggling offense, which added a third turnover in the third quarter that wasn’t Young’s fault. That one came on a fumble by running back Miles Sanders — again caused by Bates, who was undoubtedly the key player in this game. Atlanta had zero turnovers.
After that recovery, the Falcons scored again, taking a 17-10 lead with 14:12 to go.
Asked several times after the game what had happened on the interceptions, Young gave a more in-depth explanation the third time around. Young said his exact mistake was “knowing the (Atlanta) coverage, and making an assumption based off of the coverage and not double-checking and making sure that I see where people are.”
In other words, Young saw what he thought the Falcons were playing, and assumed where everyone on the team would be based on the team’s study of the Falcons’ tendencies.
Continued Young: The safety, Jessie (Bates), did a great job on both, playing over the middle and playing low…. You can’t just make assumptions… That’s on me. It’s something to learn from… But it doesn’t excuse the fact that it happened and it was a huge, big reason why we’re not happy after this game.”
Operating almost exclusively from the shotgun throughout the game, Young had a spotty start that was emblematic of the game. He completed his first three NFL passes — all short throws — on a good first drive. But he also fumbled an exchange on that drive, which he recovered. Carolina ended up with no points when it was unable to convert on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 runs at the Atlanta 11.
“That hurt,” Reich said.
Young soon made his first costly NFL mistake on his fourth career pass. Trying to fit the ball into a tight window over the middle inside his own 20 to tight end Hayden Hurst, Young was picked off by Bates. That interception led to seven points, as Atlanta rookie running back Bijan Robinson broke three tackles and scored on an 11-yard pass for the Falcons to take a 7-0 lead.
Young would rebound later in the second quarter, though, directing the Panthers on a 12-play, 75-yard march in which he made several critical throws. Helped by nice protection, Young converted on a third-and-2 over the middle to Hurst and then threw a gorgeous sideline ball to fellow rookie Mingo to pick up 9 yards on third-and-8. The Panthers continued to steadily move the ball downfield until, on second-and-goal from the Atlanta 4, Young found Hurst again on the right sideline.
Hurst dodged the tackle of Atlanta’s Richie Grant and stepped into the corner of the end zone, slinging the ball into the stands after the tying score (Young intimated after the game that someone was getting the ball returned to him). It stayed 7-7 for the rest of the first half. But Atlanta pulled away in the second half, fueled by Carolina’s mistakes.
No. 1 overall picks at quarterbacks were 0-13-1 in their first NFL start over the past 20 years. Cam Newton was among the number of No. 1 picks who lost, in 2011, although he had a spectacular debut, throwing for 422 yards (which would be Newton’s second-highest total of his career) in a 28-21 loss to Arizona.
Young’s debut wasn’t nearly as yardage-centric nor as exciting, but the ultimate result was identical. Make it 0-14-1 for rookie No. 1 overall picks at QB, and make no mistake: These Panthers have a lot of work to do.
“We’ve got all the confidence in the world in No. 9,” Sanders said of Young, “and we’re just going to keep grinding.”
“From my standpoint, I’m going to try and learn from this,” Young said. “It sucks to be on this side, but you try to turn the page and use it as fuel.”