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Slept On Sports: The 20-Play Drive that Ended with a Punt

There’s a Jon Bois video that I love (to be fair, I love all Jon Bois videos) called “The search for the saddest punt in the world,” where Jon creates a formula to calculate the NFL’s most cowardly punts of the 21st century. These are the times where teams punt in situations where it seems clearly better to either kick a field goal or just go for it on 4th down.

For example, if a team is down one point in the fourth quarter and decides to punt on a 4th-and-2 from their opponent’s 35-yard line, that’s a pretty cowardly punt that’s actively hurting the team’s chances of winning the game.

The video is full of punts like that. There’s only one problem. Calling a video “The search for the saddest punt in the world” and turning it into a mission to find the most cowardly punts assumes that the saddest punts are cowardly.

Now, there are plenty of sad, cowardly punts. At some level, it’s crazy that in a sport where each possession is so valuable, teams choose to kick the ball to the other team about four or five times per game in the first place.

But there are situations where a mathematically correct punt can be sadder and even more depressing than a cowardly one, and the punt I’m about to share with you is the worst of them all.

According to Stathead’s Drive Finder tool, there have been 18 drives of at least 20 plays in the NFL since 2001. Five of them were touchdown drives. Nine ended with field goal attempts. Three times, the offensive team turned the ball over on downs inside the 10-yard line. All 17 of these drives ended in the red zone. And then, there’s a 20-play drive from 2016 that ended with the Panthers punting from their opponents’ 40.

That’s right. A 20-play drive that ended with a punt.

This national tragedy took place during the Panthers’ Week 10 home game against the Chiefs. This was an important game for the Panthers. After starting the season just 1–5, Carolina won games against the Cardinals and Rams following their bye week to get back to 3–5.

But while neither of their previous opponents entered those games above .500, the 6–2 Chiefs were a different story. If the Panthers were serious about saving their season and getting back into the playoff picture, this would be a huge game for them to win.

But wait — a team couldn’t start 1–5 and make the playoffs, right? Try telling that to the Chiefs. From 1990 (the first year of the NFL’s 12-game playoff format) through the 2015 season, only one of the 92 teams that started 1–5 ended up making the playoffs, but that team was the 2015 Chiefs, who won their final 10 games of the regular season to make the playoffs at 11–5.

And it’s not as if this Panthers team was incapable of making a run. The previous season, they won their first 14 games of the season, finished 15–1, had the league MVP in Cam Newton, and went all the way to the Super Bowl. Carolina’s playoff hopes were very much alive.

Things were going as well as the Panthers could hope for, as they led 17–3 at halftime against the 6–2 Chiefs. The Chiefs punted on their opening possession of the second half, and the Panthers got the ball on their own 9 for the 20-play drive in question.

Carolina opened the drive with three consecutive 3rd-down conversions and ran their 12th play of the drive from midfield. They converted a 4th-down on the 13th play of the drive and another 3rd-down on the 16th play of the drive. More than seven and a half minutes had passed by the time the Panthers ran their 1st-and-10 play from the KC 31. Cam Newton then completed an 11-yard pass to Devin Funchess, the first time Carolina had needed fewer than 3 plays to move the sticks on the drive.

It was now 1st & 10 from the Chiefs’ 20. Would the Panthers be able to cap off this clock-eating drive with a touchdown, or would they settle for a field goal to make it a three-possession game? As it turned out, the answer was neither.

First, a Cam Newton run was tackled for a one-yard loss. Newton was then sacked on both 2nd and 3rd-down, setting up a 4th-and-30 from the Chiefs’ 40.

At this point, the Panthers had two options: punt, or send Graham Gano out for a very deep field goal. Gano’s career-long at this point was a 59-yarder and he’s hit from as deep as 63 since, but considering the Chiefs had scored just three points on their first six drives and a missed field goal would give the Chiefs the ball near midfield, you can’t really blame the Panthers for punting here.

Punter Andy Lee had suffered a hamstring injury earlier in the game, so Gano served as the punter. Ideally, the Panthers would want to down the ball inside of the 10-yard line. Instead, the ball went into the end zone for a touchback.

Let’s recap. Just a few plays earlier, the Panthers had 1st-and-10 at the KC 20. They then lost 20 yards and punted. After the touchback, the Chiefs had 1st-and-10 from the exact same spot, their own 20-yard line.

In theory, the Panthers were still completely in control of the game. According to ESPN, the Panthers still had a 95.8% chance to win after the punt, with just seconds remaining in the 3rd quarter. However, the Panthers somehow managed to completely blow the game, losing in regulation without allowing an offensive touchdown.

First, the Chiefs scored a field goal to cut the deficit to 17–6. Then, Eric Berry intercepted a Cam Newton pass and took it to the end zone for a pick-six. The Chiefs went for two, and Alex Smith completed the pass to Travis Kelce to make it a 17–14 ballgame. The Panthers punted on their next drive, and the Chiefs kicked another field goal to tie things up with 4:25 left to play.

With opportunities to drive and win the game, both teams punted. The Panthers got the ball back with 29 seconds left on their own 20. Carolina had one last chance to make something happen quickly and win the game in regulation.

On their first play, Newton completed a pass to Kelvin Benjamin, but Marcus Peters stripped and recovered the ball, setting the Chiefs up in prime position. Just a few plays later, Cairo Santos drilled a game-winning field goal as time expired. 20–17 Chiefs.

The Panthers had all the momentum in the world coming out of their bye and looked well on their way to winning a third-straight game. They had a 14-point lead late in the third quarter against the eventual 2-seed in the AFC and seemed primed to make it a three-score game. Instead, a drive lasting 20 plays that took 10:08 off the clock ended with two sacks and a punt.

Carolina lost the game, dropped to 3–6, and finished the season 6–10, a nine-win dropoff from the previous season. It goes without saying that they missed the postseason.

Sure, some punts are cowardly. But the Panthers’ inability to at least attempt a field goal after reaching the Chiefs’ 20, along with how they subsequently let a comfortable lead in an important game slip through their fingers, was downright demoralizing. For my money, that’s the real saddest punt.

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Connor Groel

Sportswriter. Researcher @NFL. Host of the Slept On Sports podcast. Relentlessly curious. My book: amzn.to/398nYk6.