It hasn’t worked out that way.
McCaffrey was out for the 10th time in 11 games, this time with a quad injury he suffered during the bye week and aggravated in Wednesday’s practice. Okung made only his sixth start because of injuries and showed some rust.
Thomas hasn’t lived up to expectations all season.
That left Bridgewater and the offense a mere shell of what offensive coordinator Joe Brady envisioned when he took over after coaching LSU to a national title after spending two seasons with the Saints, including one with Bridgewater.
Bridgewater didn’t help his cause with three first-half sacks in which he held the ball way too long. He also took a delay-of-game penalty inside the 10 with less than six minutes remaining.
Bottom line: Bridgewater has proved he can’t carry the team without all the pieces in place. The Panthers owe it to him in the offseason to get McCaffrey healthy, sign or draft a big-time tight end and solidify the left tackle spot in free agency or the draft.
Okung at 32 probably isn’t worth a new deal despite his leadership. He left Sunday's game in the second half with a calf injury.
That doesn’t necessarily mean using a top-10 draft pick -- one that the Panthers (4-9) almost assuredly will have -- on a tackle. Carolina is closing in on having a chance at one of the top three quarterbacks, something it can’t afford to pass on with uncertainty around Bridgewater’s long-term future.
Bridgewater would be ideal to groom a player behind, and if he proves to be the “franchise quarterback" that Brady recently called him, then that’s a bonus.
But to judge whether Bridgewater can be the franchise quarterback without all the pieces around him in the final three games would be unfair to him and the organization.
Biggest hole in the game plan: Defensive discipline. The Panthers had Denver stopped on third down in the first half leading 7-6, and defensive end Brian Burns was called for roughing the passer. While it was questionable and drew a heated response from coach Matt Rhule to the official, it could have been avoided. Later in the drive, linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. was called for taunting after a big third-down hit in the red zone. That led to a touchdown on the next play. In the second half, there were big holes throughout the secondary with defenders out of position.
Promising trend: Linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn continues to put himself in position for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. After returning two fumbles for touchdown two weeks ago at Minnesota, his first NFL sack forced a fumble that Efe Obada returned 54 yards to set up a touchdown.