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Monday Morning Optimist: Burns and McCaffrey align to give the Panthers an identity in Newton’s absence

The Panthers proved they are good enough to win in spite of mistakes. That's new.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It has been a long time since the Panthers have been able to win a game in spite of a single mistake, let alone an avalanche of them. I’m honestly not sure I can point to a single squad in their 25 year history with the ability to overcome three missed kicks and a series of untimely penalties in a one possession game.

These Panthers did it against a legitimately threatening team in the Jacksonville Jaguars and while missing big names on both sides of the ball. They did it in the most Panthers way imaginable, running for 285 yards and scoring on defense.

All told, it was their most mixed performance yet—in a game that saw the team’s first opening drive this season that didn’t end with a turnover—and it still came home as a win. They are now sitting at 3-2, one game back in the NFC South, and facing a huge divisional game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London next week.

Brian Burns and Christian McCaffrey have proven capable of willing the Panthers to victory through the past two weeks. That won’t work for a whole season. No one player can be an entire unit, but it may be enough to keep the team afloat until Cam Newton’s promised return.

Burns had by far the most tumultuous day for the Panthers, with another sack, a highlight reel fumble returned 56 yards for a touchdown, and a bevy of penalties that kept multiple Jaguars’ drives alive. Three-and-a-half sacks, two partially blocked punts, and that touchdown through his first five games are more than worth the occasional roughing the passer or offsides penalty. It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that he is still only a rookie.

His wrist will be a story to watch in the coming weeks. He played yesterday with a large cast over his wrist and missed time in the game after apparently aggravating that same wrist. He appeared to be in significant pain, but he did also return to the game. The Panthers can ill afford for him to lose any time given how their current injury report is already in post-season form.

The only controversy in McCaffrey’s performance, on the other hand, came when his cramps scared the hope out of all of us. His versatility had, as it so often has, proven to be the Panthers only source of offense for most of the afternoon. He is fortunate that his only injury in the game was a mild and temporary one.

Bonnafon, to his credit, proved his worth late in the fourth quarter once he finally, legitimately saw the field in relief of McCaffrey. His first carry was a 59 yard touchdown run that looked, frankly, McCaffrey-esque. His next carry, on first down of the following possession, was an 18 yard run that helped keep the clock moving.

The Panthers have a backup running back who is both worth touches in the running game and capable of pacing McCaffrey to keep his legs fresh for a full game. It is too early to tell if Bonnafon is a bonafide stud, but he’s enough to maybe save the tread on McCaffrey’s tires. That’s all fans can hope for as the current indications from the coaching staff are that McCaffrey’s share of touches will keep their iron grip on him for the foreseeable future. Head coach Ron Rivera, who is famously not a doctor, only had one comment on McCaffrey’s usage during his post game presser. He said that McCaffrey would be getting lots of rest during the week. Fingers crossed they see the value of resting somebody during a game, as well, when trying to prevent cramps again.

The rest of the game was as mixed for the rest of the team. Eric Reid and James Bradberry made a number of great plays to buoy the play of an ailing secondary that was otherwise shredded by D.J. Chark’s elite speed. Kyle Allen didn’t technically turn the ball over, and that’s about all I really can say positively about his performance. A lucky penalty that negated his first professional interception and two lucky bounces left the Panthers with enough room to win just as they made it clear how much room he still has to improve.

What is clear is that the Panthers have learned how they have to play if they want to win without a healthy Newton at quarterback. The offense runs through McCaffrey, for better or worse. The next step is learning to balance him as an engine with him as a human with physical limits. The defense is more of a group effort whose splash plays are provided by the rookie Burns. Their next step is just getting healthy.

That model will likely have to sustain the Panthers through at least one more game. It is possible, however unlikely, for Newton to return against the Buccaneers in London, but the more cautious and prudent course would be for him to rest and heal through the bye week and return, at the earliest, against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 8. The Panthers two biggest remaining stars have aligned to give the team an identity. The question before them is whether or not they can hold true to that for at least one more win—their first against a division rival.