The Carolina Panthers managed to put a new twist on the lop-sided style of loss they pioneered against the San Francisco 49ers. This time they proved to just be kind of boring in a home no-show against division rival. The team allowed touchdowns on both defense and special teams while failing to respond on offense. The result—or even nature of the final 29-3 final score—was never in doubt following the first few series. Don’t worry, the optimism is coming.
This game, and the press conferences afterwards, gave us new clarity on a few things. The sad things is that none of that clarity is going to provide renewed hope for the 2019 season. For any Panthers fans holding onto hope for the playoffs this year, now is probably the time to let that go. At 5-5, the team is firmly out of the wildcard picture and would require some obscenely generous favors from the New Orleans Saints to see itself in the divisional picture. As it stands today, the Panthers could sweep New Orleans on their way to winning out their schedule and still not make the playoffs.
The focus now has to be on what happens in the off season. The 2019 season isn’t over, by any means. There can still be fun. We can still spoil the Saints season to some degree. Christian McCaffrey can still do amazing things that make us happy on any given Sunday. It’s just that responsible analysis of this season has to be in the context of what changes need to occur between now and September 2020 for the Panthers to be a relevant part of the NFL. That means talking about the future of Ron Rivera and Marty Hurney. That means analyzing what options the team has at the quarterback position. And, yes, that means talking about the draft (but not today).
What is the value of a mistake?
I can only point to one strategic error in the Panthers game plan. They thought Kyle Allen throwing the ball at the top of a seven step drop, often looking deep, was wise. Allen is notorious now for three things: inaccuracy throwing deep, a willingness to take sacks, and a propensity to fumble under pressure. These things aren’t Allen’s fault. He is being asked to do things on a football field that do not fit his—or his team’s—talents. The fault behind this mistake lies with the coaching staff who asked their square peg to defy his geometric destiny.
The game plan was ostensibly disrupted by the offensive line taking a nap on the Falcon’s train tracks in the first half. The adjustment to this was to irresponsibly allow Daryl Williams to see snaps at right tackle in place of healthy, if struggling, Taylor Moton. Two drive killing sacks later and the Panthers coaches realized they had blundered again.
Ron Rivera with the inspirational message of the day:— Alaina Getzenberg (@agetzenberg) November 17, 2019
"You make mistakes. People make mistakes. That's life. You are going to make mistakes in life. Are you living life to the fullest? Are we playing football to the fullest? Sure seemed like it."
Take a deep breath after reading that quote. Maybe take two. Or a walk. It’s OK to be upset when you finally confront the fact that the person most responsible for the performance of your favorite sports team has no respect for you or the time you put into that team. It’s either that Rivera has stopped engaging with reality. Neither are positive signs for his team.
Either way, you still might want to take that walk. The wonderful thing about the internet is that this column isn’t going anywhere. Once you come back we can talk about mistakes.
The evidence suggesting Allen shouldn’t take deep shots on long developing plays existed long before they asked him to try that again this week. The evidence that Williams is now a fine guard but an absolute liability at tackle was straight gospel for weeks before Moton had a bad series.
The value of mistake can be quantified in one of two ways: either by what you learn from them or by how your opponents take advantage of them. For mistakes whose lessons are well-established, their only benefit is to opponents.
Head coach Ron Rivera has moved on from talking about missed opportunities to acknowledging the vague concept of ‘mistakes,’ but that doesn’t approach actually learning from them. What is the point of that if nobody takes responsibility?
Rivera missed his opportunities to learn from mistakes this season. His performance and attitude are giving owner David Tepper ample opportunity to prove to the Panthers that he won’t do the same.
The Panthers aren’t interested in a veteran quarterback at this time
Allen had a bad game. This is notably different from him being a bad person. As discussed above, his strengths and weaknesses leave him with a limited range of opportunities in the NFL. His best one is as an above-average back up quarterback. That’s a pretty good gig, but it is also a ceiling that is not terribly useful for the Carolina Panthers, who are in need of a long term starter at quarterback.
While the Panthers have no interest in looking at a veteran quarterback who has taken a team to the Super Bowl, they are going to have to start showing interest in something. Inaction on their part leading up to the draft will be indicative of their intention to let the currently injured Cam Newton play out his contract. That will give the Panthers time to decide what is next on just about every front-side level of their organization. It will also give Cam the opportunity to prove if he can return to form after a series of unrelated injuries.
If that is their plan then they might as well say so now so that people can stop wringing their hands or, reportedly, chanting at Tepper in Charlotte-area bars. A simple statement now will save whoever is answering questions for the Panthers months of repetition.
Cat Scratch Reader has been a blog that is unabashedly in favor of seeing what Cam has left. His salary next season is a below average starting quarterback salary and he is inarguably the best player in franchise history. Short of a career-ending diagnosis, not giving Cam a second chance is foolish given the MVP-caliber returns from his first one.
The Panthers on field product isn’t actually awful
I saved this bit for the end. Saying that the Panthers, who just lost convincingly at home to a previously 2-7 team, aren’t that bad seems like a bit of a hot take. It isn’t, and I trust that if you have read the first thousand words of this column then you are willing to hear me out. This is where the optimism has been hiding.
The offense is ready to be used by a good quarterback. It has the skill position players to move the ball and score at will. They have a line that is average often enough to give the team a chance. Most teams have questionable offensive lines these days, so that problem isn’t unique to the Panthers. Newton dragged a worse line and a far worse skill group to the playoffs in 2017.
The defense hasn’t been as bad as we want to believe, with the exception of the San Francisco game. Even yesterday wasn’t actually that bad. The Falcons only scored one touchdown on offense before the game was out of reach. They only scored two on the day. The rest of the day was turnover-assisted short fields, a special teams touchdown, and long drives that stalled out for field goals. The Panthers defense did enough of a job yesterday that a mediocre offense could have given the team a chance. Instead, the lopsided score is going to feel like a defensive failure as much as an offensive one and raise questions about the nature and direction of both sides of the ball.
The Panthers made a dedicated effort to get faster up front this season. They succeeded, with the predictable side effect of getting lighter. That has led to them being mildly more vulnerable to the run than in the past. But that doesn’t account for all of their struggles this season.
Kawaan Short, Gerald McCoy, Vernon Butler, Kyle Love, Bruce Irvin, Mario Addison, Brian Burns, Christian Miller, James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, and Ross Cockrell have all missed game time this season, largely due to injury. That leaves Luke Kuechly, Tre Boston, and Eric Reid as the lone starters on defense who have played in every game.
Run defense is predicated on gap discipline and communication. It isn’t surprising that a team with as little stability as the Panthers has suffered in that realm. They are still producing turnovers at a prodigious rate and they lead the league in sacks. The Panthers accomplished their goal of improving the pass rush by getting lighter, but we can’t judge if that was at too high of a cost to the run defense or not. Not yet.
Looked at honestly, the Panthers talent shakes out at above average on both offense and defense. For as much as I aggressively hint that the team would benefit from significant front office changes, they are still only a quarterback and a reliable return specialist away from being a good team under the current administration.
That means two things for you, the fan watching these games every Sunday. First, the Panthers will put together some surprisingly good football this season. That much talent will shine through, even if only accidentally. Second, the team doesn’t need to completely detonate and rebuild to be competitive in some distant, idyllic future. This year’s draft conversations can still be focused on who can improve these Panthers instead of desperately searching for a new franchise cornerstone. They can compete next year if they can answer the quarterback question with an adequate athlete, regardless of who they are.