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Monday Morning Optimist: Bless their hearts

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They really did try and that was very sweet of them.

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers lost a close game against the New Orleans Saints, who are unfortunately one of the best teams in the NFL. That means we should all turn from chapter ten “Embarrassing losses at home” in our season guide books back to chapter nine “Close losses on the road against good teams.” You may recall we read from this chapter just a few weeks ago after the team lost a one possession game in the final minutes to the Green Bay Packers.

In this chapter, we’ll revisit the idea that decent quarterback play—herein provided by Kyle Allen—is insufficient to overcome an inconsistent defense and specific, repeated mistakes—this weeks guest star was Joey Slye. Before we dig into the meat of this game, let’s get one thing straight: Joey Slye effectively cost the Panthers six points, that is not the same thing as having cost the Panthers the game.

It’s not like they meant for this kind of close and painful loss to happen, it’s just that they couldn’t really avoid it. Three missed kicks isn’t bad luck, it’s fate. The Panthers really did try, I’d even be willing to say they tried very hard. That’s certainly something nobody can take away from them, just like nobody can take away their identity as a team that struggles to cleanly field punts.

The good news for the Panthers is that, in all of that trying, Allen flashed his ceiling again after a long stretch of floor games and helped D.J. Moore finally have a statement game. It has been a long time since that has been said about a Panthers skill position player not named Christian McCaffrey.

Credit where it is due, Kyle Allen kept the Panthers in this game

I would have laughed at anybody willing to put money on Allen throwing over thirty passes, including two completions over 50 yards, without a turnover to balance his scales. He piloted an effective offense towards thirty points and a last-gasp chance. His sudden competency allowed D.J. Moore to shine and triple his season touchdown total on the season all in one game. Christian McCaffrey, as ever, shined all on his own.

Set aside a few big plays to Moore and this game featured a fairly steady offense that was capable of moving the ball. It did so by largely playing to the strengths of its stars. McCaffrey feasted underneath, Curtis Samuel got involved in the running game, and Allen was rarely asked to look deep. This was an offense that elected to play in the sandbox built by its players.

The reason that is so exciting for Panthers fans is that all it took to produce an offense that could keep up with Drew Brees was a single additional playmaker, Moore, and a quarterback, Allen, who could safely and consistently get him the ball. McCaffrey can carry a team to mediocrity. McCaffrey+ has the chance to compete with the elite. This is what comes from staying inside that sandbox.

Allen stepped beyond himself with those 50 yard completions to Moore in spite of his previous failures, that was great for this offense. The difference in this game is that those were bonus plays. The Panthers demonstrated they were capable of moving the ball even with the occasional incompletion. Completing those passes was gravy. Not turning the ball over on those attempts—or on any others—is entirely on Allen. Kudos to him. These are his good days, the Panthers have the rest of this season to see how many of them he can produce.

Samuel, Moore, and McCaffrey responded to this style of play calling as we always knew they would: by racking up yards on the ground and in the air while making the Saints look just a little bit slow. This, again, was a game to their strengths and marks the kind of plan the Panthers should have shown off weeks ago.

The offensive line is and has always been a weakness this year. It threatened the offense multiple times in this very game. But the focus on quick passes played against their weakness as well as it did towards Allen’s strengths. As with the other players, style matters.

Their weaknesses are only limitations when they are asked to lean on them. This week featured Norv’s best game of calling plays for his players. I guess it’s amazing what you can do when you remove the stress of making the playoffs from somebody’s shoulders.

The little things are only little until they aren’t

One point rarely decides a game. I’ve long held that Joey Slye’s inconsistency in the short kicking game is worth his dependability when kicking from greater than 40 yards. If the Panthers are going to get better at moving the ball into the red zone and Slye is going to get worse at making extra points then that calculus may have to change.

Ultimately, Slye cost the team approximately six points. One missed field goal, two missed extra points, and a failed two point attempt that never would have happened if had not missed the first extra point attempt. Change nothing else about this game and that puts the New Orleans Saints chasing a touchdown on their last drive instead of a field goal. I’d still bet on Drew Brees in that situation, but it would have been a significantly more difficult task. Slye isn’t the reason that the team lost to the Saints, but he is directly responsible for making it easier for New Orleans to win.

He obviously has the leg to be an All-Time kicker in the NFL. What he lacks is the consistency on shorter kicks. That is typically attributable to mental error more than it is any physical short coming. The Panthers already aren’t making the post season this year. They ought to put some time into Slye this season (instead of whatever bargain big guy is on the street) to see if they can coach him out of his yips.

Graham Gano is their next best option and he is only marginally better on extra points. He’s also nine years older and four million dollars more expensive than Slye. Veterans are great all, Ron, but when young players are demonstrably better and cheaper then you ought to make the change. Slye might be demonstrably better than Gano, and he has five games left to prove that he can be.

Eric Reid was the standard bearer for the defense

The Panthers veteran safety was everything we have come to love and hate about the Panthers defense this season. He was a great pass break up in the end zone and two stuffs on third or fourth and one. He was also a fair amount of questionable coverage and missed tackles. For every highlight there was a first down or a score. Welcome to the 2019 Panthers: defense won’t win the game, it’ll just keep you in it until the end.

The Panthers defense did well to tighten up their play after allowing the Saints to score two touchdowns on their first two drives. The Falcons game began at a similar pace and never let up—even though they ultimately scored fewer points than the Saints. New Orleans was gifted was fewer short fields and had to carve out every yard for their scores. Drew Brees can do that against any defense so neither the score nor the yardage surrendered are exactly an indictment of the Panthers defense.

Instead, they took advantage of some sloppy play on the Saints part to slow them down. 12 penalties for 123 yards against the Saints vs 3 for 25 yards against the Panthers certainly helped. They also held up against the run when it counted. Reid’s two stops in short yardage situations was exactly the kind of stand this team wasn’t capable of a few weeks ago. We spent a lot of time last week talking about how the team got as fast as they wanted to over the offseason. The drawback was that they also go light up front. The theory went that a lack of beef up front and on the edge was hurting them in run defense. That wasn’t the case against the Saints.

You can’t play from the locker room

The Panthers and injuries are a story that I am getting tired of writing. No doubt the team is even less happy with their current health status. This game saw Dontari Poe, Greg van Roten, Eric Reid, Greg Little, Taylor Moton, and D.J. Moore all get hurt and miss time. Poe and van Roten were carted off the field and did not return to the game. Moore should have broke his arm at the end of the first half. Reid looked like he tore his achilles.

This was a painful game for more reasons than the score. We won’t know how painful until more details are released on the injuries suffered by each of these guys. If they end up missing significant time, or even on injured reserve, then they won’t need to worry about being away from the team. The Panthers recovery room is turning into a well populated place.

The Panthers need new goals

The playoffs are out of the picture, realistically. Last season saw Ron Rivera playing the world’s lamest card trick while trying to convince the fans and media that he was betting on a percentage chance at the playoffs that began with a decimal point. We’re back in the same theater this year and I want a new show.

The NFC South division title is still the Panthers best shot at the play offs. To get it, they would have to win all five of their remaining six games and have the Saints lose each of their remaining five games. The Panthers need new goals this season and they should reflect a process that thinks ahead to next year.

I’m not saying they should sit McCaffrey, but maybe he shouldn’t play 110% of the snaps anymore. They should be looking at the young guys who have a chance to be something. For the most part, they have been doing well with that in recent weeks. But fans need to buy in to.

Allen has shown enough at quarterback that the team needs to look at him down the stretch. It doesn’t matter how many four interception games he has, the team doesn’t need to look at Will Grier until the off season. I still don’t think that anybody seriously thinks he is franchise quarterback material, but there are still depths to plumb before we can confidently find his place on the Peterman-Keenum scale of quarterbacks.

The same can be said for Slye. He can miss as much as he wants through the season. The team ought to let him and see if those misses are due to coachable errors or not. They don’t need to waste any time looking for whoever the kicker equivalent of Will Grier is.

It also means that Ian Thomas, who just recorded his first catch of the season, needs to see the field more. Greg Olsen and Chris Manhertz are known quantities. Known quantities aren’t what 2019 needs to be about anymore.

I know a lot of that tracks with what the team has been doing so far, but the key part is that it doesn’t track with their motivations. As has so often been the case with Rivera’s Panthers, what they are doing is unintentionally great and they need to make it intentionally so. Rivera is still fighting for his job. Any serious signs of struggle could lead to him throwing a player overboard to lighten his riverboat.

The Panthers have a perfectly good boat. Now is the time to make sure it stays that way.