Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season is finally here, y’all. The roster is (relatively) set. The preseason has already been forgotten. Today begins the actual business of preparing for the season opener at the Los Angeles Rams. It will be the Carolina Panthers first opportunity to answer the question of who they are.
We've talked around this question all offseason by entertaining the necessary conversation on Cam Newton's health. As he goes, we've said, so go the Panthers. That is true. It is also boring. Of course a team is going to be dependent on the availability of their franchise quarterback, all the more so given his phenomenal talent. But who is the rest of the team? Let’s assume Newton’s health for the whole season. That may be a big assumption, but it allows us to really dream about the answer to that question.
What’s next for the young playmakers?
Budding star wide receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel will get a chance to fully prove themselves as receivers. Right now we know they are both fast and quick. Right now we kind of assume they can catch the ball. But most of their production last year came at the hands of a hobbled offense. The whole team had to cherry pick its plays or weather incompletions as Cam’s shoulder weakened. Their greatest successes came as complementary gadgets to the incomparable Christian McCaffrey. Basically, every success was within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage.
The endlessly complex end-arounds make for highly exciting football. I’m always for plays that routinely fool camera operators. They shouldn’t go anywhere, but neither can they be the base of the Panthers offense. 2019 is the opportunity for Moore, in his second year, and Samuel, effectively in his second year following a litany of injuries, to prove that they have the talent to play as traditional receivers and still break the game.
Is this it for the stalwart tight end?
Elsewhere on the offense, Greg Olsen gets to star in one last chapter. Whether or not his foot breaks in a third consecutive season will determine if he gets to be its author. The veteran tight end was a rock for this team right up until he wasn’t. Second year offensive coordinator Norv Turner doesn’t have a lot of direct experience incorporating him into this current scheme with Carolina, but that shouldn’t stop a healthy Olsen from making an impact. His connection with Newton is strong enough that you’ll still know when he is on the field.
Olsen spent years as the guy for the Panthers. Now, no matter how healthy, he is one of at least five guys who deserve targets from Newton. That means he definitely won’t see a fourth 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. That is nothing but a good thing. The end of his career in Carolina shouldn’t be the same as that of former star left tackle Jordan Gross: with no plan behind him. The hope is that this last chapter gets to be a passing of the torch.
Then there is the coach who built and rebuilt this team
Speaking of writing, Ron Rivera has a whole new book in front of him. He’s coordinated 3-4 defenses before, to be sure, but this is the biggest change he has made during his tenure as head coach save for the hiring of Norv Turner. That these changes came one year apart, eight years into his run, suggests that Rivera understands his older ways were getting a little stale in the face of an ever-evolving league. That is fantastic. That attitude will pair well with new owner David Tepper’s recent emphasis on analytics. The Panthers could be at their most successful if Rivera fully earns his Riverboat nickname and plays the odds even a little more.
In Newton and Luke Kuechly, the Panthers are currently sitting on two generational talents who are, hopefully, right in the prime of their careers. Both are basically magicians. Whether you’re talking about Cam’s ability to escape the inescapable and still make incredible plays or Kuechly’s ability to read offenses as if they were open minds, neither is a player you can find on any other team. To give those guys a team that was built from the inside out in this generation is no less than they deserve. If everything holds true and the Panthers stay even reasonably healthy then this team could finally deliver on the promise of its talent.