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Monday Morning Optimist: I don’t think the Panthers are bad?

Are the Bears good? I have no idea.

Chicago Bears v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

So. . . that happened. Losses suck, but there is usually value in seeing your team’s weaknesses dashed against the strengths of better competition. But are the Bears actually good? Could the Panthers be bad? I don’t think we can answer either of those questions after this game. The Panthers were 3/13 on third down, they didn’t sack Nick Foles once, and the Bears still barely held on to a one possession lead by the skin of their teeth.

Put another way, this was a weird game. Let’s revisit the Panthers atrocious three conversions on 13(!) third down attempts. They only punted once in the game, after a three and out that straddled the end of the first quarter. We’ll have more on how ludicrous that is later. The point, for now, is that football is a weird game and this was a weird football game. I’m not rushing to a lot of conclusions about these Panthers just yet. They are 3-3 on the season when we were all expecting 1-5 at best.

What I liked

Trenton Cannon - Extremely Optimistic

I don’t know if any team could have proved how little running backs matter better than the Panthers did this season. After making Christian McCaffrey the highest paid running back in the league, the team didn’t miss a step when he went on injured reserve. Mike Davis stepped in admirably and, more importantly, capably. Whenever Davis has been nicked up, which has been often, Reggie Bonnafon has stepped in and made plays when required. Bonnafon, of course, is now also on injured reserve.

Enter Cannon. He touched the ball five times yesterday and accounted for 25 yards. The Panthers may have a lot of sprains and bruises at the running back position, but Cannon has proven that fans don’t need to worry about production out of that spot any time soon.

Jeremy Chinn - Extremely Optimistic

Am I going to stop screaming this kids praises anytime soon?

No.

After leading the team in tackles for much of the season, Chinn showed that he is going to grow into a threat in pass defense as well. He ended back-to-back Chicago drives in the second half. He had a pass deflection on third and nine with 12:37 left in the third quarter, forcing a punt, followed by his interception on the Bears next offensive play.

The Panthers never let this game run away from them. Chinn is a huge reason why.

What I didn’t like

Teddy Bridgewater - Somewhat Pessimistic

I’m not extremely pessimistic here because I’m not surprised, just disappointed. We knew he wasn’t a transcendant talent at quarterback, but maybe we hoped that he was good enough to elevate his team on a bad day. Instead, when a lot of other Panthers were having bad days, so did he. There are a lot of nits to pick, between the bad completion percentage and the turnovers that allowed a struggling Bears team to maintain a meager lead for the entire game, but nothing sums up the game more than his incompletion to D.J. Moore on fourth down with the game on the line in the fourth quarter.

Moore beat his man and had a touchdown waiting for him if Bridgewater threw a better pass. Instead, Moore accounted for the most athletic drop I’ve ever seen. Bridgewater’s very next throw was an interception after a surprise stop by the Panthers gassed defense. This was a game that was ripe for a quarterback to rise above the pressure.

Pressure, of course, is largely why Bridgewater had such a shaky game. He was touched more today than in the last two week combined. The Bears sacked him four times and hit him six times. The Atlanta Falcons managed only four quarterback hits and the Arizona Cardinals had three. Add in the Chargers two sacks and two quarterback hits and you get Bridgewater being touched only once more in three combined games (11) than he was in this one game.

Those games, happen, however. The Panthers need Bridgewater to handle pressure better or they won’t win many more games.

Third down conversions - Extremely Pessimistic

The Panthers were 3-13 on third down. First and foremost, we all know that needs to improve. Second, they only punted once in all that. Their nine other plays were as follows: they went for it three times on fourth down and made it twice (3); they converted one first down from a fourth via penalty (4); Joey Slye made three of four field attempts (8); Teddy Bridgewater threw an interception on one third down (9). It’s damn silly and the Panthers offense doesn’t have the injury excuses that their defense does.

Red zone offense - Pessimistic

Oh, look. Here we are again. The Panthers had two drives in the first half that were remarkably simple. The first one saw Carolina go 72 yards in 14 plays. The second featured 73 yards of offense in 13 plays. Both ended with a field goal kicked from inside the five. The eight point difference between two field goals and two touchdowns (assuming the PATs were successful) might have mattered in what became a seven-point game.

Look for the Panthers to be a dangerous team in the NFC South after they fix this problem and not a minute before.

The takeaway

The Panthers are a team with young talent and good coaching. They will steal some wins here and there, but we shouldn’t breathe too much life into dreams of winning the division just yet. They have a big question at quarterback—a question their quarterback still has time to answer for himself—and a lot of little questions everywhere else.

This game was too odd to easily praise the Bears or damn the Panthers. But the Panthers do remain undeniably exciting to watch. They were in that game until the very end, no matter how momentum felt like it was leaning all day. Yeah, it gets tiring watching a team full of question marks for the third year in a row, but the new staff in charge gives it a whole new feeling. The difference is night and day when those questions aren’t rhetorical.