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Monday Morning Optimist (Friday edition): Welp, that happened

The season isn’t over, but it also never really began for the 2020 Carolina Panthers.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The 2020 Carolina Panthers are better than we had hoped and worse than we had come to expect. If there’s a more Panthers or 2020 season to be had then I can’t imagine it. inspite of all the chaos and change that has marked this year, there aren’t a lot of surprises left. We know who the young talent is. We know where the holes, gaping and otherwise, are. The biggest shock of the game last night might have been that third-year pro Ian Thomas had three catches in a game. What are we supposed to do with that?

The optimism for Matt Rhule’s Panthers has not, by any means, run dry. It’s just that all the obvious story lines have been discussed ad nauseum. Robby Anderson is a revelation. Curtis Samuel catch third downs good. Jeremy Chinn almost makes us forget about Tahir Whitehead. These guys are the reasons they have flashed as competitive this season and they are all still there, but there aren’t many new ones. Not week to week.

I think that is why this season is starting to feel so familiar, even stale, in its stress. The last few years—really the last four years—of Ron Rivera’s tenure were marred by unrealized promise. Missed opportunities, if you will. Rhule immediately established a team that was capable of being more than the sum of its parts and then hit a losing streak that kept hinting at those higher heights. His team is 3-5 and only -14 in point differential.

Most Panthers fans are tired of the close-but-not-quite routine, regardless of who is running the show. That’s why we are going to break the mold a little bit today by talking less about individual players and more about some of this team’s broader themes. It’s the best way I can figure to deliver the cold, hard optimism the Carolina Panthers deserve.

What I liked. . .

The offensive line fighting for Teddy - Extremely Optimistic

Fans can say what they want about Mr. Two Gloves—and they said plenty, at least before his injury last night—but they can never say as much as his teammates did by mixing it up with the Falcons following two cheap hits on the same play against their quarterback. This is Teddy Bridgewater’s team.

Given the circumstances of his arrival in Carolina, and how much actual practice and bonding time they have had as a group, it is nothing short of impressive that Bridgewater has earned the respect of his huddle. These are the things that make the spirit of a team and that spirit is what gives them the ability to be greater than the sum of their parts. We’ve seen it come together before, now we know that it doesn’t have to be a flash in the pan from the start of the season.

Ten days off - Extremely Optimistic

The Panthers are banged up, down, and any other direction you can think of right now. Let’s just forget about Christian McCaffrey and focus on the injuries that have had an impact (thanks, Mike Davis!). Half of their offensive line depth is on the reserve/COVID-19 list as is one of their starting corners. They just cut another corner after lingering hamstring and attitude injuries. Donte Jackson has been in and out of every game this season. Kawann Short is done for at least 2020. They left last night’s game able to field three corners and three defensive tackles.

I don’t know exactly what Phil Snow’s defense was supposed to look like this year, but forcing one punt in their last eight quarters wasn’t ever it. They don’t have a bye week until the first week of December. They need these ten days off if they are going to make it that far.

Short yardage inefficiencies - Extremely Optimistic

Maybe this is more of a pie-in-the-sky kind of optimism than the cold, hardness that I promised above (I promise I will never write this sentence again), but hear me out. Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady have struggled all season with short yardage plays. Their failures seem a coin flip between poor execution and too-cute play calls. I find that to be utterly inspiring for two separate reasons.

First, these are smart guys who have a demonstrated capacity for learning. Take Curtis Samuel as proof. He couldn’t get a look sideways in the first couple of games in this new offense. Brady specifically cited needing to get him the ball in a Week 2 or 3 press conference and now Samuel leads the league in catches on third down. These smart guys are faced with a glaringly obvious problem. It may take them a few weeks to get it sorted, but I have no doubt that they will.

That is optimistic to me because I like progress I can see. Looking back at the -14 point differential and this team only needed a couple drives, a couple short yardage situations, to go their way and the late game heroics would have never had the opportunity to come up short.

This team has so much and yet so little wrong with it. That’s football. Having obvious short comings placed at the feet of competent and willing coaches is all the substance I need to build hope.

Second, every week they fail to sort it out is another week that the Panthers look less than stellar on offense to the circling search firm vultures hired by the Jets, the Texans, the Falcons and the whoever else fires their coach. That is one more week to talk themselves out of hiring Brady away from us too early.

I say too early both from the Panthers and from Brady’s perspective. He’s young and needs some more experience and probably a wider professional network before he’d make a smart head coaching hire. But making a dumb move before somebody else can is kind of the hallmark of both the Jets and the Texans. The Panthers finally have an offense that looks like we are supposed to enjoy watching it. Those bottom feeders can keep their hands off our toys until we are well and done with them.

The takeaway

This year is unsurprisingly not going to be it for the Carolina Panthers. They may surprise and go on a run after losing to Kansas City next week. They could even sneak into the playoffs given the expanded Wild Card format this season. But that’s it.

I said they were worse than we expected and better than we hoped because we had no idea what this season was going to be. We had to go off a few games of data and years of assumptions and trauma. This season already lacking obvious surprises means that we have a handle on who they can be next year. Another half of the season will hone those opinions to a degree of confidence that I didn’t expect until year three under Rhule. That means 2021 gives us more grounded dreams.