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Monday Morning Optimist: Goodbye Trevor Lawrence; hello 2020

Playoffs, here we come! What. . . too early?

Arizona Cardinals v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

With four weeks of play in the books, we are starting to get a picture of Matt Rhule's Carolina Panthers. They are scrappy. They like to score points. We're going to rewrite most of this graf. I've been reaching for a way to define this new era as opposed to the defensive focused coaches of our last 18 years and I think I found it last week while talking to the Arizona Cardinals blog for SB Nation, Revenge of the Birds:

Rhule is buying a lot of credit from fans with his ‘possessing the ball as a means of scoring points’ philosophy versus the old ‘scoring points is a by product of winning the time of possession.’

In multiple games the Panthers have advanced the ball with the intention of scoring in the waning seconds of the first half while also holding a lead. In multiple games they have not punted until the second half. This is a team that has seen too much turmoil and turnover in 2020 to win. This is a team that lacks NFL experience at every level from the head coach through to their punter. This is a team that is .500 through four games and has looked competitive in every game so far. Imagine that.

What I liked

Teddy Bridgewater - Extremely Optimistic

His lone interception aside, Bridgewater showed progress as both a passer and a runner. He worked well under pressure and was able to bounce back from mistakes in a way we hadn’t quite seen yet this season. The Panthers were 7-11 on third down, including multiple conversions on third and long. Most of that credit goes to Bridgewater’s poise and willingness to finally push the ball downfield. He even overthrew a few receivers!

This is the step forward we were waiting for and nothing could have punctuated that better than, ironically, his long scamper for a touchdown—his first rushing touchdown since before his knee injury in 2015. He fits his own assessment of the Carolina Panthers more than any other player still on the roster:

Robby Anderson - Extremely Optimistic

Anderson led the team with eight receptions and 99 yards on 11 targets. He has emerged as Bridgewater’s favorite and most reliable target. As one of eight players targeted, Anderson had nearly twice the targets of any other receiver and made the most of them. I actually love that he didn’t have any true highlight reel moments. Those will come again, my joy comes from the idea that a non-Christian McCaffrey/Steve Smith level player had a good day that wasn’t buoyed by a single play. The Panthers have needed that.

The only other receiver on the roster with the talent to match him is D.J. Moore. He’ll get his spot in the column when he stops dropping catchable balls and/or when he and Bridgewater develop some better chemistry. That’s more likely a when than an if scenario.

Mike Davis - Extremely Optimistic

McCaffrey who? I kid, I kid. But Davis and Bonnafon combined today to prove the Panthers don’t need to spend big money on a single running back to win a few games. Their success can open up how McCaffrey is used, while pacing him and the team’s expectations for their running game for the rest of the season. And all that is just food for thought when McCaffrey returns, in Week 6 at the earliest. For now, Panthers fans simply don’t have to worry about his absence so long as Davis continues to bring big “Mike Tolbert wearing Jonathan Stewart’s uniform” energy to the field.

That whole defense - Extremely Optimistic

It’s hard to single anybody out for what was an outstanding team effort. Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos were a terror. Rasul Douglas continued to impress. Derrick Brown continued to be a bully. What do you want? This group of free agents and rookies combined to limit Kyler Murray to 54 passing yards at the half and only 133 for the whole game. They held the Cardinals running backs to 51 yards rushing.

The Panthers offense looked great against a banged up Cardinals defense. The Panthers defense just looked plain great. This team is poised to spoil some seasons if the defensive line continues to grow up and the secondary continues to exceed expectations.

Red zone offense - Extremely Optimistic

The Panthers went from one for six in the red zone against the Chargers to four for five against the Cardinals. We can dissect running game successes and defensive differences between the relevant teams until we are (electric) blue in the face, but a win is a win. Completely reversing your woeful conversion rate in the red zone, not to mention on third downs, is a win. I’ll smile about it today and we’ll worry about it later in the season if additional data suggests we ought to.

Curtis Samuel - Optimistic

Samuel caught a live football beyond the line of scrimmage for the second straight week. At this rate, he’ll be catching game winning touchdown passes in time for your fantasy playoffs, right?

In all seriousness, Samuel is an electric athlete. I enjoy the coaching staff finding creative ways to get the ball into his hands, but every play he makes off a basic wide receiver route is like Christmas to me. If he can be successfully incorporated into the downfield passing game then this offense will go from fun to dangerous in a heartbeat.

Offensive Line - Optimistic

Bridgewater had to make or break a few plays under pressure yesterday, including his lone interception. The offensive line, however, did not surrender a single sack during the game and only allowed three quarterback hits. Bridgewater was impressed enough by them to give each lineman a game ball after the win. Let’s all look forward to this week’s What’s That Bear Doing.

What I didn't like

Penalties - Somewhat Pessimistic

This game was closer than it had to be because of penalties on both sides of the ball. This is probably where the 'young yeam with little to no offseason' makes the biggest impact--second biggest being the still developing chemistry between Bridgewater and his receivers. It didn't cost them the game, but the whole team deserves to think about this while I'm singing their praises.

The takeaway

Missing opportunities used to sink this team on a regular basis. Looking back at the philosophical differences between Rhule and Ron Rivera, John Fox, etc will tell you why that isn't the case anymore. Old Panthers teams would never have scored that last touchdown before the half. They would have run the ball, not risked a turnover, and either punted the ball back or ground out the clock depending on their success.

A single touchdown ended up being the bulk of the margin of victory yesterday. A closer game, added pressure, and the rate of penalties late in the day could have led to a different, and all too familiar, result. Instead, the Panthers won comfortably. Their young talent got experience both playing and winning.

They may be running themselves out of the Trevor Lawrence Sweepstakes, but they are maximizing their opportunities in 2020 and I believe that will put them, as a team, in a better position for 2021 than any single draft pick could.