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Monday Morning Optimist: The Panthers have a few lessons to learn

They spent nine weeks flirting with disaster. Nobody gets to say “wow!” now that it has struck.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers
Oh look, a one point highlight.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Nine weeks is what the Carolina Panthers spent exhibiting unprecedented—for this franchise—offensive rhythm. It’s what they spent dazzling the Carolinas with crazy fakes and daring fourth down attempts. But that show was only on because it was necessary and it was only necessary because they also spent those nine weeks courting a disaster that finally struck yesterday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The team has been so punt-shy this season that I wrote a piece last week about them hating the play. In retrospect, I think I had it wrong. They don’t hate punting, per se, they just hate the number three. Third downs. Third quarters. You name it and they are bad at it. Their historically atrocious rate of third down conversions on both sides of the ball finally combined to produce their worst quarter of the season. That snowballed into their worst half and, ultimately, their worst loss of the season.

What I liked

Jeremy Chinn - Extremely Optimistic

What is he doing here? He had an objectively bad day. It was his first in the NFL after eight other stellar games and fresh off an injury to boot. This is the first time he has found himself on the wrong side of a highlight reel and it came on a day he was facing a Hall of Fame quarterback having a good day. Yesterday was what you might call a learning experience for Chinn. He’ll bounce back.

Phil Snow - Somewhat Optimistic

The defense gave up a season high 46 points yesterday while not forcing a single punt. Barring the lost fumble on their first possession, the Bucs scored every time they touched the ball. I’m not counting their kneeling to run out the clock at the end of the game and neither should you.

This is another head scratcher to have in the optimistic category, but bear with me. Snow is on an abymsal streak defending third downs. His defense has allowed opponents in the last five games—also known as the current losing streak—to convert 38 of 64 attempts. That’s 59%. He has also only forced six punts, with four of those coming in the Bears loss. That leaves only two punts across the other four games. It’s not enough.

The reason we are talking about this optimistically is because Matt Rhule, in his short tenure, has shown the ability to learn. Joe Brady’s offense, in possession of its own current third down issues, had a more obvious challenge to overcome at the start of the season: they were too cute by half in short yardage situations. It has been weeks since we’ve complained about that concern and in large part that is due to the team’s willingness to call more straightforward, so to speak, plays in those situations.

Of course, to solve the third down defense, the team first has to identify the root of the problem. Luckily for them, they have CSR’s own Erik Sommers as a fan. Here is his diagnosis, which was provided live during the game:

He even has thoughts on how to address the problem, as modeled by the Panthers themselves:

But alas, we can’t all be models forever. I suppose that’s an appropriate life lesson for a game against Tom Brady.

Seriously, Phil. Follow this man. It’s free on Twitter dot com. Or just hire him, it won’t be that hard. I guarantee you can pay more than we can.

All jokes aside, a lack of pressure on third downs is a direct contributor to a high rate of conversions, especially in third and long situations. That lack of pressure often stems from only rushing three guys. The Panthers secondary is young and/or injured. Flooding the field with those guys and Tahir Whitehead on crucial plays with calls that attempt to leverage their still developing skills is not a recipe for success. Even if you once thought it was, the time has come to abandon those notions. I’m optimistic that the analysis of this defense by Rhule and his staff will conclude this process is not a successful one.

The takeaway

A molly whopping was a long time coming for this young team. We constantly said that the talent and success of the youth was surprisingly decent. At a certain point that surprise is going to wear off and good teams will topple decent teams nine times out of ten. Scaring Kansas City may have been the last pass this team gets. Nobody is underestimating them anymore and their room for error has walked out the door.

The last half of the 2020 season will be a true test of what Rhule’s younger players are capable of and, possibly, what Brady can do on offense without a quarterback as calm and experienced as Teddy Bridgewater.

Let’s let them lick their wounds and then see what they come back with. We learned a lot about these new Panthers in the first couple of weeks and then have seen those lessons repeated for weeks on end. Now would be the time for the team to take another step forward, if they have it in them. However that line of thought assumes a competitive quarterback, and Panthers fans no longer know if they have one after Bridgewater’s fourth quarter knee injury.

We probably won’t learn anything more definitive until Wednesday. That’s when Rhule usually addresses injuries. The Panthers probably won’t sniff another win without Bridgewater this season. Even a couple game’s difference in the win column could have massive draft implications. A higher pick could change the entire trajectory of this franchise, so Bridgewater’s injury will be the story to watch in the coming weeks.

You know, or PJ Walker is about to surprise us all. I’d be here for that.