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Monday Morning Optimist: It's not about the destination, it's about the journeyman

If games are won on the margins then Rhule is the first Panthers coach to actively make those slimmer during a game.

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

The Carolina Panthers lost yesterday to the class of the NFL for a thousand different reasons: there were too many unwarranted flags; their defense forgot to force a punt (again); the offense struggled with consistency; there were too many warranted flags; Joey Slye missed an attempt at what would have been an NFL-record distance for the second straight week. Cut it however you want, the Panthers took below average talent and a doe-eyed coaching staff up against Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, and the well bottled lightning of the Kansas City Chiefs only lost by two points.

It was, on the whole, a very silly game but only because we ascribe the qualities of sense and judgment to conservatism in football. Going for it on fourth down is dangerous. Onside kicks are only for the mad or truly desperate. Matt Rhule wasn’t foolish so much as aggressive yesterday and, in so being, he provided a game that was downright entertaining to watch. Never mind that he almost won. Never mind that he did lose.

I’m not going to dig into the weeds of individual players today because this was a team loss just as much as it was almost a team win. We’ll touch on some moments, but dissecting the thousand moments that went right and wrong would be doing a disservice to the supreme optimism that the Panthers generated from looking at that game as a whole. Here are the quick hits.

What I liked

Teddy Bridgewater - Reasonably Enthused

I remember being slightly disappointed in Teddy Bridgewater’s day in the third quarter when they came up against fourth and 14. Fox flashed a graphic showing the Panthers were 2-2 on 4th down to that point. I said out loud “I don’t think they’ll make it to three for three.” Bridgewater ran for fifteen yards on his heart as much as he did his legs that play.

It was the same way that drive was also saved by Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey making circus catches. McCaffrey had a nice game assuming his ribs are alright, but we’ll wait to say more until we know more.

Curtis Samuel - Extremely Optimistic

Samuel went over 100 yards receiving, a career first. He had big catches on third and other downs. What a thing for a fourth year receiver. I can’t wait to see who blows up with next season. For his sake, I hope it isn’t the Jets.

Brian Burns - Eternally Optimistic

Brian Burns was a terror; copy and paste that sentence for next week.

Sam Franklin - Where did he come from?

Sam Franklin had a big day for an absolutely unheralded player; he tied the team lead in tackles in addition to a sack, a quarterback hit, and a big run stuff. He’s an undrafted rookie who has now played in four games since Juston Burris’ injury. The Panthers missed Jeremy Chinn but it wasn’t as noticeable as many of us expected because of Franklin’s accomplishments. I don’t know if that is a credit to defensive coordinator Phil Snow or simply a testament to the fact that you can build an entire NFL roster out of former Temple players. Apparently.

The Takeaway

That was all great.

That was all great except that you can’t play Kansas City and just not cover Tyreek Hill. You can’t play Kansas City and have 12 penalties for 82 yards. You can’t field a defense that looks surprised when it forces a punt. Except the Panthers did all of those things. They did them and they held Mahomes to just four touchdown passes. They still only lost because Slye sent a would-be record kick wide right.

The Panthers did all of that with injuries up and down an already thin roster. How many of you even knew Franklin’s name before yesterday? They did all of that while rotating three guys at left tackle and having their lunch eaten by the Kansas City defensive front. This is the product of talent being elevated by good coaching. Middling talent, on average.

The game itself was a blast to watch. The common wisdom of NFL games matches that of elections: they are won on the margins. If both teams are successful at 93% of the things that they do then the team that pulls off 93.5% of things will win. It’s why coaches default to safer calls. They don’t want to be the one who only executes 92.5% of their calls. They’d rather not win than lose. Rhule pushed the envelope of safe thinking, fell short more than once, and still almost brought it home. Never once did anybody watching this game think “this spectacle needs more punts. What a good play punts are, sometimes.”

Take that spirit, take the lessons that Rhule, Joe Brady, and Snow learned in their first year running an NFL team and add a little bit better talent. They can make Rhule’s gutsy calls a little easier to execute, their opportunities will be missed a little less frequently. At some point, Slye is going to connect on one of those record attempts. What happens next is appointment television, Panthers fans.