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Monday Morning Optimist: We are so close to being so close

Bear with us, guys. The Panthers couldn’t buy a win in 2020, but it shouldn’t take much more talent for this team to take off.

Carolina Panthers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

I know, I know. The Carolina Panthers lost another one possession game after having had the ball in their hands in the final minutes with a chance to win. They are zero for eight in even scoring points, let alone winning, in such scenarios this season. I’d say it was a twist that they did this against a good team for once, except that this is the third good team they have lost to by the skin of their teeth. The Green Bay Packers join the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs as truly top tier contenders who only narrowly survived a brush with the Panthers.

We’ve spent months at this point talking about heartening these close losses are for such a young team, for such a depleted team. But, like much of 2020, that’s wearing a bit thin. Even still, we have to take a moment to celebrate that the youngest defense in the NFL throttled Aaron Rodgers for three quarters. More interesting than the ‘kids did good’ angle is the weirdness of it. These Panthers should probably be one possession under dogs to every team in the league, from the New York Jets to the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s not an insult to say that they don’t have what it takes to win in the NFL, because it is a fact and because they are so close to greatness. It’s an odd balance.

What I liked

D.J. Moore - Extremely Optimistic

He needs more targets, part eleventy. Also, pay this man his money right now.

Taylor Moton - Extremely Optimistic

Pay this man, too. Moton is easily the best lineman the Panthers have and I’m going to be scared if they draft a promising young quarterback but let Moton walk. In other words, fire Marty Hurney and hire somebody more committed to protecting a young quarterback than to drafting Lee Ziemba ‘for comfort.’

Derrick Brown - Extremely Optimistic

The 2020 first round pick waited until week 15 to record his first sacks, and then he doubled down. That’s not a bad way to meet Aaron Rodgers. Brown has been a monster in the middle all season against both the run and the pass, with his efforts generating a lot of plays for other guys (most of them named Brian Burns). It was fantastic to watch him get his moments in the spotlight.

Myles Hartfield - Good Job, Buddy

This was going to be the Jeremy Chinn award until he turned into a legit star. Now it is the Sam Franklin Award for Previously Unknown Defensive Backs. What Phil Snow has accomplished this season with guys that we have never heard of is the backbone of why I trust this staff going forward. If they can produce similar results with a roster that has more experienced NFL talent then this team is going places. Hartfield showed why all night by holding up reasonably well against the Rodgers-Davante Adams connection.

Jeremy Chinn - Defensive Rookie of the Year

Chinn went over 100 tackles on the season yesterday, becoming the third Carolina Panther to do so in franchise history. The other two guys were Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly. Draw your own conclusions from there.

What I didn’t like

The Panthers offense, 2000-2019 - Extremely Pessimistic

That game was a blast. It was equally as fun as it was disappointing so I’m not going to rain on anybody’s effort when they are already pissed at dropping to 4-10 on the season. Let’s remember how far we’ve come.

Robby Anderson and Moore became the first duo of Panthers wide receivers to reach 1,000 yards in the same season since Muhsin Muhammad and Patrick Jeffers in 1999. That time period includes the a cultural explosion in favor of offense and the best receiver and best quarterback the Panthers have ever known.

It is going to be surprising if two Panthers receivers don’t reach this mark again next year. That is the difference that Rhule and Joe Brady have brought in less than one year. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on Carolina winning a Super Bowl at any point in the last 20 years. That bet does, admittedly, benefit from hind sight. It’s harder to say the same thing about the next twenty, but it is easy to appreciate a coaching staff that understands the modern game.

The take away

The young defensive core of Derrick Brown, Brian Burns, and Jeremy Chinn is something to absolutely build around. The skill positions are well stocked on offense. They are truly just a few pieces away. The great news is that those pieces don’t need to be stars. The Panthers can compete if they can stock the back end of their depth chart with even replacement level talent.

The balance of mistakes between Teddy Bridgewater and his offensive line sink enough series each week to put the game out of reach, no matter how close the score. If they didn’t then the defense would probably find a way to fall apart in front of a hurry up offense because it would stress depth that doesn’t exist or give up another back breaking run on first down. It isn’t the exceptional talent that is failing this team in most situations so much as the background guys.

Sort of.

Because the exception to that is the ability this coaching staff has to coax wine out of the groundwater talent of guys like Myles Hartfield, Sam Franklin, Brandon Zylstra, or Rodney Smith. Individual moments from any player, from first rounder to undrafted nobody make the plays that would win games for any other team. It’s the number of plays that are collectively left on the field by the team that remain fatal after 14 games. Put a little more simply, if one guy doesn’t make a singular play then rarely is the play made by a group of guys. That speaks volumes about the individuals on the field but it also says as much about their team.

This shouldn’t be and isn’t surprising. The cupboards were bare when Matt Rhule was signed. A skeletal roster filled with Temple University veterans wasn’t supposed to go somewhere. That they have threatened in almost every game despite colossal and often overwhelmingly simple mistakes has excited plenty of us. It is also the reason for a degree of disappointment that fans feel for not doing better. The Panthers weren’t supposed to be better but they keep showing us they almost are. The obvious next question after 14 examples is “why aren’t they?” The answer, as with so many other questions right now, is this: because it is still 2020. Roster overhaul and rehabilitation takes longer than one truncated offseason.

Your optimism for the next two weeks is that you will have the chance to watch entertaining football. The 2020 Panthers have never failed to be that. It’s just the winning part that has to wait.