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Monday Morning Optimist: A close loss never felt so good

These aren’t your old Panthers and that couldn’t be more exciting for fans in the Carolinas.

Las Vegas Raiders v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

I haven’t felt this good after a loss in years. The Panthers somehow managed to have their first game under head coach Matt Rhule come down to a one possession game decided on a bad play call on fourth-and-1. It sounds all too familiar, but it’s amazing how different that situation feels when the coach responsible for it doesn’t have nine years of history of bungling that exact situation weighing him—and us fans—down. It’s amazing how different it feels when the team you are rooting for has actually tried to score points every time they touched the ball.

The 2020 Carolina Panthers touch the football with a sense of opportunity and not a fear of tragedy. With 1:54 left in the first half and a full suite of time outs, the Panthers started a drive that was intended to put points on the board. It ended in a field goal, leaving the team with only a two point deficit before receiving the ball to start the second half.

We’ll talk later about some questionable situational play calling and the intermittent shakiness of Teddy Bridgewater. Those are the elements that cost the Panthers the game, and this a column for optimism. For now, let’s allow the new season to bring back an old MMO format so that we can actually touch on all the positive facets from the Panthers’ season opener.

What I liked

Matt Rhule and Joe Brady - Extremely Optimistic

These coaches put forward a whole new football product that Carolina Panthers fans aren’t exactly used to. The offense, through Teddy Bridgewater, targeted seven different receivers, six of whom were targeted more than once, and five of whom caught more than one ball. They scored on every drive in the first half, including that two minute drill at the end of the half while the team was only down by one possession. That also means they did not punt in the first half. The Panthers are now a team that uses every tool they have to try to advance the ball with the express purpose of scoring points. Long time fans can be excused for thinking that was against the rules.

There were mistakes, to be sure, but that is to be expected for a rookie head coach and an offensive coordinator calling his first ever NFL game. They have time to settle into bad habits or learn better ones. For now I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. If they can iron out some of the little things—and get their players locked in—over the next few games then these Panthers could be a fireworks show for the rest of the year.

Robby Anderson - Extremely Optimistic

The speedster, formerly of the hapless New York Jets, looks to be everything the Panthers have been searching for since Muhsin Muhammad retired. The Panthers already had a target with the speed to take the top off the defense in Curtis Samuel, but now they have a second one who can also be described as reliable. It was only one game, but 2020 has been rough enough, let’s just roll with this take until he proves us wrong. The biggest question to date is whether or not Bridgewater has the arm strength to take full advantage of the Panthers newest star.

Pharoh Cooper - Extremely Optimistic

Eyebrows were raised when Rhule retained special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn. The Panthers had, for years, seen penalty-plagued special teams play compounded with poorly fielded kicks. Those troubles predated but weren’t erased during Blackburn’s tenure under former head coach Ron Rivera.

Well, the penalties may still be a problem, but Cooper looks to be the real deal as a returner. He cleanly fielded every punt and kick he returned and usually did so before gaining positive yardage. It must have been nice for the offense to start at the 30 more often than at the five yard line.

Defensive rookies - Optimistic

I really expected the story of this game to be that of mistakes by a young defense. The Panthers started four rookies in Derrick Brown, Yetur Gross-Matos, Jeremy Chinn, and Troy Pride, Jr. and one second year player, in Brian Burns, who played limited snaps his rookie year. In fact, the whole line-up is almost unrecognizable compared to teams past.

In spite of all of that youth, the defense hung decently with the Raiders. Giving up 34 points wasn’t ideal, but the flashes of competence were great. It is also worth noting that Josh Jacobs required 25 carries to get his 93 yards. And let’s not forget the individual flashes of brilliance: Brian Burns putting on the jets to force a Derek Carr throw away; Jeremy Chinn making a solo tackle on the boundary in the middle of a goal line stand that ultimately forced a field goal; Troy Pride Jr. making another solo tackle on the edge to stop what would have been a big Jacobs rush; Derrick Brown batting down a pass at the line of scrimmage. Their mistakes were expected and not game breaking. Their highlights are absolutely to be lauded this early in the season.

Teddy Bridgewater - Optimistic

This is a quarterback who had an impossible task: step into the largest shoes the Carolina Panthers had ever seen and earn the respect of both the team and fans. Bridgewater may not have branded the Panthers as his own just yet, but he didn’t leave us running for Foxboro just yet either. I’d call that a win.

He played safe, opportunistic ball. He gave us highlight throws and only a couple of near misses going the other way. Basically, he bought himself a few games to shake the rust off and dial in his accuracy and timing with his new receivers before already angry fans start to get truly restless. I’m not convinced he has the arm talent to take full advantage of the speed he has at the skill positions, but I am fairly certain that he isn’t going to fumble the Panthers next five games away either.

I wish him all the luck in the world as a person and as a Panther. As a fan, I can’t pound the drum for him just yet, but I’ll be damned if I’m not a lot closer to that feeling after one game than I thought I would be after one season.

The takeaway

Christian McCaffrey was great yesterday, but we already knew that. The most exciting part of his game was that it was played for a team that produced enough exciting things to talk about that he wasn’t mentioned in this column except to point out that he wouldn’t have otherwise been mentioned.

I can’t find enough ways to say it—because there seem to be innumerable ways to sat it: these are not your 2018-2019 Panthers. Rhule is poised to transform the Panthers into a team that do not rely on a superstar to drag them into relevancy in a given game. It’s a new day in Carolina that might allow our superstars to finally be super instead of just exhausted.

From 2011 to 2017, when the Panthers didn’t have Cam Newton firing on all cylinders then they didn’t really have anything. Ditto McCaffrey from 2018-2019. I named a lot of names up above, and did so for their positive contributions to the game yesterday. Panthers teams past had plenty of players who did nice things from time to time, but this is the first time in a long time where it felt like those nice things were part of a team effort contributing to a common success instead of sideshows between Christian McCaffrey or Cam Newton highlights. It is only one game, but I’m optimistic for a whole season of columns like this.