I hate to say it, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might win more than four football games this year. The Carolina Panthers young and already banged up defense gave up more points than the offense could put up against a surprisingly good Tampa defense and a mild deluge of turnovers. But let’s not call the team washed for the season yet. The Panthers defense committed a series of backbreaking penalties, but still held Tom Brady relatively in check more often than not. He may no longer have the arm strength of a 2015 Peyton Manning, but he still has the savvy of a twenty year veteran and that means something against a defense as young and new to each other as these Panthers.
Similarly, the offense took two steps backs for every one step forward at times and still made a game of it. The coaching staff seemed on the same page, but every level of this team showed improvement as the game went on. The fight never left them and, as we’ll talk about, it looked like Matt Rhule learned from his mistakes while the game was still on. That is light years ahead of what we are used to watching as Panthers fans.
They are no longer the team that jumps to an early lead and then smothers it with easy-to-miss opportunities so the mean points can’t hurt them anymore. The Atlanta Falcons lost yesterday after taking a 20-0 lead over Dallas and having the Cowboys fail to convert two fake punts in their own territory. That doesn’t have to be the Panthers anymore and, from the looks of it, it won’t be anytime soon.
What I liked
Robby Anderson - Extremely Optimistic
For the second week in a row, Anderson has proven to be the spark this offense needs to evolve beyond the McCaffrey Machine. Wide receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel have been responsible for a mixed bag of steady catches, highlights, and drops. Anderson’s fumble was not great for the team, by any means, but that seemed to be the true exception to his rule as a reliable receiver. In terms of usage, he seems to be the only deep threat the team trusts, as well. Samuel’s targets all come near or behind the line of scrimmage, as if he were McCaffrey’s real back up. The more we see, the more it looks like Anderson might be the team’s actual number one wideout.
Brian Burns - Extremely Optimistic
Between setting the edge well in run defense and providing the Panthers first recorded pass rushing statistic of 2020—a QB hit on Tom Brady in the fourth quarter—Burns helped turn an anemic-looking defense into a capable unit that almost held it together enough for the comeback.
Second half:— Bill Voth (@PanthersBill) September 20, 2020
Tom Brady went 6/12 for 19 yards and an INT.
Bucs went 0-for-3 on third down.
Bucs had 63 total yards … until the Leonard Fournette 46-yard TD.
The whole defense is nowhere near good enough yet, but Burns is proving that he can be a special piece once they are. He’s taking the step to show that he is more than just those flash-in-the-pan highlights that we already know he is good for, too.
The run defense - Somewhat Optimistic
Yeah, it sounds weird, but let’s play a quick game. Take out Leonard Fournette’s game icing run. The Panthers held the Buccaneers and their three highly talented backfield to 76 yards rushing on 20 carries. And that’s without Kawaan Short in the game. They tightened up significantly from Week One and did so against a better opponent. Now, let’s add that 46-yard touchdown from Fournette back in. That one play accounted for about one third of their total yardage and the game ending score. If the team had that much of an improvement in their discipline in one week then it is not hard to imagine them pulling it together for one more play in the very near future. Take note, we are not pointing fingers at anybody named or not named Tahir Whitehead for what gaps he may or may not have filled yesterday because this is a column for optimism.
Short yardage playcalling - Somewhat Optimistic
I had the same heart attack you had when I saw the punt team out when the Panthers had the ball at the 35 in plus territory on fourth and short. There is a place where PTSD meets déjà vu and nobody needs to live in that nightmare for sports. Instead, the fake punt happened and everybody began to add that to last week’s performance and come back with questions about Joe Brady and Rhule’s situational, uh. . . intelligence.
Their next opportunity saw them line up on a fourth and two with nobody in the backfield, it smelled wrong from the start and our worst over reactions where being confirmed. Then they called timeout and came back with a different plan. I’m sure it was less cute than whatever they had originally planned, but the speed option they ran to McCaffrey became a seven-yard touchdown. If Panthers fans are lucky then that will be pointed at for years to come to as the moment where past mistakes became learned-from experiences—if we are really lucky then McCaffrey's ankle will be OK.
Every player I wrote a note on for doing something good this week either followed their deed or preceded it with a boneheaded play. Turnovers and costly penalties were the Panthers balance this week. It happens. Injuries, too, happen. It is the second week of the Matt Rhule era and now we get to see how he responds to a lack of discipline, questions about the availability of his star player, and a losing streak.
Nobody thought that year one was going to put the Panthers on the short track to posting their first consecutive winning seasons. More than a few fans are actively rooting for fun losses in favor of a high draft pick. I’m not going to tell anybody how to make their own happiness, but I’m rooting for good plays by good players. Wins are nice, losses don’t hurt (this early), and we can all enjoy a product with relatively expected ups and downs. Anderson, Burns, McCaffrey, and, yes, even Teddy Bridgewater all have the capacity to generate that level of play. It’s a fantastic intermediate moment while we get to learn the new coaching staff and that staff gets to learn what kind of team they are going to be able to build.
If that’s not enough for you then consider this: the Panthers went into the half down three possessions. They came back and had it within one with two minutes to go. The Bucs might finally be a good team. The Panthers most certainly won’t consistently be one. But yesterday’s performance showed a team that could fight through momentum and injuries to put on a show. There are few teams in the league they won’t be able to at least compete with. Why wouldn’t you watch that? It’s a hell of a better story for each week than “frittered away a lead because they felt safe punting.” You can always watch Falcons games for that.