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Monday Morning Optimist: Winning in spite of yourself is still winning

Sacks, turnovers, and field goals led the way to Matt Rhule’s first win in the NFL.

Carolina Panthers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Panthers won their first game since Week 9 of the 2019 season—a little under eleven months ago. The newest thing for Panthers fans watching from home was that they looked a little bit like they were kind of trying to win. Maybe. Forgive the equivocation, it’s just been so long since they have both tried and succeeded in winning a close a game that I forgot quite what that effort looked like.

Now, with four turnovers, their first two sacks of the season, and another fumble that lost the Chargers offense eighteen yards on a first down, it might be reasonable to say that this game never should have been close. The defense held up its end of the bargain for the first time in 2020 and the offense had another wobbly, inefficient day. More on that later.

Let’s all just bask in the win that we all definitely predicted. Or that we all made predictions about? Either way, a win is a win. Here are the reasons why I don’t think it will take another 11 months to see our next one.

What I liked

Brian Burns - Extremely Optimistic

This is not Burns’ first appearance on this list and it most certainly won’t be his last. At least one sack and fumble, several more pressures, and presence throughout the game mean this second year star is here to stay. Maybe it took Phil Snow this long to figure out just how to maximize him. Maybe the Chargers were really missing Russell Okung today. Burns is going to be a nightmare for opposing offenses. It’s been a minute since the Panthers have had that kind of a player on their roster who wasn’t also approaching the end of their career.

Jeremy Chinn - Extremely Optimistic

Chinn was second on the team yesterday with 12 tackles, one for loss, and one quarterback hit in just his third game as a pro. During the second half, he seemed to be everywhere. Is he a linebacker? Is he a safety? Is he a plane? No, he’s a playmaker with a nose for the ball. As with Burns, we have a chance to watch the start of a special career here in Carolina.

Joey Slye - Extremely Optimistic

One way to miss fewer extra points is to have fewer opportunities to make them. Jokes aside, Slye is the only reason the Panthers had a fighting shot throughout the day. His reliability with mid to long range field goals is a necessary asset for a team with the Panthers’ present red zone woes.

Mike Davis - Somewhat Optimistic

There is only so much hope one can have for Davis when his job is only a placeholder for an injured Christian McCaffrey. Still, Davis showed power, shiftiness, and soft hands—everything the Panthers asked of him en route to a reasonable performance as a starting NFL running back. Also, Reggie Bonnafon had a couple touches. That gave Davis a nice breather.

Teddy Bridgewater - Somewhat Optimistic

This was closer to Week One Teddy. He wasn’t as shaky and he was careful with the football. It was absolutely the first step he had to take in coming back from his Week Two meltdown. Still, I couldn’t tell if the frequent targets of running backs in the first half were a gameplan thing or an unwillingness on Bridgewater’s part to push the ball down field.

He ultimately started taking more chances when the team needed to score and the second half and that paid off with big gains to D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. Also, Curtis Samuel saw one target beyond the line of scrimmage. More of that please.

What I didn’t like

Matt Rhule understanding Panthers’ culture - Somewhat Pessimistic

There is something to be said for letting your own experience and personality take a back seat to the needs of the fanbase you came to serve. Matt Rhule has demonstrated an understanding of the Panthers fans need for romance, despite his and Joe Brady’s history with ‘offenses’. Long drives for field goals are exactly the kind of getting-to-second-base scoring opportunities that will titillate our fans without making us feel cheap or used. Many may ask if we will get in the endzone before we get a ring. I ask: do they really want to?

Red Zone scoring - Somewhat Pessimistic

This also applies to short yardage plays in general. Targeting receivers that are short of the end zone or short of the line to gain is not the most surefire way to convert plays to touchdowns or first downs. I don’t know how much of that is Bridgewater being Captain Check Down and how much is Brady calling questionable plays. I will blame Brady for the short yardage plays that are too cute by half and often fail. The Panthers need to get this together if they intend to win many more games this season.

Bradley Smith - Extremely Pessimistic

My editor is mentioned here for one reason and one reason alone. He is otherwise a kind and gentle leader to whom I can attribute few, if any, suspect qualities or opinions. That is, of course, with the sole exception of this:

Those uniforms looked awful individually and even worse together. The Chargers white on yellow on blue look reminded me more of a firecracker popsickle whose manufacturer tried to cut corners by purchasing bulk dye from a Cub Scout uniform factory that was going out of business. The Panthers blue on black look, meanwhile, seemed to hail from Rhule’s lesser collegiate opponents from years past.

Burn them both and keep them off TV forever—and don’t trust anybody who liked them, no matter how in control of your paychecks they may or may not be.

The takeaway

The Monday Morning Optimist is all about providing balance and context for a season. With the good comes the bad, and thus with the Panthers first win of the season comes our first criticism in this column. Overall, the team is promising. If they can pair that defense with Week One’s offense then this is going to be a team that steals some games. Add some talent in the offseason and they are going to be a team that might steal more than that.

Unfortunately, we are also seeing enough of Rhule, Brady, and Snow to start to have some educated questions:

What are they doing on third and fourth downs and short? Do they trust Bridgewater to throw downfield or does Bridgewater struggle to trust himself? Raising these questions is how they turned a three turnover game into a single possession win that featured five field goals. It’s also a little bit how they lost their first two games.

Where are the sacks? Where are the turnovers? Oh, right, they were in the first quarter and then throughout the game. They helped the Panthers build their leads even when the offense couldn’t turn them into touchdowns.

The great thing about the questions on offense is that they all have answers. They probably won’t even be the defining questions or fan gripes of Rhule’s tenure. Talent is obtainable, that’s half the point of the NFL. The wins and losses in 2020 probably aren’t the start of a Super Bowl story. They are the process by which they can start the story in the years to come. They started by winning in spite of themselves. If they can start winning because of themselves then we might get to watch that story sooner rather than later.