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Monday Morning Optimist: Rhule changed the whole script of 2020

The Panthers went from new to frustrating ahead of schedule. What else can they put ahead of schedule in their rebuild?

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The 2020 season for the Carolina Panthers only ever promised to be new: a new head coach, a new quarterback, and a new species of mascot, all amidst a world of constant change due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But ‘new’ didn’t turn out to be the story of the season. Matt Rhule’s newness to the team hasn’t worn off as he (hopefully) approaches his first in-person offseason with the team. Teddy Bridgewater’s newness turned stale about Week 14 and has the fanbase primed for another quarterback change in the coming months. Sir Purr turned out to still be a Panther. 2020 became a season of ‘close’ instead and, while frustrating, that is a far more optimistic place to end the season than where the franchise was last year.

To be frustratingly close isn’t inherently optimistic. The Panthers from 2016 to 2018 were often that, but mixed with mounting injuries to their stars and repeated mistakes by their leadership, the emphasis was on the frustration and not their proximity to success. The 2021 Panthers still have plenty of novelty ahead. Their close-but-not-quite stylings of the last year can still be signs of things to come and not just opportunities missed.

What I liked

Year One - Extremely Optimistic

I tried writing it five different ways and I can’t—or won’t—do it. 2020 and optimistic don’t go together. But from a purely football perspective, the Carolina Panthers had an optimistic season during Rhule’s first attempt at being an NFL head coach.

Rhule is still establishing his version of the Panthers. Joe Brady already produced a rare offense that fielded four different players (Curtis Samuel, D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Mike Davis) with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Ask what questions you will about Brady and why people are looking at him as head coach material, but then also realize you are probably complaining about how much Bridgewater held these guys back. Brady’s offense had room for four 1,000 yard players with a struggling quarterback in year one. Phil Snow will have the benefit of applying experience to youth. That experience was hard won at the end of the season with an impressive showing against multiple MVP-caliber quarterbacks following their shutout of the Detroit Lions.

This was achieved with a paper thin roster whose defense featured three to four rookies from their seven player draft class starting on any given Sunday, whose left tackle yesterday was their fifth option this season. This was achieved while Christian McCaffrey and Kawann Short, the biggest names these Panthers had left, sidelined for the vast majority of the season. Yeah, I’m optimistic.

The takeaway

Every aspect of the 2020 Panthers was limited in one way or another. They were young, hurt, missing an off season, or just plain disappointing. They still managed to keep eight of their 11 losses within one score. That is stunning work given the context.

They could have just been different this season and most fans would have been excited for year two. Instead, they flashed the progress of a team already two or three years into a rebuild without the actual materials needed for that quality of construction.

Some fans decided to accelerate their expectations to match and came out the other side disappointed. Go figure. Mistakes and errors from this season are questions, not sentences. Even if this season weren’t the start of a new team, 2020 earned them enough credit to pass on judgment.

Remember that spare parts brought them within inches of a win in each of their eight close losses. What are they going to do with the right answer at quarterback, if they can find them, and a roster that is deeper than a reality TV show? The 2020 Panthers raised their floor, not their ceiling. We still don’t know what that height looks like. The moral of any projection of years future has to be that there is room for growth.