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The Optimist: Learning what works when the wheels fall off

Darnold isn’t everything wrong with this team, but upgrading his position would gloss over most of the other issues until they, too, can be fixed.

Syndication: The Record Chris Pedota, / USA TODAY NETWORK

Three weeks into the 2021 season saw the Carolina Panthers making aggressive trades to shore up an injured secondary and a national media conversation that was legitimately entertaining playoff conversations. The loss of Christian McCaffrey, among others, for an extended period due to a hamstring injury is not the sole reason for the ensuing four-game losing streak that the Carolina Panthers are currently keeping active. Their early winning streak was built upon a world-beating defense, a consistent—if unspectacular—quarterback, and a running back whose talent forgave a struggling offensive line.

Now, all of that has largely been turned on its head. The blame for that may turn out to lie with the coaching staff, but there is a simpler and at least equally deserving target that most fans have identified: Sam Darnold. The Panthers quarterback currently struggles to move the football in any consistent or meaningful way. His throws lack accuracy, anticipation, and often depth. He has been building a history of making bad decisions and executing them with worse mechanics. This isn’t to bash Darnold as a bad person. I’m trying to thoroughly acknowledge the transition he has made from the quarterback of the early season who made his share of mistakes, but still presented consistent production in spite of them. That quarterback no longer takes the field for the Panthers.

As a result, the once-vaunted defense is playing too many plays with little rest. They are still great early, but often gassed by the fourth quarter when the offense begins their ritual pretense of a comeback. The New York Giants crossed midfield on their five drives of the first half, yet the Panthers defense held them to only three points. That includes a drive where they ultimately sacked Daniel Jones back behind the 50-yard line to save a potential field goal attempt. That was a phenomenal effort, but it is not one they are currently capable of making on their own for 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, the threat to the Panthers offense from the early season has suddenly taken strides. Both run and pass blocking by the offensive line were causes for concern during the early wins. Yesterday, however, saw both significantly improved running for Chuba Hubbard (despite a disappointing stat line of 17 rushes for 56 yards by the whole team) and some of the best pass protection of the season. Darnold had time and did little with it.

This is all great news wrapped in an awful professional football product.

The Panthers have invested heavily, using 11 of their most recent 18 draft selections, in their defense. Injuries have plagued their depth this season, but the fresh, healthy starters are putting on one heck of a show. It is reasonable to assume continued improvement with both experience and health improving with time.

The offensive line has seen significantly less investment, but their third round pick, Brady Christensen, is already flashing potential at left tackle while waiver claim Michael Jordan is growing into the left guard role. They looked good this last game and I have no idea if that is going to continue to grow. I do know that good is a fine place for them to be this week. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for the rest.

Right now the Panthers know that they are a slightly improved offensive line and a healthier defense away from competing in the NFL so long as they have one other thing: consistent, safe quarterback play. Darnold seems hellbent on proving that he doesn’t match that description. And that’s OK. The team isn’t tied to him forever.

The exciting thing is that they are only one real piece away from being the team we saw in September. For year two of a rebuild with few options available to fill a massive hole at quarterback, that’s an incredible realization for Panthers fans: Their team is awful at the moment, but it is the nature of the NFL for that awful to be just a hairsbreadth away from success.