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The Optimist: The offensive line can’t get lower than the bottom of the pile

The need for investment in the trenches has never been more clear. Will this be the year the team finally, actually tries to remake their least talented position group?

Carolina Panthers v Miami Dolphins Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

That was the worst offensive line performance I have seen from a Carolina Panthers team in years. There aren’t a lot of positives to take away from that game, but the poor quality of the line play in both the running and passing games make it hard to confidently assign blame. There are honestly only two things I can say gave me optimism from this game: Cam Newton’s shoulder (and only his shoulder) and punter Lachlan Edwards.

The deep ball

To be clear: Newton had an awful day as a quarterback. The passing game as a whole was just entirely off. For every errant ball thrown by Newton there was an on target pass that was dropped or a defensive lineman that was allowed to jump, unhindered, into a throwing lane to bat the ball down. Too many of Newton’s passes were behind his receivers. I’m not sure if it is an anticipation issue for him or if he is late in making decisions, but that is becoming a consistent flaw that bears attention in the weeks to come. That is to say nothing of his first two interceptions of the season on back-to-back drives. Both were bad decisions.

It wasn’t all bad, though. For all that his turnovers were bad decisions, they certainly weren’t ducks. Neither were the rest of his incompletions. Newton now has two (nearly) full games under his belt, including that beautiful deep ball to DJ Moore in the first quarter. You may remember it as that play when we still had hope.

It is still too early to say that Newton is healthy, but so far so good with everything from his ankles to his shoulder checking out. We won’t know his limit until he reaches it, but every healthy week completed is a necessary step towards a healthy season. We can’t see what he has left in the tank if he still has a leak, after all.

Keep your torches and pitchforks in the closet for a few more weeks.

52.2 yards

That was Lachlan’s average punt against the Dolphins. It isn’t record breaking and it isn’t going to save the Panthers season, but it was a good game. That’s encouraging after a shaky start from the team’s third punter of 2021 to date.

What’s next

The Panthers have a lengthening list of questions to answer. However, there are only two that really matter for building long term success. Recognizing and prioritizing these questions is paramount for an improved 2022. The questions center around figuring out who pushed their defense off of a cliff and precisely when they will begin investing in their offensive line.

Sorting out the difference between the first three weeks of the season and these last two on defense needs to be priority number one for the coaching staff. For all of the offense’s woes, the defense actually has a high degree of talent across the board. They have the players to field a top defense. We have seen them do it before and they need to prove that they can do it again. Relative to the next step, this is simple.

The second priority is throwing every offensive line player they can find at a wall and seeing if any of them flash. Once they do flash, they need to ride that player at that position until they get exposed or actually prove to be talented. Yes, this is an argument for putting Brady Christensen back at left tackle. He played his best game of the season there last week and “best game of the season” isn’t a phrase you can apply to any of the film that Cam Erving or Dennis Daley have produced.

It’s also an argument for patience from the fan base. The Panthers, across every owner/manager/coach combination since 2008, have criminally under invested in their offensive line. I said yesterday’s game was the worst I have seen in years, and that is largely because their offensive line has been getting worse year over year for a long time. 2008 was the last time the Panthers spent a first round pick on an offensive lineman: Jeff Otah. Their last successful pick of a lineman was in 2003, when the Panthers drafted Jordan Gross. Since then, the Panthers have used first round picks on three running backs, three defensive tackles, and four linebackers. Some of those picks have been great players. None of them, besides Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey, were particularly adept at protecting quarterbacks.

The defense should be better because it can be. The offensive line simply lacks the capacity. In part that is because the Panthers have picked 11 defensive players in the last two drafts, including five defensive backs (not to mention draft picks traded for Stephon Gilmore and CJ Henderson). They have made a concerted effort to remake their secondary and, in spite of surrendering nine receptions for 137 yards to Jaylen Waddle yesterday, it has largely improved that unit.

They need to pay that kind of attention to what is arguably the most important position group on the field. 2020 was the first draft in franchise history that was used to select only defensive players. 2022 needs to have the same intensity of focus on the offensive line. It doesn’t matter if half the guys aren’t good enough to make the team, the Panthers must try. If this is a quarterback’s league then the foundation of any team has to be the ability to protect their quarterback. Otherwise, finding him is irrelevant. Ask David Carr—or Cam Newton.