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The Optimist: The Carolina Panthers and their not-so-new Catch-22

The Panthers are in a bind of their own making.

New England Patriots v Carolina Panthers Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

You are going to read any number of eulogies of the 2021 Carolina Panthers today. There will be indictments of the front office; pointings out of the obvious with regards to Sam Darnold; and more than a few jokes at the expense of David Tepper. Many of those may be well founded and well earned by their subjects. This column, however, will not be one of them.

I’m going to try to focus this audience on two things: (1) why I’m still not mad at the Panthers for the Darnold trade and (2) their ever evolving conundrum that is Christian McCaffrey. If you are angry and want to burn jerseys or write strongly worded letters then this may not be the space for you today.

That’s OK.

I’d be angry right now if I wasn’t so bored by this team. From patchwork solutions, to ever-ignored problems, to knee jerk reactions, the Panthers are cliched when they aren’t lackluster. That extends back to at least 2016, but only because a few players (Luke, Cam, etc) were able to rise above the intentional processes that made those flaws inherent to the team.

And, yes, that goes for Tepper’s willingness to burn assets in his zeal to solve the quarterback position like they are matches in his in-laws bathroom. I get having strong feelings right now about a franchise that seems addicted to mediocrity.

Still, we’re going to aim at the positive. At the optimistic.

Darnold was worth the risk

I mentioned earlier that Tepper’s willingness to spend on the problem until it is solved is, in fact, part of the problem. That’s because the NFL isn’t designed as a quick-fix league. Every team has the same number of draft picks to start with, every team has the same amount of money they are allowed to spend. He bought a team in an odd spot, allowed that oddity to fester, and now is facing problems of talent and consistency at the quarterback and each offensive line position—maybe the six most competitive positions in terms of their job markets. Ultimately, fixing those concerns without creating other, potentially larger problems require patience. That’s where Sam Darnold comes in.

The trade for Darnold was a gamble, as I wrote back in April. Right now it is fairly obvious that the Reclamation Project is a failure. Back then it was just a notion. Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer were faced with the following choices: A) keep Teddy Bridgewater for another year, knowing he was not the answer; B) spend a 2022 second round pick on Sam Darnold, who was of a similar age as the current draft class and coming from a bad home; or C) spend the number 8 pick in the 2021 draft on a quarterback that they weren’t sold on (that proved to be either Justin Fields or Mac Jones).

They chose the middle cost option that carried the potential for a high reward (a franchise quarterback) and had the lowest risk (a few late round picks, one second round pick, and cash).

What else were they going to do?

Fields and Jones are probably both better than Darnold, but are they franchise quarterback material? It’s hard to tell, but neither is exactly off to a Justin Herbert-level start. Are they better enough to be worth the difference in draft capital that their acquisition would have required? Not if they aren’t franchise quarterbacks.

I wrote in April that I viewed Darnold as worth a pick that could easily have been the next Amini Silatolu. I stand by that. Fitterer seems like he had an impressive first draft in 2021, but we aren’t even through the rookie year of those guys and it’s just one draft. NFL general managers are consistently inconsistent enough in the draft that I refuse to play hindsight in two years to see who we “traded” for Darnold. They had an option that they viewed as equal to the field of available rookie quarterbacks and they paid a lot less for him. That’s just good business. The tragedy is that it may have been a terrible evaluation.

It was a medium risk bet

The biggest available knock on Darnold isn’t the base cost of the trade, it’s that the cost of the second round pick and the middling success that he has had will keep the Panthers from having as good of a draft as they otherwise might have. In other words, their ability to continue building the team by, for example, investing in the offensive line has been impaired. That is true, and represents their first real puzzle of the Fitterer era in management.

How do you reclaim a project quarterback and give them the environment they need to succeed if you can’t build a new environment for him? This is a fair question now, nine games into the 2021 season. The front office thought they had upgraded the offensive line. They thought they at least were putting Darnold behind a line that was superior to his former unit in New York. It’s a shame we’ll never know if that is true given that Taylor Moton is the only starting offensive lineman on the team who even has a chance to finish the season without having missed multiple games. He and Matt Paradis were in the running until Paradis tore his ACL on the second play of the game yesterday.

An already shaken quarterback is not going to thrive or grow behind chaos in the NFL. So, yes, a change has to be made for the second or third year in a row, depending on how you look at the phrase “has to” in this sentence.

The good news is that this isn’t the same team of the past two years. Two drafts have left an impression, albeit largely on the defensive side of the ball. Investment is still required along the offensive line and at quarterback, but they are the two glaring areas of need. Everything else is manageable.

Simply put, the Darnold trade hasn’t left them behind where they were when they made the bet. The risk that seems to have become reality is that it didn’t put them ahead either.

When does a problem become an identity?

This is still a team that is deep in a rebuild on offense. As for any complaints about the defense, I would suggest patience. The fatal flaw of the defense isn’t talent or scheme, it is that is predicated upon an offense that can keep them fresh by keeping them off the field, that can gift them the ability on occasion—or ever—to play with a lead. Instead the Panthers have scored one touchdown in the last three weeks.

That’s largely because their moderate risk bet on Darnold did not pay off. The defense was built to order and they thought they found a short cut on offense. That shortcut becoming a hindrance was always a possibility and why I started this section talking about Tepper and patience. You can’t roll dice and then get mad at the results. They weren’t weighted and the Panthers knew this was a possibility. Hell, most of the NFL would have told them that losing this bet was more probable than not.

All they can do now is shrug and keep their eyes open for the next bet. But that doesn’t mean they should go all-in on every quarterback who flashes an arm. I’m not mad at the lost second round pick, but I’ll be upset if that is what causes the Panthers to break the bank on a single player when have more than one investment that they need to make to guarantee sustainable success.

Catch-22 vs Run CMC

This isn’t a clever campaign to start a new nickname for McCaffrey. The Panthers really are stuck in a bind. They have proven three things since McCaffrey signed his contract extension in April of last year. First, they can’t give him the ball 30+ times per game and keep him healthy. Second, he doesn’t have to be on the field every down to produce big plays or be a big part of the offense. Third, they can’t move the ball without him on the field. Something has to give.

Valuing a better future over a still-bad present

The Panthers made a solid effort at spelling McCaffrey in the first half yesterday, utterly proving that third point. Yet, even with limited snaps, McCaffrey still led the team in both rushing and receiving. How do they manage to play football without killing their best player, without whom they can’t seem to play football? The answer is deceptively simple: they don’t.

Competition is beyond them without monumental change at the quarterback position. Most quarterbacks, for Panthers fans who can remember the team before 2011, need a better offensive line than what we currently have to succeed. Stop me if I’ve said this before.

The virtue of humility

The Panthers should use McCaffrey going forward, just as they should use everybody on their roster. Open up the playbook. Experiment. See if there is some combination of these players and coaches that can look successful against live competition, but don’t worry about losing games.

Sacrificing the physical health of a superstar to try to save a coach’s job is how we ended up in the quarterback purgatory we are suffering through today. Please. Please don’t break Christian McCaffrey. I wrote that article seven months before his contract extension. Since that extension, McCaffrey has played in seven of 25 possible games.

The Panthers staff need to be humble, they need to accept that competition is largely out of their reach this season. Next season, too, if Darnold is still their $18M man. They need to embrace that chaos and start asking something else of their team. Maybe they’ll learn something.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m thrilled McCaffrey is still McCaffrey. Yesterday showed that his burst and his vision haven’t been impaired by so much time away. That’s great. The Panthers should doe every thing in their power to keep that true. Instead of running him into the ground in an effort to win games this season that we all know is doomed to fall well short of the playoffs, I’d rather see them trying anything else that doesn’t involve killing their best offensive players career. Again. I would love to see an organization, from ownership to coaches, that doesn’t throw a season-long tantrum in the name of pride.

Yesterday they seemed willing to be more circumspect with McCaffrey’s usage in his third first game back from injury in the last year. Consistent usage like that would constitute progress on the coaching staff’s part. It would be the most encouraging sign yet of the Matt Rhule Era. I don’t doubt that he is smart and a hell of a football coach, but I’ve watched a lot of coaches stare dumb in the face and not even recognize it. The ability to be humble and accept the obvious things he doesn’t like would give me more hope than I’ve had in a long time. Both for McCaffrey and the Carolina Panthers in the coming years.