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Monday Morning Optimist: Where do we go now?

The Carolina Panthers lost a key game for their demise as playoff contenders, against a division rival. Now we must figure out where their puzzle pieces fit in 2022 and beyond.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers
The only direction we can look now, is forward
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Welp. That game sucked. The Panthers lost the second half of the Bi-Annual Misery and Sadness Bowl to the Falcons, officially squashing any hope of making the playoffs. The Panthers new offensive coordinator fell short of Matt Rhule’s 33+ rushing attempts per game quota, and the defense surrendered 29 points due to several turnovers on the offense’s part. Joe Brady cannot be blamed for this one, as the team fired him last weekend. So, where do we go now?

Well, we are learning that neither this iteration of Cam Newton nor the AAF’s golden boy P.J. Walker are the answer at quarterback for this group of players. We are learning that this defense is not built to stop the run against teams that are willing to commit to it. We already knew this team’s offensive line sucks, and no matter how you align the pieces, it isn’t sustainable, and this was probably a top 5 performance of the year by that unit in this game.

We all want the Panthers to be a successful football team. We’ve been waiting since the 2016 Super Bowl for the Panthers to rebound. It hasn’t happened, it will not happen in 2021. However, there are some positives to glean from an otherwise sad season.

WR room is still loaded

We all bagged on Robby Anderson for his early struggles with drops, and you can debate in the comments about his merits as a WR 1/2, but he showed us today why the team decided to give him an extension. Despite up and down QB play, with alternating arms slinging the football, Anderson caught 7 of 12 targets for 84 yards and a TD, three of which were big plays on the final offensive drive for the Panthers to keep them within striking distance for a comeback. DJ Moore also finished with 84 yards receiving on 6 catches, despite being hobbled at times. Brandon Zylstra ended with 4 receptions for 45 yards. This receiving group is deep. If the Panthers can find a halfway decent long-term option at QB, they’ll have weapons. Could even be Cam Newton! It will depend on how the team addresses the trenches next season.

Build a more complete group in the trenches

Defensively, Carolina has a lot to be proud of on their front seven. However, there’s a clear (but very fixable) flaw. They don’t have enough beef when teams decide to run the football. I really like Derrick Brown, DaQuan Jones, Brian Burns, and Haason Reddick (pay that guy please) as a front four. However, they are not built to stop a traditional NFL run game when a coach decides to commit to it, analytics be damned. This group is solid, even close to elite, in defending a traditional NFL pass forward offense. They just need a few extra pieces to be a more complete front line, and you can get that in free agency. The Panthers will have the money, I know the offensive line will be the biggest perceived priority, but supplementing this already good defense with some balancing pieces will pay dividends. I promise.

What’s Next?

The Panthers face the Buffalo Bills next week in the #SeanMcDermottRevengeGame. The prospects don’t look great. But this team seems like it will beat any team it shouldn’t beat and lose to any team it shouldn’t lose to. Don’t bet money on it, just flip a coin and enjoy the ride.

The Panthers are far from the dumpster fires that will round out the top 5 in the NFL Draft. They will have problems to address, such as Sam Darnold’s contract and building a team that doesn’t have to ride Christian McCaffrey into the ground. The pieces they have assembled are pretty darn good, but they will need more, and they’ll need pieces to supplement the foundation they’ve built already. Matt Rhule will likely stick around for at least one more season to implement his process. And maybe his process can work, but right now he seems like Ron Rivera in disguise.

So where do we go now? I guess we hang on for the ride.