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The Optimist: Moving forward into mildly charted territory

The Carolina Panthers are 3-0 for the fifth time in team history

Carolina Panthers v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The most important thing for fans to take note of this morning is that last night’s game is over and it can’t hurt you, or the Carolina Panthers, anymore. The second thing is to remember that they won.

From there we can feel safe enough to talk about the three biggest takeaways from last night: That win places them at 3-0 for the fifth time in this franchise’s 26-season history; Sam Darnold found his footing in an offense without Christian McCaffrey; and the defense is going to need more than speed off the line if they want to keep meeting the impressively high bar they set for themselves.

Secondary depth might be a primary concern

Credit to Phil Snow for keeping his unit on top of the game when the top fell of his defense in the second half. A broken foot for Jaycee Horn and a groin injury to Juston Burris left them short handed at a time when Davis Mills was starting to show surprising competence in his first ever NFL start.

These guys are the real deal with 14 sacks and 30 quarterback hits through three games. It’ll be a while before we know how scared we have to be for Horn and how long Burris will be out with his groin. Hopefully AJ Bouye has stayed in shape through his suspension and will be ready to plug into the line up against Dallas. Donte Jackson can’t do it all himself, even if he did come back from a nagging turf toe injury as a suddenly amazing tackler.

The sky isn’t falling yet on defense, but the other shoe could drop out of it at any time.

I’m struggling to withhold judgment on Darnold

The redemption tour for former New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is off to a hot start and I’m doing everything I can to hold my judgment until he’s played four games in a Panthers uniform. For now, I’ll say that I was impressed at his ability to rally the offense and keep scoring after Christian McCaffrey left the game. It was tough sledding for a couple of drives immediately after the injury, but Darnold and the whole offense were able to pull themselves together and find something that worked. Credit goes to offensive coordinator Joe Brady for sure, but at least as much goes to Darnold for his execution and leadership on the field.

Ultimately, Darnold turned in a performance that was marked by accuracy across the whole field. That was something in short supply last season. One more week like this and we might have enough data to have actual opinions on this new Panthers quarterback.

Those opinions could be glowing with regards to his accuracy, but they will also be an opportunity to start a conversation about his fumbles as well.

This could be mistaken for a streak

The Carolina Panthers are now 3-0 for the fifth time in 26 seasons. The previous years (and ultimate records) were 1996 (12-4), 2002 (7-9), 2003 (11-5), and 2015 (15-1). For those of you counting at home that includes two Super Bowl appearances, one NFC Championship game, and one losing season. Every year and every team is different. The 2021 Carolina Panthers aren’t locked into a coin toss between Super Bowl and bust. They could end up with any record between 3-14 and 17-0 at this point. And, at the end of the day, that record is all that matters in the NFL. All they’ve done to date is win.

I’m starting to believe in them. I wouldn’t put money on a championship just yet, but I think they are going to be a surprisingly dangerous team. If they get McCaffrey back. If their secondary doesn’t fall apart at the duck taped seams. There are a lot of ifs surrounding this team, but they have won so far in spite of them. I’m going to believe in them until they run into a buzz saw and show us who they really are on the inside.

What’s next

The Dallas Cowboys play host to the Panthers in ten days. They will be the best opponent Carolina has faced this season. The Cowboys are a team that went to toe to toe with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense in Week One. The defending Super Bowl champions do still look to be the team to beat in the NFL. By the time the Panthers kick off in Dallas, we’ll have a much clearer picture of their health. After the game, we might have a clearer picture of the team as a whole. It’ll be essentially the quarter mark of the seventeen game season. Superlative stats will become trends or begin regressing to the mean we’ll see all season. Teams will find the balance between who they want to be and who they can be.

The Panthers defense will likely still lead the league in a number of categories by the time Week 4 kicks off. Their offense will still be trying to fully take over a game on their own. It will be time to see if the Panthers can a turn a reputation into an identity. The 2015 Panthers did it with swagger and a relentless scoring pace. The 2003 Panthers were a smothering defense that allowed the offense to take risks—if you can call Jake Delhomme praying to Steve Smith a risk. The 2021 Panthers will have to find their own way to make that kind of a mark, or else be as forgotten as the 2002 squad.