The only good news for Carolina Panthers fans is that Bryce Young appears to be the real deal. He is a talented passer, a quick decision maker, and a capable improviser. Poor protection, middling options at receiver, and questionable-at-best play calling are all that are standing in his way.
If you think that sounds bad, wait until you realize that the Panthers and the Chicago Bears are the only two 0-4 teams in the NFL. There is a lot of season left to play, but the Bears are currently in line to have the number 1 and number 2 overall picks in the 2024 NFL Draft.
That’s a remarkable amount of negativity in a column about optimism, but I’ve always found it easier to look up a the stars after first acknowledging that I’m standing knee deep in the mud.
What I liked and what I didn’t like boils down to a simple imbalance. Ejiro Evero’s side of the ball is in great hands and is getting better every week in spite of mounting injuries. Frank Reich, meanwhile, has been overseeing a compounding series of failures on offense.
Multiple changes are needed in terms of both personnel and operational philosophy on offense, the very least of which is getting Austin Corbett back from the Physically Unable to Perform list. He is eligible to return this week.
It’s not enough to say “I feel like we’re close” as Reich has done every week after a loss. It’s not enough when the team looks like they are almost ready for Week 2 of the preseason after an 0-4 start to the regular season.
First, let’s take a quick look at a couple of highlight worthy individual performances. Then we can talk about a couple of changes that will give me optimism when they occur.
What I liked. . .
Sam Franklin Jr - Extremely Optimistic
A questionable pass interference call on Franklin (was that ball catchable?) set up the Vikings first and only goal-to-go set of downs in the game. Three plays later, Franklin entered the history books in Charlotte with the longest defensive touchdown return in Carolina Panthers history. The 99-yard return was easily the best play the team has had all season. The only shame is that Franklin outscored the entire Panthers offense yesterday with just that one play.
D’Shawn Jamison - Cautiously Optimistic
Back up defensive backs are getting a lot of work for the Panthers. Jamison was often on the field in the first half as the third or fourth corner on the field and then saw significant snaps in the second half in relief of an injured Donte Jackson. Jamison held his own against the league’s top passing attack and was a big part of the team effort that held Kirk Cousins to a season low 12/19 for 149 yards. That is fewer than half his average number of attempts, completions, and yards.
Of course, Jamison’s biggest moment was when he laid a bull dozing block on Cousins to secure Franklin’s touchdown. Watch the best angle you didn’t see on TV yesterday here:
Sam read this all the way through pic.twitter.com/wddEPvmVj0— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 1, 2023
Yetur Gross-Matos - Extremely Optimistic
Gross-Matos continues his growth in Evero’s scheme. He was fifth on the team in tackles with four, behind the likes of Vonn Bell, Jeremy Chinn, C.J. Henderson, and Frankie Luvu. He also accounted for one sack, two tackles for loss, and two quarterback hits.
The much-maligned 2020 second round pick is finally emerging as a key piece in the Panthers pass rush.
Jeremy Chinn - Optimistic
A lightning sack, another tackle for loss, and another quarterback hit were Chinn’s highlight stats of the game. He certainly didn’t take over this game the way he did the 2020 game against the Vikings where he scored back-to-back touchdowns, but it was still his most impactful performance yet this season in a game where a battered Panthers secondary needed on field leadership.
The opportunities will continue to be there for Chinn and I am increasingly confident in his ability to step up and meet them.
Kamu Grugier-Hill - Somewhat Optimistic
Get a pick, get some praise. Grugier-Hill is playing in place of Shaq Thompson and, while he could use some work in run defense, his 31-yard interception return helped set up another Panthers field goal.
Brian Burns - Extremely Optimistic
Yeah, we’re a little out of order here and it may seem odd to talk about optimism for a star player who only produced one tackle in a whole game, but hear me out. Offenses are putting all of their attention on Derrick Brown and Burns. It’s opening up opportunities for players like Chinn and Gross-Matos to rush the passer unblocked or, at least, win one-on-one match ups with lesser offensive linemen.
Burns started the season on fire which put his opponents exactly where defensive coordinator Evero wants them. Burns is pivotal to how this defense operates and we won’t even see its full potential until the offense can get a lead or at least first down in the second half.
What I didn’t like. . .
There are three different problems I could focus this section on. The short yardage and goal-to-go play calling is way too conservative and is limiting this offenses scoring potential; the protection calls are leaving zero chance for success in obvious passing situations (read: the second half); and the much-vaunted collaborative conversations that lead to each play call take too long and keep Young flirting with delay of game penalties far too often. He may be “pro ready” but he is still a rookie. Stop making it harder on him.
I’m not one for massive changes early in the season, but the fact of an NFL season is that Week 5 is squarely in the middle of things. This team is winless a quarter of the way in. Even just as an olive branch to fans, Reich needs to hand over play calling to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown. It’s not like things could get worse.
Ikem Ekwonu - Currently Pessimistic
I don’t know what in the wide, wild world of sophomore slumps is going on in Ickey’s head, but the former top ten pick is looking like a bottom tier offensive tackle. Mental mistakes are killing his game and, often, what little momentum the Panthers have been able to cobble together in a given game.
I don’t think his play has fallen beyond reclamation, but serious reform is required if he is going to re-earn the praise he garnered as a rookie.
Get it together, man. We know you can.
What’s next. . .
A hard road. The Panthers have led at some point in every game this season and still managed to lose all four of them. They seem likelier to break the former streak than the latter facing the Detroit Lions in Michigan next week and the Miami Dolphins in Florida the week after.
Changes need to be made, or else back-to-back home games against C.J. Stroud’s Houston Texans in Week 6 and Anthony Richardson’s Indianapolis Colts in Week 7 are going to throw fuel on already merrily burning fire in the Panthers’ fan base.