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Monday Morning Optimist: Sloppiness obscured real promise for the 2023 season

Back breaking mistakes have to be fixed, but there should be a team on the other side.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers lost a fairly sloppy game against the a similarly—but not quite as—sloppy Atlanta Falcons team in their season opener yesterday. Bryce Young joined a long tradition of first overall picks to lose their first game. Frank Reich joined a long tradition of Panthers head coaches who have watched their passing attack evaporate in the second half. While much of yesterday’s game may have felt familiar, the fact remains that this was the season opener after a massive staff and roster overhaul. Sloppiness and inconsistency were to be expected. Many of yesterday’s errors won’t concern me until they prove to be habits after a few weeks of football.

Because of the newness of this team, in fact, I’m going to return this column to an older format where I break down the game into a few elements that I liked and a few that I didn’t. In large part that’s because yesterday’s loss was due to three costly and hopefully rare turnovers and not due to rote errors that were baked into the team’s leadership. It’s a new day, let’s enjoy it.

What I liked

Bryce Young - Cautiously Optimistic.

With the exception of an overthrow on a deep target to Hayden Hurst in the fourth quarter, Young never really looked pressured. He certainly was under a lot of pressure in the second half once the Panthers entered obvious passing territory, but the calm and collected player we were promised was pretty much what we saw on the field.

Young made quick decisions when there were decisions to be made (more on his receivers in the next section) and displayed an uncanny sense for the pocket. His movement in and out of the pocket was a sight to see.

I think his interceptions were glaring, rookie mistakes. We’ll see if we see them again. Giving him the benefit of the doubt for the moment, however, I otherwise quite liked what I saw in terms of his decision making and short to intermediate accuracy. The aforementioned sloppiness arose on a couple of targets where his receivers ran the wrong route, or ran a route differently than expected (see Young’s other deep target of the game, to Terrace Marshall Jr). Besides those moments, there were no glaring misses. Practice will increase both the receivers’ familiarity with their responsibilities and Young’s chemistry with them.

It wasn’t the result we wanted, but the tools he put on display leave me with real hope that we’re only going up from here. The cautious optimism grade upgrades to extreme as soon as he shows his interceptions today were a Jessie Bates problem and not a middle of the field problem.

Brian Burns - Extremely Optimistic

Pay. This. Man.

Burns, finally playing in his natural position, took over the first quarter. The Falcons made some adjustments to account for him and opened up the game for guys like Derrick Brown and Frankie Luvu to make some plays of their own.

Pair him—and the rest of the defense—with an offense that can stay on the field and his 1.5 sacks in the first quarter will likely grow across the whole game.

He was easily the best Panthers player on the field yesterday. Pay him before he costs more.

Frankie Luvu - Extremely Optimistic

Speaking of Luvu, he got embarrassed by Bijan Robinson on the first rounder’s first career touchdown. Luvu seemed to take that personally and immediately returned to playing a lights out game where he made plays up and down the field.

His and Burns immediate returns to form in the season opener have helped lay to rest any concerns I had about new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero’s ability to tailor his defense to his players. The man has stars and he clearly knows how to put them in position to shine. You love to see it.

Laviska Shenault Jr - Somewhat Optimistic

Shenault disappeared in the second half along with the rest of the Panthers wide receiving corps, but the manufactured touches he had in the first half once again promised to provide a productive complement to more standard passing game production. The standard part has to actually kick in, but in the few plays that Shenault and the rest of the offense were clicking, there was a glimpse of an efficient and productive offense.

Clean up a few of the misfires and I’m optimistic the Panthers offense is going to be one that actually does have options and answers for most defenses.

Turnovers - Mildly optimistic

You never want to see a turnover from your favorite offense. You certainly never want to see three in one game. I’m taking most of yesterday’s turnovers as a combination of rookie mistakes and first game jitters for now.

I’m also taking them as evidence of a strong defense by the Panthers. The Falcons scored 17 points off of turnovers in a game they won by 14 and only scored 24 overall. Their one scoring drive that didn’t start off of a turnover still started at the Atlanta 44 after the Panthers punted from their own 3 yard line.

The Falcons had scoring drives of 17-, 5-, 61-, and 56-yards. Those two longer drives came after the Panthers offense had proven consistently incapable of staying on the field and the defense was gassed.

By practice and by fortune, I expect the turnover scales to tip closer to even, if not in the Panthers favor. That means the offense will have more opportunities and the already good defense may get the chance to stay good well into the second half.

What I didn’t like

Jaycee Horn’s injury - Extremely pessimistic

I’m not here to complain about a player being “injury prone.” I’m worried about a non-contact injury on turf where Horn came up holding his knee. The team has said repeatedly so far that Horn has a hamstring injury of unknown severity. More information will come.

I hope that’s all it is and that we’ll see Horn suit up again this season, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

For now, let’s all be afraid of what the defense will look like when facing a quarterback both capable and willing to throw the ball past the line of scrimmage more than once a game.

Separation for receivers - Extremely pessimistic

And here is the point about execution. None of the Panthers wide receivers seemed capable of getting open. That was less than ideal for a rookie quarterback being asked to make something happen while trailing by two touchdowns.

Maybe they sort something out on their own. Maybe D.J. Chark’s return opens things up in the coming weeks. Entering the season without a true number one receiver was always a gamble, and so far it’s looking like more risk than reward.

Frank Reich’s short yardage play calling - somewhat pessimistic

After letting D’Onta Foreman walk in free agency, the Panthers decided to enter the 2023 regular season without a traditional power back for short yardage situations. Yesterday, that proved. . . interesting.

The team did not bunch up their players on the line of scrimmage and attempt a traditional power running play. I’ll give them that much credit. They, instead, mildly spread the Falcons out based on formation before attempting to run up the middle anyways. It was cute, but ineffective. Consecutive plays in the first quarter on third and fourth and 1 came up short. That killed a likely scoring drive in a close game. In fact, that drive ended after four consecutive runs starting from 1st & 10 in the red zone.

I never want to see that again.

Reich drafted Young first overall because Young is supposed to be “the guy.” Reich also has no skill position players of particular note on the roster right now. Nobody has established themselves as reliable in this offense. He should lean on the guy he gave up the farm for, not protect him from consequences on his first trip into the red zone.

I overall liked the design, if not the execution of yesterday’s game, but this was one point that just felt wrong to me.

What’s next

The most important result of yesterday’s game is that the Panthers won’t have to face Bijan Robinson again until near the end of the season. Many other defenses will get a crack at figuring him out.

Then, of course, there is the Panthers’ Monday Night Football date with the New Orleans Saints. The first Prime Time game in Young’s young career also happens to be the Panthers first opportunity to climb out of fourth place in the NFC South. That’s all big stakes for what is also a Week 2 game, but the NFL season is short and every game is going to matter.

Carolina gets an extra day of prep this week to figure out—and fix—their mistakes from yesterday. Let’s see what they can do with it.