Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Panthers, a plucky upstart coached by former Baylor and Temple head coach Matt Rhule. Once believed to be frontrunners for Trevor Lawrence, the Panthers came out, hung tough in 2020 and built a solid foundation for 2021 and beyond…
1. What went right this year?
While the Panthers will likely fall beneath their Pythagorean win expectation this year, I think there should be legitimate optimism in Year One of the Rhule regime. The NFC South is brutal but will open up in a year or two, leaving Carolina in a solid poll position to sit out front. Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore both had over 1,000 receiving yards and Curtis Samuel got new life breathed into his career as well. Their young players—Derrick Brown, Yetur Gross-Matos, Jeremy Chinn and Troy Pride—all got a decent amount of playing time this year. Most got at least 500 to 600 live snaps during the season. Chinn in particular has established himself right away as a versatile tool with star potential down the road.
2. What went wrong this year?
Christian McCaffrey was hurt and the Panthers showed an inability at times to close out big games. Of their 10 losses, eight were within eight points, which is the kind of thing a first-year coach can point to as progress … until it isn’t anymore (just look at Matt Patricia in Detroit). Their defense was good but bendable, and allowed the fourth-highest percentage of drives to end in a score in the NFL. Outside of Brian Burns, the team had a hard time generating much of a pass rush.
3. The Big Question this offseason
Who is going to be shaping the personnel direction of this team moving forward? It’s safe to assume that Matt Rhule will have a heavy hand in selecting his players, but with Marty Hurney now out of the picture, who will be his co-pilot in that process? It would be exciting to see the analytically-minded David Tepper pour more resources into this process and catch the Panthers up to speed with some of the more forward-thinking organizations in the sport (which, it seems, he has already done quite well). Cleveland is obvious proof that this strategy—shedding bulky assets; loading up on youth; creating a manageable, risk-averse system around a young quarterback; piling draft capital—has legs and can work with the right coach. Carolina already has part of that equation.
4. Coach/GM outlook
Outside of the Hurney question, I wonder if a team will take a big swing at offensive coordinator Joe Brady this offseason. Brady is very young but has jump-started offenses wherever he’s gone. He was responsible for LSU’s massive turnaround and national championship run with Joe Burrow at the helm. The success of younger coaches across the league, and the success of organizations that have taken similar risks with their coaching hires, are paying off to the point where Brady may not scare off an owner anymore.
5. Key free agents
• Taylor Moton, tackle
• Curtis Samuel, wide receiver
• Russell Okung, tackle
• Mike Davis, running back
6. Top priority
I think signing Taylor Moton is going to be a big building block of this offsense and, like the Christian McCaffrey deal, is a chance for Matt Rhule to set the tone in his locker room and award the kind of players he wants to keep around. Also, in the big picture, the team has done a great job of pivoting into a team that doesn’t require Christian McCaffrey to function. Continuing to work in that direction will pay dividends down the line.
7. Positions of need
Offensive line, secondary, running back insurance, quarterback insurance.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
Double down on whatever it takes to retain Joe Brady and allow him to select Teddy Bridgewater’s successor. This year could be a decent year for the Panthers to find QB value in the draft without too much of a strain. Bridgewater is good enough to lift this team into the postseason at some point, but that does not mean there shouldn’t be a better, higher-upside option sitting in the pipeline. At the moment, Carolina selects fourth and should be in a good position to net one of the class’s top projected passers.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
Heading into the offseason, the Panthers need to get radically younger. They have a collegiate head coach and top coordinator, and the third-oldest roster in the NFL. This is not to say Rhule isn’t capable of coaching older players, but roster health and harmony is typically found closer to the early 20s and not the late 20s. This division cracks wide open in 2022, so dealing anyone who isn’t going to be a part of that plan makes a lot of sense. If I were Carolina, I would entertain offers on any snap-eating veterans.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2022. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are not the kind of gatekeepers you’ll expect to be around for much longer.