It may not have been the end result Panthers fans wanted to see but Sunday's game against the Washington Football Team was an amazing atmosphere. From Cam Newton's entrance to him running in a 24-yard touchdown then sprinting to midfield to pound the ball in the ground and do his superman celebration, to the game coming down to the final drive, it was quite the day.
Some will point to the Panthers not taking many chances down the field in the passing game but that's not what lost Carolina the game. It was the backbreaking penalties in crucial moments and the inability to establish a push up front on defense that put them in a tough spot.
Washington rushed the ball 40 times for 190 yards which included some big runs by quarterback Taylor Heinicke. There were too many instances where the Panthers had Washington in 3rd & long, yet allowed first downs or gave up chunk yardage to entice Washington to go for it on fourth downs to keep drives alive. The Panthers' defensive front got shoved around early on but especially in the second half. It didn't have the look of a team that ranked 2nd in total defense and 12th against the run. Had they played the way they normally do, they without a doubt win this game.
Although the loss is frustrating, fans have to keep in mind how young this team still is. Sure, they added a 32-year-old Cam Newton and a 31-year-old Stephon Gilmore but each of those guys was brought in mid-season, so it's going to take some time for them to fully have an understanding of the playbook. Very few people outside of the Carolinas view this as a playoff team, even with Cam. To bring in a quarterback in the middle of the season and expect him to lead you to the playoffs is a tough ask. With basically no knowledge of the offense coming in, there's going to be a learning curve for Newton which means the playcalling will be limited to an extent until he has a firm grasp of everything. This rebuild is going to take time even with the additions of Newton and Gilmore. Newton still may have a couple of years of good football left in him but he is not the long-term solution for the Panthers at quarterback. Can he still lead this team to success? Absolutely but not over the long haul.
I'm not sure where the expectations of Matt Rhule taking this team to the playoffs in year two came from but it's silly. That said, don't get me wrong. I do believe the Panthers have the talent in place to secure a spot in the playoffs. But it all comes down to consistent execution. Young teams have trouble doing that. There are often times penalties, busted coverages, and miscommunication - all of which took place on Sunday against Washington.
The way I judge if a team is headed in the right direction is whether or not there is progress year after year. There may still be six games left in the season but this team is lightyears better than it was in 2021. I think a lot of folks forget how atrociously bad the defense was two years ago. Matt Rhule inherited one of the league's worst defensive units from top to bottom and by investing in draft picks and free agency, they now have a top-five defense. Now, I expect that they would place that same amount of attention on the offensive side of the ball over the next two offseasons to put together a complete team and winning product.
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