CHARLOTTE — So yeah, that happened.
The Panthers were obviously looking for a better result heading into their bye week, when 6-6 might have left them thinking about the postseason as they rested for the final five-game sprint.
But when you’re 5-7 and have an extra seven days to stew over an ugly loss, the mailbag doesn’t figure to be a particularly hopeful place.
That said, might as well dive straight into the bag:
Is Christian McCaffrey ever going to stay healthy? — Rick, Rockingham, NC
Maybe. I hope so. One thing I know for sure is that it’s not for a lack of effort on his part, or a lack of preparation.
It surprised me a little when McCaffrey posted about his latest injury on social media, because he’s such an intensely private man (which is a hard thing to be in his situation). McCaffrey doesn’t like talking about past injuries, and chooses his words carefully when he talks about anything at all. So him using the word “devastated” isn’t just a guy searching for cheap likes.
I have no problem believing the dude is actually devastated. He footballs. That’s what he does. He spends every waking moment (and counts the non-waking ones) because he wants to be great at this. He is consumed by it. So to not be able to do the thing he’s great at and spends so much effort on has to be frustrating.
One thing I’ve come to believe in about this game after covering it for more than 25 years is that for all the time and sweat and dollars invested into keeping players on the field, the one factor that no one ever accounts for is dumb luck. If McCaffrey showed up out of shape, or was lazy, I could see calling the man injury prone. But I hate that description, because it implies that he’s somehow at fault for a procession of unrelated injuries, from his shoulder to his ankle and a few in between.
Christian McCaffrey plans every second of his workday. He could not have planned on a Dolphin falling across the back of his leg at the end of a play.
What happened this week? Did the team think that this trip to Miami began their bye week, and they were on vacation? I mean really, between them trying to push the ball down the field with deep passes (I assume just to prove that Cam Newton can air one out) and the defense not being able to stop any pass attempts, and even special teams giving up that blocked punt for six. This game was ugly all over. So my main question is, do you think this week off can help them recollect their thoughts, and aim for the playoff push still? Or do you think with the schedule taking a much tougher turn these last five, is it time to consider this another lost season to the rebuilding process? — Eric, Brick, NJ
It wasn’t pretty, that’s for sure. It was reminiscent of the Giants game, in which the defense played OK at times, but when the offense couldn’t move the ball at all, the strain eventually became too much and it all cracked at once.
I don’t know that it’s wise to attach the expectations for the rest of the season to the context of the playoffs, because they’re not in a position to dictate their own future. But I do think five weeks of games can be valuable in a building process, for a number of reasons.
One, because that’s 300 minutes of game tape with which to evaluate some guys.
That’s not to say this is all geared toward 2022. The players on the field are going to be playing to win. For some of them, it could be their first, or their last NFL game. For all of them, there’s a personal pride in doing a job well for future employers, whether that’s here or elsewhere.
But I’m one of those old-fashioned types who think that given a choice, it’s preferable to win. Whether it’s in 2021 or 2022 or beyond, winning instead of losing has value. After going 5-11 last year, stacking some more wins on top of the current five would be tangible progress.
And that’s important.
Isn’t it time for some trades? Panthers need help. It’s all about blocking and tackling. — Ken, Lincolnton, NC
It might be, except the trade deadline was Nov. 2.
Anyone they bring in this time of the year probably won’t be an upgrade over anyone on the roster, considering those guys have mostly been with the team all year, know the system, have actually practiced, etc.
But yes, they’re aware of the need for reinforcements, particularly on the offensive line.
I would anticipate an active free agency period there. They know they need to find a starter or two up front, even before the draft starts.
There are a few cats up front who are getting some work now that will help with their development, namely rookie Brady Christensen. I’m still not sure what position he ends up playing in a few years, but I feel more confident now that he’ll be playing one of them. And with Deonte Brown added back to the active roster Tuesday, there’s another guy who will get needed practice (and possibly game) reps.
They know Taylor Moton will start at right tackle for them next year. They signed Pat Elflein a year ago with the possibility of him being at center in 2022 in the back of their mind. Michael Jordan has impressed (particularly as a run-blocker), though we’ll see if his hamstring injury last week causes him to miss post-bye time.
But they’re looking to upgrade at a number of spots, and are in a position to spend some money to do so.
The run defense, to me, has been the weak link on the defense in the overall sense. They seem to have been gashed pretty badly in the middle, versus to the outside consistently. Is this a sophomore slump issue with Derrick Brown, or is the combination of DaQuan Jones or Bravvion Roy with Brown not meshing well? — Clyde, Vacaville, CA
Well, we’ll see how those guys respond after last week’s benching of Brown.
Parking last year’s first-rounder after a poor game at Washington was clearly a message from head coach Matt Rhule, who spent time last week meeting one-on-one with Brown to talk about what he was hoping to see.
Here’s what we know about Brown: He’s an incredibly talented large strong man. Here’s what we’ve seen from Brown at times this year: He can get a little loose with his technique and still be effective at times because he’s an incredibly talented large strong man.
Football guys like to talk about pad level, which is jargon for being able to use leverage. If you have power like Brown does, and can come up into a blocker, it’s going to be hard for many of them to control you. But if you enter the transaction a little upright, it’s easier for an offensive lineman to move you instead.
That, and other small technical issues (the kind of repeatable fundamentals Rhule likes to talk about) could help Brown capitalize on the talent that’s clearly there.
The other interesting thing worth watching the next few weeks is how an expanded rotation of defensive tackles impacts his play. The Panthers had just three active on game days after the injury to rookie Daviyon Nixon. But rookie Phil Hoskins was active for the first time last week and played 16 snaps (22 percent). That’s not a lot, but it helps.
Jones played 39 of the 74 snaps last week (53 percent), Brown 36 (49 percent), and Roy 34 (46 percent). Having Hoskins take anything off their workload is only going to help.
Looking back over the course of the season, Brown has played 70 percent of the snaps in five games. One of those was the Saints game in Week 2 when they only had 44 defensive snaps as a team, so it wasn’t like he was worn down that day.
But the other four came against Washington, Dallas, New England, and Philadelphia. You’ll note that group includes four losses, and three games in which the run defense sprang huge leaks.
If they get Nixon back next year (he was looking good before he was injured) and Hoskins develops, it would help Brown in a number of ways. We’ll see how he responds in the coming weeks.
Why is P.J. Walker not the starting QB? He is great at bringing the team down the field. Happy that Cam is Back, but he should be the red zone playmaker inside the 20 yard line. — Terry, Atlanta, GA
Walker has started a pair of games in the NFL, and won both of them. That’s a credit to him. But he’s also thrown one touchdown and seven interceptions in his NFL career, and that’s not great.
Throughout the offseason, Walker seemed a steadier player than in 2020. They’ve talked to him the entire time he’s been here about being smart with the ball, and taking fewer chances.
Sunday in Miami, he didn’t have much of a chance to get settled, as the offensive line regressed badly. But he still had one of those throws where he rolls one way and throws back against his body toward the middle of the field, and those are the kind of throws you just can’t make. They get picked off a lot.
There’s a reasonable argument to be made that platooning the two of them more early on might have been wise, while Newton was learning a brand new offense. But at the end of the day, that’s Cam Newton standing over there next to him, and he’s likely a future Hall of Famer. He was brought here to play. So he played.
Hey Old Guy, Since it’s Ask the Old Guy? I’ll phrase this in the form of a question. On this week of Thanksgiving is it OK that we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving? The world seems crazy sometimes but football and our beloved Panthers give us something to smile about, even if the scoreboard isn’t always in our favor! On behalf of the readers, thank you for all you do and for doing it professionally and (when applicable) with a much-needed sense of humor. — Rich, Mount Olive, NC
Yeah, I’ll let you slide this time since you got it in after last week’s bag deadline. As our regular readers know, I’m a big fat sucker for Thanksgiving. And after last week, a little bit bigger and fatter. It’s still my favorite holiday, and I’ll probably keep yammering about being grateful and listening to Arlo Guthrie until my kids put me in a home, which could be any day now.
I get it. Having an emotional attachment to an enterprise that doesn’t guarantee satisfaction with every result is tough. So I appreciate the people who stick around, and don’t yell and holler all the time, and ask good questions when things are going well and when they’re going poorly.
And since I know Rich The Pickle Guy is one of the regulars (and he was before I landed at this address), I’m making him this week’s Ask The Old Guy Friend of the Mailbag, and now that I’m working on getting the long-awaited merch in the mail, he’s getting the 18th piece of it behind me, Hal from Canada, Westray from Kershaw, Joseph formerly of Concord who’s moving away for some big fancy job with a desk, Sunny from Houston, Adam from Germany, Long-Winded Donovan, Juan from Argentina, Wise Bob from Colorado, Newlywed Alex, Every Day Susan from Training Camp, Lynn from Lake Wylie, Scott With Good Taste in Music, Cory Who Got Right To The Point And Begged, Peter the Australian Punter Expert, Brad The King of Date Night, and Shane For Whom We Can All Be Thankful.
And since I know Rich is a man of good taste, I know he’ll also enjoy some bonus Arlo Guthrie (even though I won’t make you listen to Alice’s Restaurant again.
I notice the players are off this week. Does the NFL-NFLPA labor agreement require this during the bye week? If not, nothing in their recent play suggests that the players have earned the time off. Maybe with two weeks of good practice the next game, another expected home loss to a less-talented Atlanta team, will be close enough that the Panthers will give the appearance of being a football team instead of a bunch of gifted athletes who can’t seem to play together or shooting themselves in the foot. — Thomas, Garner, NC
Yes, players are required to get a week off by the collective bargaining agreement, meaning they only have to play 17 games of football in 18 weeks.
Football is hard on the human body. Playing a lot of it without a break isn’t conducive to a long and productive career.
So as much as people like to have emotional reactions and scream and complain and insist the providers of their entertainment run wind sprints until they barf to satisfy their need for, I don’t know, something, that’s not how the real world works.
There are dudes in that locker room who would have eagerly played this week. Brian Burns said as much after the Miami game, and he’s probably not alone.
But just as workers in other industries deserve a vacation, football players need a break sometimes. Former coach George Seifert said players needed to “get a fresh” every now and then, if they wanted to keep their edge. You can’t go 100 mph every day without pause and expect to perform.
With our current win-loss record at home seemingly being put on the defense, are we coming up short in the bank due to the pressure from fans to perform at a high level at home and less pressure from fans on the road? — Seth, Charlotte
I don’t know if it’s about pressure, but I also know it’s mathematically sound.
Home teams are 89-90-1 this year in the NFL, so the Panthers aren’t the only ones struggling with it.
Rhule has mentioned “distractions” at home, and when you’re in a familiar place, dealing with ticket requests, etc., there can be some of that.
I know from talking to players on this team and past years that it’s easier to focus sometimes when you’re on the road. You can sequester yourself with teammates, make it an us-against-the-world thing, and come out swinging. I also know there’s a camaraderie that comes from staying in the same place away from home, and bonding with your teammates before and after the workday. That happens for the digital team at training camp, and it can happen for football teams too.
Hey Darin – been a Panthers fan since the beginning, so older guy here talking to the old guy! When the Panthers bring in a new team member on really short notice mid-season (like Cam), how do they handle living quarters and all the things that go along with getting someone to the team’s town and up and running with the team really quickly? Team condo? Hotel suite? You’re on your own; you figure it out? Makes my head spin to even think about it! Obviously though, it’s something most teams have to deal with on a regular basis. — Johnny, Wilson, NC
Teams usually have a designated hotel that they’ll stash guys in when they first arrive, and there’s an incredible staff of folks in football operations who help get guys acclimated to a new environment.
They’re required to put a guy up for a week when he gets here, and then the player needs to find a spot. That’s less of a big deal for a gentleman of means like Newton than it is for a practice squader who makes far less money and might be here for a very short time, but it’s a factor.
Newton used to have a nice little pad here, a cozy condo in a downtown high-rise. Some other guy lives in it now, kid by the name of LaMelo Ball. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Speaking of team employees and hotels, former offensive coordinator Dan Henning actually lived in a hotel near the stadium for most of his five years here. He could walk to work, where there was a steady stream of food and fresh clothing, and he didn’t have to make the bed.
Because I’m a sports writer, I asked him once how many Marriott points he had.
“All of them,” Henning replied with a grin.
That’s one of the many reasons we love Dan Henning around here.
And that’s as good a note as I can think of to head into a bye week.
Stay safe out there, and let’s see what happens after everyone has their first weekend off since Labor Day.