CHARLOTTE — Oh God, they lost a game. Now what?
(Checks standings, … What’s that, 31 of the 32 teams in the league have also lost a game? So maybe it’s too soon to panic? [Trick question, it’s never too soon to panic.])
Here’s the thing about the NFL, it’s a long season, and it keeps getting longer. Usually after four weeks, football coaches start saying things about “dividing the season into quarters.” But now that there are 17 games, they’re going to have to find a pithy way of saying, “dividing the season into 23.53 percents, oh wait, that still leaves some, I was told there would be no math.”
But rather than further dividing the world into fractions, it’s probably best to sum up what we know so far about the Panthers.
They’re 3-1. They’ve done some really good things. They have some persistent problems. They have some key guys hurt, though some of them are getting better. New key guys continue to get hurt, and we’ll see how that impacts them moving forward.
These things are also true of the other 11 3-1 teams, and frankly the other 20 teams with non-3-1 records.
That’s a long way of saying, it’s early yet. The trend is still more positive than negative at the moment, though that last game in Dallas makes it hard to remember the positives. But they’re still there. You wouldn’t necessarily realize that from this week’s mail, but it remains true. The general tenor of our correspondence this week is what clinicians refer to as “straight freaking out,” certainly more negative than positive. There were also some real weirdo letters in there, and if you don’t see yours, you’ll know who you are, so go ahead and feel the shame.
With that said, let’s start sifting through the pile and see what’s in there:
Is there a plan to upgrade the offensive line, now that most pieces are in place to be a playoff team except for that one weak link? — Ron, High Point, NC
How much longer before this team makes a change to the offensive line? Five sacks and 11 QB hits Sunday just isn’t going to cut it. IMO, this team is still a solid offensive line away from being a contender. — Jeff, Henderson, NV
Do you think the Panthers would look to upgrade the offensive line via free agency/trade at this point in the season? More importantly, do you see them making it a priority this offseason? — Gastric Beerpass, Winston-Salem, NC
Are there any trade options for our offensive line or are we stuck in place for the rest of the season? — Gary, Summerville, SC
I sense a trend. I also sense that at least one of you isn’t using the name your momma gave you (I’m looking at you, Gary).
Where to begin?
Yes, it is fair to say that the state of the Panthers line after the Dallas game is not ideal. That’s based on all the pressure, as well as the blueprint it gave opponents. Quarterback Sam Darnold acknowledged as much after the game.
It also doesn’t help that a couple of guys are kind of beat up at the moment. Left tackle Cameron Erving (knee) and right guard John Miller (shoulder) have been on the injury report, but continued to play, and Panthers head coach Matt Rhule suggested Monday that physical availability will be a factor in the construction of the offensive line this week.
There are things they could do, but almost all of them are internal. Almost.
I stopped at Harris Teeter this morning on the way to work, and the aisle where they keep Pro Bowl tackles and guards was as empty as the milk-and-bread section when Brad Panovich calls for snow flurries around here. As we’ve referenced in this space previously, there aren’t veteran free agents sitting on the street waiting to be signed of the level they need.
Trades are another story, and as long as Scott Fitterer (Mr. “In On Every Deal”) is general manager, I think it’s a good thing his phone has an unlimited plan.
The demand outstrips the supply at the moment, though. So it’s not as easy as wanting to.
The league’s trade deadline is Nov. 2. That leaves time. Offensive linemen can’t slide into a lineup with a new team with the same ease a running back or a wide receiver does. Communication and cohesion within a line are as important as the talent of the individual components sometimes. So even if they’re able to swing a deal, these things aren’t always quick fixes.
And it’s worth keeping those last two words in mind when considering making a trade.
So if some non-contending team was just trying to unload salary of a guy they don’t want to pay before he becomes a free agent next offseason, the Panthers likely wouldn’t automatically be interested — unless they thought keeping him around next year was worthwhile.
Again, we’re a month ahead of the trade deadline, and four weeks into the season. So it’s a little soon for teams to completely surrender and start auctioning off players. But I would expect calls are being made. And the Panthers are far from the only ones looking.
The other option the Panthers have, and again, this could depend on the health of players involved, would be to make some changes with the guys on hand.
Throughout training camp, they experimented with right tackle Taylor Moton playing on the left. Rookie Brady Christensen got reps at tackle and guard on both sides. Veteran Trent Scott has four-position versatility, and appears to have been the top backup option in recent weeks. Rookie Deonte Brown has gotten himself in much better shape, getting to the 335-pound range after showing up at the Senior Bowl at 364 pounds.
There are buttons the Panthers can push, if they need to (which could be the case) or want to (which would be justifiable based on results).
As to the future, yeah, they know this is an issue they need to address. That’s part of the reason they’ve tried to structure contracts to give themselves flexibility for this season and subsequent years, so if they need to add a big-ticket free agent or an existing contract, they can.
[Editor’s note: This one came in after the deadline for last week’s bag. But the point stands.]
I’m getting married on Sunday, so if you talk to any players or coaches, could you please let them know that a Panthers victory over the Cowboys is on our registry? Also, all this hemming and hawing over whether a 3-0 start is real or just the product of an easy schedule reminds me of 2015, when the Panthers won their first four games against bad to mediocre teams, and people were saying just wait until they play Seattle and Green Bay. It’s unlikely that this team is as good as the 2015 version, but if you start 3-0 in the NFL without ever trailing and achieve two-touchdown leads in every game, you have a good team. That’s no guarantee of future results, particularly with injuries in the equation, but it would be foolish to write off this start as just the product of fortuitous circumstances. — Alex, Sacramento, CA
First of all, congratulations and best wishes for a happy life together. Second of all, sorry the first choice gift on the registry was unavailable. So in lieu of a gravy boat, we’re making Newlywed Alex this week’s Ask The Old Guy Friend of the Mailbag, and as soon as we have merch, he’s getting the tenth 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, and Wise Bob from Colorado.
(Also, this is not simply a running joke. [Though it is definitely a running joke.] I have talked to my supplier, and the merch is in the pipeline. Stay tuned for the exciting details.)
For lack of a better word, I think it’s kind of cheap to pin the Panthers’ early success on the schedule alone. Is it beneficial to play two rookie quarterbacks making their first NFL starts, and a team displaced by a hurricane missing half its coaching staff? It is.
But the football the Panthers were playing the first three weeks was pretty good, and pretty portable. When you rush the passer and stop the run the way they did, that’s hard to turn into a three-week fluke. Last week against the Cowboys (no sacks, 245 rushing yards allowed) was an eye-opener, but that’s what averages are for, to look at a wide base of data and draw a conclusion.
My suspicion is that over the course of the season, the Panthers’ defense will look closer to the first three weeks than the last one, even if not to quite the same top-of-the-league stratosphere. Barring any more injuries (and they’ve been and are dealing with a lot), there’s no reason to think it can’t be a top-10 defense.
After Sunday’s game, we have a HUGE dilemma on our hands. MANY questions to answer. So here it is, … Over the years we’ve seen great nicknames for legendary NFL stars such as Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, William “Refrigerator” Perry, “Prime Time” Deion Sanders, the list goes on. With Sam Darnold effectively becoming the most dominant goal-line rushing threat in NFL history, an appropriate moniker is absolutely necessary. Here’s a few ideas: “Scramblin’ Sammy,” “Too DARNold Good,” “The California King,” “Sam Newton,” or my personal favorite, “Sam arnold,” … Because he makes the “D” disappear when he runs for the goal.
I think we’re just one answer away from taking this team to the next level, Darin. Please pass this along to your people and let’s go ahead take care of the biggest question this team is facing after the loss to Dallas. Be blessed! — Jacob, Anderson, SC
Oh, I am blessed Jacob, with your gift of perspective and your humor. Try the veal.
I don’t know that anyone expected Darnold to lead the league in rushing touchdowns — with five (5!). Frankly, I don’t know why anyone would have.
He’s certainly athletic enough, and we knew he was able to run well, even if not to the level of some other quarterbacks.
But at a certain point, time takes us past the point of it being a statistical glitch. Sam can actually run. This can be a part of what they do around here. With four games of film to watch, opponents know that when the Panthers get to the goal line, they have to honor his ability to run it in, and that will only help as they try to diversify the offense.
I was in AT&T Stadium on Sunday and while it wasn’t the ending to the game I wanted, it was still a good game. I’m excited that Sam Darnold’s a pure athlete and can make those scrambles for points, but it’s Week 4, and he still seems out of step with the receivers when it matters (third and fourth downs, red zone opportunities). Am I overreacting or do you think there’s some merit here? — Nathan, Grand Prairie, TX
Possibly overreacting. But understandably so.
Again, four games is a small sample size for anything, but we have to trust math for some things.
The Panthers are 18th in the league in third-down conversions (39.6 percent), ninth in fourth-down conversions (60 percent), and 15th in red zone touchdown percentage (62.5 percent).
For a new quarterback, parachuting into a new team, which has had some offensive line problems, and was missing his best offensive player (Christian McCaffrey) last week, it feels reasonable.
Darnold has shown some positive signs so far. And adjusting as well as they have, and helping them to a 3-1 record, seems like a fair expectation.
When McCaffrey returns to the lineup, I expect there will be a trickle-down effect. He helps the pass protection, because he’s a good and willing blocker, and if Darnold has to get it out quickly, throwing it to 22 is a productive option.
And if they tweak the offensive line or just get it playing better, it’s fair to expect things to improve.
Can you punt further than Joseph Charlton? — Justin, Victorville, CA
Nope. Not even close.
(Wait, you wanted more of an answer than that, didn’t you?)
The Panthers punter is off this year; that much is clear through four games.
His 39.5-yard gross average is 29th in the league. (There are 32 teams, making it gross indeed). His 38.8-yard net average is 26th.
That’s well off last season, when he had a 40.8-yard gross average, which was fourth-best in franchise history. He also landed 46.7 percent of his punts inside the 20 last year, which was fourth-best in the league in 2020.
Throughout the spring and training camp, Charlton looked like his normal, hang-timey self. The ball doesn’t look conventional coming off his foot, but it stays in the air an awfully long time.
So far in the regular season, things look a little rushed. That would suggest it’s correctable, as the protection on punts has seemed more stable than the field goal unit.
Charlton was quite good last year, impressing as a rookie. He’s been less so this year. It’s perhaps too soon to overreact, but something is clearly different.
As an older guy with shoulder issues, I wince watching Taylor Moton do those touchdown celebration spikes (even though I’m simultaneously elated). Is the Panthers training staff concerned that T-Mo could tear a rotator cuff? — Bennett, Charlotte.
I think if they scored more touchdowns, they’d be fine.
But Taylor’s also probably happy to share. That’s the kind of person he is.
When is the Salute to Service game? And will they come out with women’s STS jerseys? — Brandi, Roanoke, VA
First of all, thanks to Brandi for the question. There are way too many dudes in here, and it begins to smell funny after a while. So mixing it up is nice.
Salute to Service is coming your way in Week 11 against Washington.
That will take care of us for this week. Tune in next Tuesday for the latest wave of offensive line questions, and all the other stuff that is sure to come this way.