CHARLOTTE — Things change fast in the NFL.
That’s why we held this week’s mailbag until after the 4 p.m. trade deadline. (Actually, it often takes that long to write this beast on Tuesdays, because we’re processing a lot of mail [and I’m easily distractable, especially when the sun is out on fall days and look a puppy].)
For the Panthers, the deadline was a bit anticlimactic. But I mean, they kind of traded for a former NFL defensive player of the year (Stephon Gilmore) a few weeks ago, and another former top-10 pick at cornerback (CJ Henderson) before that, so it’s not like general manager Scott Fitterer is just sitting around reading his mentions on his Twitter account.
Although, if he did, he’d probably enjoy that. Since the Panthers won at Atlanta, it’s a better vibe around here this week, and the reality is they’ve done a pile of work trying to rebuild a defense that’s capable of carrying a team. And Sunday, that’s what it looked like.
I think because of the win-three, lose-four start to the season, expectations were sent on a roller coaster ride, and people lost sight of the fact that building takes time. If they had alternated wins and losses and gotten to 4-4, I think the mood swings wouldn’t have been as violent.
Speaking of violent, football keeps happening, and the landscape of the league keeps changing. The Titans and Saints were feeling pretty good about life, except for the serious injuries to Derrick Henry and Jameis Winston which upended the entire plans for their franchises. Along with Danielle Hunter in Minnesota being lost for the year, you realize how quickly things can unravel. And with that, you realize that being 4-4 and getting some guys back ain’t the worst place to be.
Did the Panthers fix everything in Atlanta? They did not. Are they capable of playing the kind of football that will keep them interesting the rest of the year? They may be. So we’ll all have to watch and see how it unfolds.
What a difference a week makes. Returning to traditional Panther strengths of not only running/pounding and kicking, but strategically taking away their favorite target, and winning the balance sheet on clock, third down, sacks/pressures, turnovers and penalties, … Whoops. If we can just get the penalties back to favoring us, too, we are suddenly in position to take the division by beating the Bucs twice? Like Matt Ryan, Tom Brady threw two picks and lost this week. Are our kicking and OL and defensive depth really gelling, or was this a mirage? — Dean, Zionville, NC
Dean contains multitudes. At least, his questions do. The man packs a lot into every email; I’ll give him that.
And while I appreciate his enthusiasm, I do feel like I’m the emergency brakes on his runaway truck going down the Highway 421 of a long season.
It was a good win. Seriously, they needed that one. But you can’t turn every week into a referendum, or it will exhaust you.
The defensive depth is getting there, certainly.
Running the ball 47 times and not giving up a sack made it the offensive line’s best game of the year. The Falcons are also near the bottom of the league in pressuring quarterbacks, so it’s worth putting it into its proper context.
But I do think they’re getting better up front. Adding big ol’ Michael Jordan to the starting lineup at left guard has made them a more physical group, definitely better in the run game. Trent Scott played reasonably well at right guard last week, considering he was going up against some guy named Grady Jarrett (and I suspect having a salty veteran in front of Jarrett is why it was Scott and not Brady Christensen or Dennis Daley there).
Do I think that offensive line is fixed? Not really, but that’s not the kind of thing that can happen at this time of year. As they retooled the defense over the last two offseasons, you know the next one will be devoted to getting the offensive line together. There’s a decent crop of free agents available next offseason, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them spend significantly there.
As for kicker, Zane Gonzalez has been all you can ask for from an in-season replacement. He’s hit 13-of-15 field goals, 13-of-14 extra points, and he’s a more reliable touchback guy on kickoffs since he got here (four of five against the Falcons). And not to overstate things (there’s plenty of the internet that specializes in that), but he kind of crushed that 57-yarder the other day, about two-thirds of the way up the upright. He said after the game he thought his range was 61 or 62 yards, and while he’s not going to be that kind of deep threat every week (being indoors helps), he has proven to be acceptably dependable. That’s all you want your kicker to be unless you’re paying him a bunch of money.
From one Old Guy (me, 71) to another (you) — Us Christian McCaffrey fans out here in Colorado miss watching/cheering him! Think he might be back playing any time soon? — Stu, Englewood, CO
Stu, you could be in luck soon. Also, you’re only as old as the people around you make you feel. So if you surround yourself with people who provide positive energy, you’re in good shape.
McCaffrey is expected to practice tomorrow, and depending on how that goes, he could be out there as soon as this week against the Patriots.
Because the way the last time went, they’re going to be careful with the process.
The Panthers have what they call a “return to play” protocol, and it basically means players work their way through stages of readiness. The general idea is that you ramp up your activity, and do a little more each day.
But with players coming back from injury, it’s often the next day that’s telling, whether players experience swelling or soreness after increased activity. So you’ll have to stay tuned to Panthers.com for the latest injury reports all week, but it appears he’s close to a return.
G’day Darin! Did I miss a rule change that says your punter MUST be Australian? P.S. Baby photos are at least two weeks away. — Peter, Brisbane, Australia
Mate! See, Peter has that strong Australian energy. And I think that’s cool to have around. When people with our accents talk to people with his accent, good things happen.
And while there are enough Australian punters now (Michael Dickson, Jordan Berry, Mitch Wishnowsky, Cameron Johnston, Arryn Siposs) that some of the novelty has worn off, it’s not just a gimmick.
From talking to special teams experts, there’s a certain backspin that these guys can generate that’s more common in the way they learn to punt. And if you can make a pointy ball do funny things when it lands from a great height while 11 angry people are running at an opponent, that’s valuable. Seriously, one goofy bounce off someone’s pads is a big play in waiting.
And best of luck with the impending arrival, the in-laws and I can’t wait to see the pictures.
What has happened to Robby Anderson? His numbers are down across the board; with the possible exception of drops. DJ Moore is obviously our #1 WR, but I’d love to see him haul in a few deep balls and put up better numbers overall. He’s certainly capable. Do you see Anderson as a legit target or more of a decoy at this stage of the season? — Rick, Apex, NC
It’s far too soon to call him a decoy. It hasn’t been that long ago that Robby was making big plays.
He’s probably been the most visible victim (other than Sam Darnold) of the general offensive malaise. All this stuff is interconnected. If the pass protection ain’t great, Darnold’s in a hurry. If Darnold’s in a hurry, the rhythm of the passing routes gets thrown off. And when pressure comes, balls come out hotter than normal.
That’s a long way of saying it’s not working for Robby at the moment. He’s getting open. He’s just not getting seen at the right times, or always catching the ball when he does get seen.
They still absolutely trust him. If they didn’t, he wouldn’t have been on the hands team to recover the onside kick attempt last week.
One of the most interesting developments to watch as McCaffrey returns is how many of the other offensive problems look less offensive. If McCaffrey’s coming back gets Darnold back in a comfortable place, Anderson could easily get back to being the guy who had a career season in 2020, and earned a raise.
Hi Darin, do you think the defense can do more on blitz/pressure variations with Gilmore playing more and Shaq Thompson coming back? I know in Sunday’s game playing a not so great Falcons offense and keeping the ball on offense played a part in that (Shaq and Gilmore didn’t play all the snaps), but moving forward do you think the D will be able to do that even in games which the offense struggles (maybe this week against the Patriots)? Thanks! — Fernando, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Halloween’s over. But master of disguise Phil Snow will continue to try to mix up the looks they give opposing offenses.
I think Fernando’s onto something, though. As Gilmore gets his feet underneath him and takes on a larger role in the coming weeks, it definitely gives you more versatility. Having a guy who can erase a receiver and make quarterbacks look somewhere else frees up more people to blitz (or cover, or do whatever).
They’re not as deep at linebacker as they’d like to be, but with Thompson back on the field, they have a true sideline-to-sideline runner who makes it all work a little better.
They’re going to continue to use a lot of guys in the secondary, but getting Gilmore in there for a few plays, or key plays late, has already paid dividends.
I’ll just get straight to the point. What I gotta do to get some merch? — Cory, Big Stone Gap, VA
As Joey from Winston-Salem learned the hard way, the first step is not begging. It’s unbecoming, and beneath you (unless it isn’t). Step two is to use correct grammar, though I dig your passion.
Honestly, it’s completely arbitrary, and decided by a strict-yet-benevolent despot (me).
Maybe it’s “Be from an interesting and/or faraway place,” or “Ask a thought-provoking question,” or “Tee me up to tell an old story that my friends and co-workers have taken to numbering because they’ve heard them so many times.” (Although, in fairness, number 37 is still a scream, and if you disagree, you just hate fun.)
The basic requirement is to add a little something to our community here, to make this small corner of the internet a happier (or at least less angry) place. Or a more interesting one. Or maybe to just remind me of a song I like to sing or a joke I like to tell. But the key is to add, not to subtract. Anybody can make me yell. Make me laugh or make me think. That’s worth rewarding.
Mostly, like Potter Stewart with his obscenity, I know it when I see it. Speaking of which, Jacobellis was a huge underdog against Ohio, but still managed not just a backdoor cover, but a straight-up win on the road.
So in the spirit of upsets and grace, I’m declaring Cory Who Got Right To The Point And Begged this week’s Ask The Old Guy Friend of the Mailbag, and as soon as we have merch, he’s getting the 14th 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, and Scott With Good Taste in Music.
(And my supplier says the merch is coming very soon. Stay tuned for this most exciting development.)
Given we still have two games against that guy in Tampa, and then two more against MVP front runners (Kyler Murray and Josh Allen), what more can we do for the offense to give the defense some breathing room? It almost seems like they have to be perfect if we’re going to be competitive, which isn’t exactly a good game plan, in my opinion. — Nathan, Grand Prairie, TX
That guy is kind of a load, huh? Like he really eats at Subway? Give me a break.
Yeah, they’re catching a better grade of quarterback in the second half of the season. That’s a lot of strain to put on any defense, no matter how many good players it has. That’s why I asked Jeremy Chinn if there was a certain pressure in Matt Rhule declaring they were “a defensive team.”
“Nah. There’s no pressure,” Chinn replied. “I don’t feel any pressure, and I don’t think the other guys do either.”
Of course, Jeremy’s a confident guy, and not given to long-winded explanations.
But Nathan’s right. If you force a team to try to play perfectly, it’s not always going to work. It can fail spectacularly at times.
The first step for the offense, of course, is to get McCaffrey back. If he can stay well, he fixes a lot of problems — from his running ability and pass-catching, to his pass protection, and giving Darnold a trustworthy hot read. That would certainly help.
But they spent an entire 2020 NFL Draft and most of this year’s free agency on the defense for a reason. And if you’re going to get all the goodies, you get the expectations too.
Hi Darin, absolutely love your column and appreciate all you do! As for the question, I’m interested in Brian Burns. He gets a lot of praise from the team and media, but it seems to me like he misses a lot of sacks and leaves a lane open for the QB to run out of the pocket for a big gain. The most recent example was his miss on Kirk Cousins that could have lost us the game since they got into field goal range instead of taking a sack. Is he aware of this, because it seems like no one ever talks about it? Thanks so much for reading all our questions week after week! — Grant, Columbus, OH
To make a long story short, yes, he is aware. Burns even mentioned it after the Vikings game, kicking himself for not playing it straight.
And Burns had a string of near-misses last year which kept him from being a double-digit sack guy. With 4.5 through eight games, he’s on pace to fall short of that threshold again.
He’s still getting a decent amount of pressure, but there can clearly be some improvement from him. It’s another case of big talent bringing bigger expectations, because he has a rare combination of speed and ability to get around the edge (football guys call it “having good bend” as opposed to the bad Bend which I guess is the one in Oregon).
This seems correctible to me, and you make a good point. Burns has left a lot of meat on the bone.
I just read that we traded our second-, third- and fourth-round picks for 2022. How are we going to rebuild our offensive line with no draft picks? In my opinion, the jury’s out on our new GM. — Linda, Charlotte
That is true. The first part, at least. There’s a pretty good gulf between the first-round pick and their next one (the Rams’ fourth-rounder, acquired in the draft-day trade with Houston).
And if the season ended today, that first-round pick would be 19th overall.
(Also, a lot of people would be saying “Why did the season end on the Tuesday of Week 9?” And also, “How long is Darin going to keep telling that stupid joke?” The answer, dear reader, is reminiscent of the feathered couch cushion at a nudist colony — until it stops tickling him.)
Free agency is the first and most obvious answer, and they’ll be in a position to spend next year. But if you think about building for the long haul, that first-rounder figures to be in the mix. If there’s a difference-making left tackle in the draft, it stands to reason that he wouldn’t slip out of the top 18. But the best guards and centers are available in that range, and that’s where I’d look. It’s too soon to get in the weeds of draft targets, but a big ol’ center would be a nice addition, especially if you think Michael Jordan can play and maybe you have a future starter between Brady Christensen and Deonte Brown. Knowing Taylor Moton’s here, that’s a good place to start.
Not every deal Fitterer has made has worked out so far, but it bears repeating — this is Year 2 of a rebuild that ambitious estimates pegged at three years. There’s still time for some of this stuff (like the Henderson trade) to develop.
Could you give some insight as to why we play bad teams worse than we play good teams? We looked good against the Cowboys and made a comeback engineered entirely by Sam against the Vikings, but we struggled in the games we should’ve won big time. If he’s so good at the no-huddle (and he is), why don’t they do that more? He’s not a traditional dropback passer either, so why did they stop calling plays that suit his style? — Robin, Richmond, VA
Human nature? It’s easy to get geeked up to play on prime time, or against the Cowboys when you know more eyeballs are on you.
But that’s the struggle of a long season. You have to be a pro every day, so you can survive your worst days. And by definition, everyone is going to have exactly one worst day, and some bad ones too.
It’s easy to do easy things. Doing hard things on purpose is how you get better. And as the Panthers grow from an improving team to perhaps someday a good one, winning the ones you’re supposed to win has to be a part of that.
As for the Darnold questions, Robin has hit on one of my personal philosophies — The things you’re good at, do more of those. The things you’re bad at, don’t do them as much. Football, it doesn’t have to be that hard. They’re trying to figure out their identity on offense, and peeling it back to the basics last week was step one. If they can build on it, then I think you incorporate new elements. But Darnold and the offense need to get competent and safe down first, and go from there.
Outside of injury, who are the five best offensive linemen? I realize the front office is trying to trade for additional talent, but I don’t think they’ll be successful. Therefore is the coaching staff prepared to ride out the rest of the season with our best five? I just hope they are prepared to make numerous judicious selections in next year’s draft to address the line. As they continue to rebuild, if they don’t fix these issues; it won’t make a difference who the QB is. — John, Apopka, FL
Well, there aren’t any new faces to talk about, so going through the old ones is the place to start.
Taylor Moton is obviously one, and clearly a guy who should be starting on their 2022, and 2023, and 2024 lines.
I think in a vacuum, John Miller is probably the second name on that list. He might not look like much, and he’s not outstanding in pass protection, but he’s a steady veteran who also has the quality coaches love the most — toughness. He played through a lot of stuff (recovered from COVID, a shoulder problem), and wasn’t bad before he injured his ankle in New York.
And if you’re putting that five together now, you’d put Matt Paradis and Cameron Erving and Michael Jordan in there. We’ll see what Pat Elflein looks like when he gets back to practice, but he’s another guy who trades in toughness and intangibles more than physical gifts.
As Rhule said during training camp, it’s like I-85; it’s under construction.
And with that said, memories of cannonballing back from Atlanta Sunday night are coming back to me. I-85 is the devil. If it wasn’t for the fact it went through Gaffney, I might never get on it again.
But Gaffney is enough to make a man overlook minor inconveniences.
See you next week, gang.