Panthers season – like ‘Murica itself – will face a challenge going 9-7 (ish) in 2019

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Grilling cheeseburgers is an essence of Labor Day

As a storm of epic proportions sloooowly approaches the US coast, most of life continued in the Carolinas, something you can’t imagine saying about the devastating pictures we’ve seen from the Abacos Islands. To the ex-Canadian PM who suggested the hurricane find Mar-a-Lago and force Trump to see a Cat-5 up close for a whole day like those islands did, Nature didn’t lay that thought or any bigly global warming rhythms on him.

After flipping a quantity of very satisfying ‘bigger’ cheeseburgers for a local men’s shelter on Friday, I book-ended my weekend by enjoying one myself late Sunday, while taking in live music and a considerable amount of people-watching at the White Water Center. Yes, America, that “huge hunk of meat” was as delightful as Jimmy Buffett always painted it, and I accept it as an exclamation point to a hot and exciting summer.

I plead guilty to unknowing concern at the devastation in the Bahamas, am stunned by a lack of coordinated response, though not by Prez who defends playing “18 quick holes” during a colossal disaster. The juxtaposition of my cheeseburger to how dramatic two entire days of what 180 mph churn would do to any “Why me?” perspective a survivor would have to have, is humbling.

As a sports writer, my current concern is –

How the local Panthers will look against a Rams team that lost in the Super Bowl, and an almost unblockable Aaron Donald on defense this Sunday. That’s a home opener where Panthers should suck every bit of motivation from the crowd possible, a team that needs to show it – and its leader, Cam Newton – is markedly better than what their finishing 7-9, with a seven-game losing streak the second half of 2018, looked.

The Carolina Panthers and I both start our 25th year in Charlotte, and like many, I’m still happy to root for them. Being from upstate NY, I was never a Giants or Jets (ugh!) fan after suffering with regional double-headers in college.  My first Panther memory was a COLD game at Clemson, catching a great image of Sam Mills about to meet Steve Young on a goal line sneak.

As a blogger last year, the changes seem legitimate, as is 9-7

I’m going to agree with “new guy” on Observer staff, Matt Stephens, about Panthers showing me they actually have an offense and defense that’s markedly better than last year. Matt feels optimistic, has worries that maybe he’s just not beaten down yet. I think 50 blogs gave me a grip on things, and there’s no problem with his thinking last year is fixable.

There wasn’t a lot of pre-season viewing of Olsen, Newton, Kuechly, but what Rivera and D-Coach Eric Washington saw in speed rushers – Brian Burns (FSU) and another year with Marquis Haynes – have made the switch to 3-4 as base defense more reasonable. Shaq Thompson figures to be coming off the wing more regularly now, while playing behind Thomas Davis for years, his possibilities always seemed greater.

OLB is kind of the glory spot in 3-4 defense, and Burns looks like a beast there, Shaq *should* be. If Kuechly doesn’t have to patrol all the way to sidelines, his All-Pro nose for plays directly in front could be maximized. Yes, there will always be a concern about his concussion history. Yes, 33 sacks was a pitiful statement for the 2018 defense, and that will be regarded as an aberration by mid- season.

Welcome to Gerald McCoy, thank you for your long service, Mr. Peppers.

All interior D-line starters have been All-Pros, especially McCoy, who always gave Newton fits when he was with the Buccaneers (8 years). Kwann Short can still take up blocks, and even with Kuechly patrolling less territory with four backers, he’ll be off the leash with recognition of plays and going downhill after them. Last year, the Panthers defense was absolutely torched by, well, about everybody. If the Saints hadn’t already clinched the division, Brees could have set some personal records in final game last season, and Panthers would already have an eight-game loss skein coming in against loaded LA.

You rarely get that lucky against divisional people.

Dontari Poe didn’t play himself into the hearts of fans in 2018, with opposing running backs frequently getting the yardage they needed – plus a couple more – to keep drives alive. Frankly, “run-stuffer” means actual tackling at point of attack.

A primary question, especially regarding Newton’s fixed-again shoulder, is whether he, with a modified motion, and other key players (Olsen – back as a regular target after two fractured foot seasons; Kuechly – concussions; McCaffrey – because he gets all those touches) will all be good for 16 games. Sportswriting history shows winning big almost always includes having less bad injuries to key personnel, so “Lucky Breaks” is probably a toss-up.

Green Bay won a memorable title (vs. Steelers) while starters were dropping like flies, but over the long grind, people won’t always be available. Curtis Samuel, in his third season after a pair of injuries delayed his new role as a primary receiver, and seeing how dangerous he could be last season – especially the after catch elusiveness he and DJ Moore have shown as a runners  – is encouraging.

With a steady diet of “even a little bigger than last year, still pretty fast” McCaffrey, the Panthers shouldn’t be lacking offensively.

If Turner’s offense uses other backs this year, will they be as effective as using C-MC as a decoy?  The O-LINE seemed to gel coming into last season, and one certainly can’t put down a crew that sprung C-MC (McCaffrey) so regularly. The Panthers have always had linemen that switched all over the place, and the biggest change is who Newton gets the ball from. After eight years of Ryan Kalil, who retired (and then signed with the Jets), the Panthers replaced him at center with former Bronco Matt Paradis.

BIG QUESTION of JOE SLYE vs. (no) Gano – Why the Panther’s $4 million kicker didn’t get himself fixed after last season, who knows, but this change is going to be a factor to discuss until it isn’t. While they use the word ‘mythical’ regarding Gano’s game-winning poke against the Giants, you don’t usually give a new guy like Slye the benefit of doubt until he makes a couple clutch ones.

I fear the New Orleans Saints the most, because they’ve been jobbed out of final games the last two years, and if *I* was on Drew Brees’ team, playing with a GOAT quarterback, being on a mission to get another ring with him would be incredible. ATL – I don’t care about them except as rivals. The Bucs, who I watched for three years when living in Tampa – we called them the Suckaneers – have a new sheriff in town with Bruce Ariens. As a writer, I had easy access to players – Doug Williams was a class guy, I doubt Jameis Winston is.

Season splits with the Saints and Falcons would be fine overall going into the season, and yes, playing the NFC West this year means renewing things with the Seahawks, in Charlotte. If you have to have a standard, the ‘Hawks and Falcons are undeniably ours. Seeing what they cook up in Phoenix this year, we shall indeed see. That opener against the Rams will be rough, because outscoring them (Rams 32.9 ppg, Panthers 23.5 ppg in 2018) won’t come easily, nor does going on 14-15 play drives if Aaron Donald is drawing breath.

As for Panthers SECONDARY, outside of Donte Jackson and James Bradberry, its good to have a safety of Eric Reid’s quality, and congrats to Panthers owner David Tepper for making a business decision on the former All-Pro. Reid will benefit from a full preseason to get into mix versus being added mid-season. Safety-nickel guy Gaulden, like several second year players, is being counted on to fill necessary roles in the secondary.

Forget about any spillover from MSL talk about Tepper, even if does look like he’s moved Charlotte up in pecking order there. This Panther organization has made multiple changes in barely over a year. As of Year 25, the Panthers have a first-rate indoor practice bubble, and what figures to be a substantial Rock Hill complex vs. those wicked Spartanburg camps – both solid, necessary decisions. Charlotte has added another outstanding citizen in Mr. Tepper, not “just another Yankee.”

“A year that needs to be”

Yes, this looks like “A Year that Needs to Be” for all the reasons everybody probably understands, including Tepper and Rivera and the Big 2-5. FYI – Rivera is only a few games from becoming the winning-est coach in Carolina history (currently 71, John Fox has 73).

Yes, physically this is Newton’s team, although the expectation is he’d gladly offer whatever chunk McCaffrey demands while tearing yardage out of the league in his Year 3 development. Yes, “that nice young man” has put on even more muscles. Since the extra five last year worked so well, apparently another ten pounds.  That and a tweak or two better than 362 touches – is a fine standard to go forward from.

Trust Norv Turner’s offense – Its put people in the Hall of Fame, and CMC is nothing but a Classic Worker-Achiever. How many yards short of 1,000-1,000 was he in 2018? Remember that number, he will.

How often Newton goes long to Moore and Samuel – or Mr. Third Down, Jarius Wright – and two tight-end sets with Greg Olsen-Ian Thomas to spread the love and make defenses pay for loading up to stop McCaffrey, should keep the sticks moving like he did early last year.

With Kyle Allen and Will Grier (#3 pick, Maryland) at QB, the cupboard is sort of stocked in case Newton’s arm falls off. Neither was astonishing in pre-season, Grier threw some terrible picks.

While its doubtful Charlotte fans will consider a 9-7 season any real triumph, and where such a record leaves playoff considerations (or Rivera’s future), is a long time to think about situation for Mr. Tepper.

Calling it an improved team starting this week, sure, that’s legit – even if I’ll go with chalk and consider the Rams the team to beat. Along with their new 3-4 defense, would the Panthers sporting a 5-2 record after the game in London (Bucs), an off week, and then in San Fran vs. 49ers be okay? I’ll say yes.

If McCaffrey gets less but close to 100 yards this week against Rams, can we still be optimistic? Sure. For both football watching and the political grind, it seems like 9-7 is at least above water, and we’ll see what that brings.

We’re not expecting any hurricane’s taking a left to be here for the weekend, so stay for the whole game. Your friends who don’t have tickets should understand.

3 thoughts on “Panthers season – like ‘Murica itself – will face a challenge going 9-7 (ish) in 2019

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