‘Vanilla’ pre-season offense will surprise Steelers, Panther fans, NFL in 2021

Will the 2021 Panthers be capable of playoff caliber production? A lot of smart money is going to say “11-6 and we’ll see.”

I arrived in Charlotte (from upstate NY) the same year the Panthers started playing, 1995, and went to a game at Clemson that year against the 49ers. I took two pictures that I won’t forget – Sam Mills going up to stop Steve Young on a QB sneak, and Tyrone Poole trying to stop a high pass to Jerry Rice. I never liked the Giants or Jets, mostly because I had to watch regional doubleheaders of them during college, when they both stunk. I also got tickets to their playoff win against Dallas, and saw the full-moon win against New England when a last second Brady pass was incomplete. (Yes, Kuechly was holding Gronkowski.)

It’s a stone-cold given that the Panthers offense will put numbers on the board in 2021 season – the team record is 500, in the 2015 Super Bowl season – although the Carolina faithful may not be Believers yet. They haven’t seen any Darnold 70-yard bombs to those terrific receivers, ZERO from face-of-the-franchise Christian McCaffrey, and the second team defense hasn’t looked like they could step in and stop anyone better than in 2019.

Hang in there Charlotte, ‘The Quarterback Whisperer’ (Joe Brady), those fine receivers – Anderson and Moore were #3 producers in NFL in 2020 – and CMC is still the terrific over-achiever you remember from that 1000-1000 year.

Yes, Sam Darnold will pull the trigger

Rhule commented that Darnold throws a real nice deep ball, and fannies at BOA Stadium haven’t seen that factor in a long time. Steve Smith is still worshipped as the best we’ve had (836 catches/12,197 yds./67 TDs), he’ll probably become a Hall of Famer this year. Mushin Muhammed (860/11,438/62) gave the Panthers great service, and Greg Olsen will always be considered a ninja legend, a tight end who couldn’t be seen until he’d gotten the catch and first down yardage.

Defenses – and anyone in the stands – knew Newton almost exclusively kept throws to 20 yards or less, and his awkwardness in getting to the ground versus destroying DBs like before a 2016 injury, was painful to watch. Newton wasn’t close to a fearsome runner his last few years here, and in his MVP year (2015), only his 35 passing TDs (plus 10 rushing) was statistically much different from his career stats. While he enjoyed a 67.9% completion rate in 2018, a lot of that was dropoffs to McCaffrey, who obviously lugged the ball a lot in the Norv Turner offense.

Kyle Allen turned DJ Moore into a star by being able to hit him in stride the next year, Teddy Bridgewater didn’t scare anyone about going long, and Newton never threw a touch pass or jump ball to receivers in the red zone in nine years. Sam Darnold will change all that, including teams stacking the box to stop McCaffrey.

The Quarterback Whisperer

Ask Joe Burrow (Cincinatti Bengals) if Joe Brady made him the #1 draft pick last year, and he’ll admit that, talent aside, the juice Brady put into a somewhat stodgy LSU offense was the deal. Burrows top receivers his senior year are all in the NFL now, including Terrance Marshall, Jr. with the Panthers.

The potentially weak link in what should be a wide-open offense with CMC back and wide receivers galore, is going to be the O-line blocking Darnold gets. Yes, he sometimes had ‘happy feet’ trying to avoid sacks with the Jets, and *maybe* Brady wouldn’t say anything negative about his QB. Darnold is certainly under a microscope – albeit not a NY media one – and those at practice say he’s showing leadership and the arm that made him the overall #3 pick back in 2018. https://cdtalententerprises.com/2021/04/09/panthers-take-care-of-business-gm-fitterer-lands-qb-darnold-to-get-rolling/

Vanilla offense no more

With Burrow the proof of Brady’s offensive influence – (NCAA record 76.3% completions), 60 TDs, 5,671 yards (378 avg. per game) – more so than Bridgewater’s 15 TD/11 INT mark – NFL coaches are aware the Panthers offensive coordinator hasn’t shown much from what should be a substantial bag of tricks.

Last year the Panthers had four players accumulate over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, and while Mike Davis and Curtis Samuel have taken their games elsewhere, McCaffrey will replace – or once again become – that offensive production.

If you saw his shoulder injury, the defender pinned McCaffrey’s arms before he landed and he couldn’t protect his fall. Sure it could happen again, but its also impossible for linebackers to drop into deep zones to help with coverage when he, or possibly stud rookie Chuba Hubbard are carving out first downs running. CMC can just as easily go in motion and pick up eight yards on a short out, more if someone (few want to attempt open field tackles with him) isn’t coming to get him.

Robby Anderson is just the first of several Panthers who have received contract extensions (2 yr./ $29.5MM, $20.5MM guaranteed), meaning you’ll be hearing what this band is playing for a while. DJ Moore won’t totally break the bank with any new contract, but given Tepper and GM Scott Fitterer’s willingness to match production and paychecks (CMC got $21.3MM up front for his extension), he’ll get his piece too. Raiding well-paid Panthers personnel becomes a very secondary consideration.

If defenses had trouble with the speedy Samuel, they will not be happier with the size (6’2″, 200 lbs) of a third receiver like Marshall, who ran a 4.38 40 yd. dash and jumped 39″ in his pro day – and did 16 -225 lb. bench presses. DBs especially had better have it strapped on tight when he needs tackling.

Will the Panthers surprise Pittsburgh tomorrow and the NFL when games count for real? I’d say invoke Mr. Tepper’s financial stack and history of knowing what to do about what he wants results-wise. The smart money is on the steep though not prohibitive – cost of taking any of the current coaches away for head coaching positions elsewhere. Coaching WILL make a difference in Rhule 2.0.

Will Rhule rate a statue?

When Panthers owner David Tepper gave a big contract to Matt Rhule, he was betting against the history of terrific college coaches who fail in the NFL. Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer did real well with the Cowboys of course, but few others have made successful transitions to the pros.

After Coach Rhule’s 5-11 first year at the helm, not everyone was super-charged at prospects for 2021, especially lacking an A-1 QB to work with those quality receivers – of which there are now more. Rhule’s track record supports idea of significant second year progress – and he has a seven year, $60 million contract.

Right now, the statues outside the stadium are of Sam Mills, the linebacker who died of cancer in 2005 and is the inspiration for the teams ‘Keep Pounding’ theme. That he only played three seasons for the Panthers indicates the regard he was accorded. Mike McCormick was the team’s president and general manager from the time of Mr. Richardson’s bid, to formation in the NFL until 1997.

What might it take for Coach Rhule to get a stadium statue, generally a rare honor? Winning a Super Bowl would be a start. Winning as many games as Lombardi? Legitimate. Winning a title before Tepper’s new soccer team does? Ahhhhh… (The panthers at all entrances remain, original owner Jerry Richardson’s has been taken away.)

Let’s let him get through Year Two before the idea of statues comes up Charlotte.

COMING MONDAY – The Defense

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