‘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

Still plenty of room on Darnold-Panthers bandwagon, Fitterer and 11-6 a franchise reset

I *guarantee* any of the faithful watching practice tried to find shelter fast in Spartanburg. If you’ve been there, you know the deal.

Nobody seems to doubt the Panthers will have plenty of offensive firepower in 2021. The “and if” part in many projections for their season was getting a high caliber QB to run it. Fans will get more solid evidence that GM Scott Fitterer did pretty good with his first real important job, on Sunday in Indianapolis.

Sam Darnold, former NY Jet – I won’t use that term often any more, he’s the Panthers QB, no ifs, ands, or buts now – was said to look good in practice last week, so here we go! Its certainly nothing like the fanfare that accompanied #1 pick Cam Newton’s arrival in Charlotte in 2011, off a national championship at Auburn for him and a 1-15 season in Charlotte.

Former Panther coach Ron Rivera always said things became more real once the pads went on, and there you have it in a nutshell. Unloved where he was, Darnold is a talented player getting a muuuccch better second opportunity to prove his worth to us fannies will be the train to ride. He can’t nail a 300-yard night during two practices with Colts, and will probably only see a half of game action, so any attaboys! finally being uttered now, I’m sure he’ll accept them.

Any bigger picture decision about Fitterer’s genius will have to wait a little longer, https://cdtalententerprises.com/2021/04/09/panthers-take-care-of-business-gm-fitterer-lands-qb-darnold-to-get-rolling/ but $30 million in cap space has plugged quite a few holes with free agents.

Consider 11-6 season a Panthers reboot

This will be an absolute turnaround season for the franchise, and opposing defenses should buckle it on tight after a highly movitated Christian McCaffrey (C-MC, some say CeeMac) comes out of the gate with maybe 150 yds./2 TDs on the Jets. Receivers Robbie Anderson and DJ Moore were the #3 production duo in NFL, and while two of FOUR Panthers not named McCaffrey who gained over 1,000 yards from scrimmage are gone (RB M.Davis, WR C.Samuel), there will be plenty of #22 jerseys in the stands cheering his return.

Valuable Replacements

Valuable replacement for Curtis Samuel (to Washington, 3 yr/$34.5M) NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund pegged Terrance Marshall, Jr. as Top 5 pick to lead rookie receivers this year.

At 6’2″, 200 lbs., he’s the same size as Panther great Mushin Muhammad, as a #3 receiver, he’ll get 1-1 coverage because of Moore and Anderson.

For those who haven’t already forgotten Greg Olsen and his ‘ninja skills,’ suddenly appearing downfield to catch a clutch first down pass, management has signed 6’6″ Dan Arnold (Arizona) to a 2 year/$6M contract. That’s just in case Darnold can’t find a receiver anywhere else, there should a large security blanket-level target pretty much in front of his eyes.

Ask ex-Panther Jimmy Clausen why they couldn’t find a good pass-catching tight end when he was blitzed mercilessly the year before Cam Newton got a pair of stud TEs (Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen), or just accept they saw a need and took care of it.

The ‘Madden’ version of McCaffrey is redonkulous, his reality and quality equally so. Offensive lines LOVE working for someone with the ability to go house if you hold your block another fraction of a second.

Defense – Another Big Leap?

In Year Two of Phil Snow as the Panthers Defensive Coordinator, expectations for another rise in the rankings – from bottom three in all categories to 18th overall in points and total yardage in 2020 – are legitimate. It’s taken three seasons of iffy improvement to get here, and last year was still the worst defense in franchise history on 3rd down (allowed 49.2% conversion) and INTs with 7.

With #1 pick Jaycee Horn a large, very physical cornerback, getting off the field on 3rd down will be enhanced.

The all-defensive draft last year looks like gold now, especially trading up to have a second-second round pick that became Jeremy Chinn. https://www.espn.com/nfl/player/_/id/4043169/jeremy-chinn The Panthers defense led the league in recovered fumbles (15) and scored 3 touchdowns, two by Chinn on back-back plays. As for the mere 29 total sacks, Brian Burns (9) is looking to blow up at whatever they’ll call his position – speed rusher is accurate – and is the epitome of ‘Mobile, Agile, Hostile’.

The all-defensive draft last year looks like gold now, especially trading up to have a second-second round pick that became Jeremy Chinn.

Top factors to assess 2021 defense will be sacks, and turnovers will be emphasized. A couple times off the field with a stop on 3rd down becoming more opportunities for a potent offense will obviously make a difference. Turnovers always follow aggressive play calling, and adding a number of free agents (DT DaQuan Jones, LB Denzel Perryman, DE Haason Reddick) with that element is a real boost.

Reddick had 12.5 sacks for Arizona last year, plus 16 QB hits, 6 forced fumbles, 15 tackles for loss, and THAT will get a defense off the field sooner. He’ll play the opposite side from Burns, and Phil Snow must be licking his chops to have such a major upgrade. Jones played all 16 games 5 of 6 years for the Titans, and if not a big sack guy, Perryman is a documented run stuffer, and his range is clearly better than Tahir Whitehead, even if nobody will be going sideline-sideline like Luuuuuke!

DIVISION – NFC South

That Tom Brady took the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory in his first year away from New England isn’t lost on anyone in the division, where Panthers will see The GOAT twice a year. Drew Brees is gone, and while fans have waited a long time to see ‘Swiss Army Knife’ QB Taysom Hill – who has done everything for the Saints while Brees continued amazing – “we’ll see” is legitimate. If there’s a QB battle with Jameis Winston, something is wrong in the Dome.

Atlanta remains an arch-rival, and they picked up another stud receiver (TE Kyle Pitts, Florida), whose 4 yr./$32.9M contract is fully guaranteed. Matt Ryan is still slinging it there, and all division games count extra, so whether the secondary is good enough to hold up while the D-line goes after him will be the key, he’s never been called elusive.

There probably isn’t a defensive scheme Brady hasn’t seen, Ryan still has skills and blazing fast receivers, but any post-Brees letdown in New Orleans would be appreciated.

Wrap it up, we’ll take it

While Robbie Anderson isn’t a fan of the new turf in BOA stadium (‘its fake’), the stadium allows far too many other events to keep regular grass viable, so while it will be very different here, its not a totally strange surface either. Expecting someone like McCaffrey and Moore, who can turn on a dime, to take advantage of always good footing is not to be underestimated.

Joey Slye had a 120 point season (29 FGs, 33 PATs), his only drawback being 1-6 from over 50 yards.

Everyone loved Jeremy Chinn‘s contributions last year, switching between OLB and safety. Adding Denzel Perryman will probably allow Snow to keep Chinn at safety, but there will certainly be sneak attacks from the versatile Chinn to keep Ryan and Brady aware of his presence. (The rest of the NFL will learn about it too.)

There was an idea that Panthers would lose a couple shootouts in 2020, that possibility has gone down with an improved QB and a strong off-season of plugging holes with free agency as a result of $30 million in cap space.

Panthers play the NFC East and most of AFC East (total 8 games), with Eagles, Vikes, Pats, and Washington at home, the Bills and Miami on the road, and finish the season with Bucs-Saints-Bucs. They should be in contention for winning the conference all the way to the end – their strength of schedule is rated as 26th (of 32 teams, 5th easiest), which helps me stick with an 11-6 prediction.

Panthers take care of business – GM Fitterer lands QB Darnold to get rolling

Without burying the lead, Panthers GM Scott Fitterer made an impression with his first major move, delivering pretty much the arch-typical Hollywood story of a QB unloved getting moved to a new place, where he flourishes as The Guy We Needed.

That would be Signal Caller and Arm version, CMC will be back on Ground Attack. It could be a video game-type stats year when a highly motivatd McCaffrey gets paired with a quarterback that can make all the throws.

Newton threw nothing but fastballs, Kyle Allen and Teddy B. knew how to lead receivers, putting DJ Moore in elite company and making Curtis Samuel kind of rich.

It was the obvious need and Fitterer put up a mission accomplished sign.

Fuggidaboudit, Charlotte & Darnold Works

Good young QBs traditionally get torn up, because they often went to the worst teams to start careers. The Jets continue as an NFL franchise.

  • Vinny Testeverde, Heisman winner, to Tampa Bay Bucs. He said he threw so many picks because he was color blind – Tampa had orange jerseys, the same as his collegiate team, UMiami.
  • You can get more local – Chris Weinke, 2000 Heisman winner, Carolina Panthers. https://www.heisman.com/heisman-winners/chris-weinke/ The only thing he couldn’t do was lift the Panther from a shipwreck win-loss season. He wound up with stats that triggered incentives for yards, TDs, total snaps, and they hadn’t invented the $5MM Backup then.

The bigger problem was, he’d played six years of minor league baseball before going back to college at 26! Those were glory years at FSU, but on the calendar, Weineke was almost thirty quickly. Terrific passer, but Panthers gave the keys to a caretaker, Rodney Peete, instead.

I didn’t care about Sam Darnold with the Jets. “Everybody” knows he was #3 overall pick three years ago out of USC, and sorry to say, high pick QBs often go to ungood teams. Major points, has to be said: His former Jets coach, Adam Gase, has been kind of a talent killer with quarterbacks, and Robbie Anderson coming to Panthers last year meant Darnold couldn’t throw to him in New York.

Darnold wasn’t wanted where he was, the Panthers definitely wanted more from the role than 15 TD/11 INT production Teddy Bridgewater put out as a $21MM caretaker. The price in draft picks was nominal, Panthers problem (theoretically) solved.

It has to be said: His former Jets coach, Adam Gase, has been kind of a talent killer with quarterbacks, and Robbie Anderson contributing to Panthers last year https://www.panthers.com/team/players-roster/robby-anderson/ meant Darnold couldn’t throw to him in New York.

Just so happens the Panthers have a resident genius with quarterbacks – Sam, Joe Brady; Joe, Sam.

Mr. Tepper took care of business

Having seen something by sportswriter Ian Rapaport about New York taking the new guy in Carolina to the shed on his first deal – Sam Darnold ain’t a busted down mule. The asking price – a #6 in upcoming draft, a #2 and #4 next year – isn’t anywhere near the mother lode Minnesota gave Dallas for Herschel Walker in October, 1989.

Heck, the Rams and Lions recently moved a bunch of #1 draft picks around, and the Panthers wanted/needed a #1 thrower so bad, they were in the sweepstakes for DeShaun Watson, but his $177MM contract cooled most potential takers. https://cdtalententerprises.com/2021/02/05/watson-would-work-wonders-for-panthers-25-free-agents-a-concern/

Fact about Mr. Tepper, he’s already analyzed factors relative to what he expects the Panthers to be as a product, and there’s no reason to change his tactics. He invested in facilities, and absolutely, bought some REALLY good football minds in Head Coach Rhule, Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady, and Defensive Coordinator, Phil Snow. He gave Christian McCaffrey a contract like his production rated.

A season after having iconic players like Newton, Kuechly, and Olsen depart, the Panthers had three-1,000 yard gainers – none of them named McCaffrey – and the defense moved from bottom three in almost every category to 18th overall, with a secondary that was right on the league average in yardage. Without Watson’s contract, the offensive line will get paid – four were part of 25 Panther free agents.

In 2021, Darnold is set to get $4.775MM, and team will have to decide about picking up a 5th year option in May for another $18MM, making him marginally more expensive than Bridgewater. It’s a two-for (years) that’s not tough math for Tepper or Fitterer.

Give the Panthers very high marks for respecting Teddy Bridgewater, who they’ll allow to possibly make his own deal elsewhere.

Resurrection on the Cheap

In a season-year that will be more memorable for playing before empty seats, the Panthers were an entertaining 5-11 bunch that let at least two games slip away late (Minnesota was the worst). On a team where playoffs would have been on the line, the injuries McCaffrey suffered, and mostly recovered from, might have pushed them to use their $21.3MM man late, but there was no reason to test ‘the franchise.’

Most Panther fans have moved on from Cam Newton thoughts, and I thought Bridgewater did a decent job distributing most of the year, but 15/11 are numbers that don’t lie. Kyle Allen had 17/15 the year before (yeah, and those fumbles) and didn’t get invited back. We’ll see if Mr. Samuel finds someplace to use his special skills, he was fun to watch.

So the business of the Carolina Panthers is moving forward. Mr. Fitterer appears to have put a satisfactory conclusion to the question of who’s going to run this team, on and off the field. As for that New York thing, heck, LOT of us will probably say, “Gawd bless ‘im, he must feel like he’s made it to the promised land,” and leave it at that.