The Panthers own a 3-2 record in a year many tabbed them to be rebuilding under first year Head Coach Matt Rhule. I reached out to Walker Clement at Cat Scratch Reader to try and figure out what’s gone right so far in this young season for Carolina.
Windy City Gridiron: David Tepper and Marty Hurney made a big hire this offseason, moving on from well-respected Head Coach Ron Rivera and luring Matt Rhule away from Baylor. What has surfaced as the most notable change in the Panthers since his arrival?
Cat Scratch Reader: Rhule has been talking since his introductory press conference about valuing process over results. If you do things the right way then you will end up with the right results more often than if you value any random sequence of events (say, running the balling into a loaded front on first and ten) just because it has always been done that way or because it did work out that one time. It means the Panthers are no longer slumming it at the bottom of the league in terms of pass rate on first or second and long. It means new programs for nutrition, training, and motivation. So far, it is showing results. At 3-2 and tied for the lead in the NFC South, these are not the Panthers that fans expected this season. Most of us thought we’d be debating between Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Instead, people near us keep saying playoffs and we’re learning not to flinch at the sound.
WCG: One of Rhule’s first hires was bringing on Joe Brady to serve as Offensive Coordinator at just 32 years old. What’s the offensive philosophy of this Rhule-Brady squad?
CSR: More than any coaching staff the Panthers have ever had, these guys like to score points. That may sound strange, but I think they would legitimately be disappointed in a win where they scored fewer than 28 points. Panthers coaches from the past (hell, y’all know John Fox), would prefer a 4-3 win over a 35-3 win. Brady and Rhule look at possessing the ball as a means of scoring points and not at points as a by-product of possessing the ball. Past that, I wouldn’t pin them down so much to any one identity on offense so much as they play to the strengths of the players that they can put on the field. It’s how they have built a three game winning streak since putting Christian McCaffrey on injured reserve.
The biggest picture items that people complain about as absent from the Panthers offense is a lack of a deep passing game and a tendency to get too cute in short yardage/red zone situations. There have been a few too many ducks off Bridgewater’s less-than-stellar arm and far too many field goals in otherwise close games. Still, Rhule, Brady, and Bridgewater are still finding their balance together. They are all still trying to figure out what to do with perennial Fantasy breakout candidate Curtis Samuel, for example. We’re five games in. These issues could be more than they can overcome and they could be ironed out in the blink of an eye. It’s too early to say anything definitively besides that this coaching staff cares more about offense than any Panthers staff in history.
WCG: Teddy Bridgewater chose the Panthers over the Bears this offseason. It seemed, at the time, that Bridgewater would serve as, well, the bridge for the Panthers as they took a year or two to rebuild. Off to a fast start, Bridgewater may just play the Panthers out of the running for a top-ranked QB in the 2021 NFL Draft. What’s made Bridgewater so successful and could he in fact be the long term answer at QB?
CSR: Bridgewater is only 27. His success right now is a combination of his own talent and work ethic and what might be a truly impressive pairing between Rhule and Brady. At that age, with this kind of renaissance, the Panthers would be foolish to not consider him as a long term option. He’s already played them out of any comfortable draft position for quarterback hunting, and he is on a three year contract. With 11 games left to play, the team gets to figure out if Bridgewater will get ‘figured out’ by opposing DCs or if he can be a real option. If not, they have between this year and next year’s draft to sort out his replacement.
WCG: It looks like the Bears will miss Christian McCaffrey and instead see former Bears RB Mike Davis shoulder the load at RB. Since McCaffrey’s injury, the Panthers have rattled off three straight wins. Any truth behind the idea that the Panthers are less predictable without CMC in the lineup, as Richard Sherman noted earlier this week? Are they somehow a better offense without the All-Pro or will it just make this team that much more dangerous when he returns?
CSR: I don’t think losing a player the caliber of McCaffrey ever makes you a better offense. I do think that the first two games was a lot of new for the Panthers featuring new coaches and new players on both sides of the ball. They started to gel at the same time McCaffrey got hurt. It was a coincidence.
The Panthers offense still features a heavy dose of carries and targets for Mike Davis. If that is less predictable it’s because anytime the ball goes to McCaffrey then people say “of course, he’s the best back in the game.’ That Davis has produced as much as he has, and that Bridgewater is still leading the league in completion percentage while defenses are keying entirely off the running back, speaks volumes of those guys and of offensive coordinator Joe Brady. It also speaks volumes of both backs that they are each currently in the top ten in the league in broken tackles.
WCG: The Panthers took all defense in the draft (seriously, 7 picks, 7 defenders). What are the early returns on this draft class so far?
CSR: Three starters, one heavy contributor, and some much needed depth. Seriously, that draft class could hardly have turned out better. Derrick Brown is a monster, Yetur Gross-Matos is surprisingly stout as a rookie edge, and Jeremy Chinn leads the team and occasionally the league in tackles. What more could they ask for? The reason the Panthers are fun to watch is the new look offense. The reason the team has been in a position to win games is because defensive coordinator Phil Snow (a long time Rhule assistant) has taken a ton of young talent and actually made a defense out of it.
Thanks to Walker and Cat Scratch Reader!