They have a new coach, a new quarterback and a new defense.
We talked with CSR about a number of topics to help us get ready.
1. What are your initial impressions of the Matt Rhule era?
Panthers fans in general are pretty excited. Rhule is the first head coach in Panthers history who comes from an offensive background. That history has shown through three games so far when he and offensive coordinator Joe Brady have called plays and drives in a manner that suggests they are interested in scoring points. That is a novelty for most Panthers fans after nine years of Ron Rivera and nine years of John Fox before him. It’s a low bar, but Rhule has certainly cleared it.
There are questions, of course. We don’t know where to place the blame for the decision to dump Cam Newton on the side of the road like a bag of used left shoes, but most of us still want to blame somebody. Still, Rhule is buying a lot of credit from fans with his ‘possessing the ball as a means of scoring points’ philosophy versus the old ‘scoring points is a by product of winning the time of possession.’
2. With Christian McCaffrey out, what are the strengths of the Carolina offense?
Can I get back to you on that? Teddy Bridgewater is two for three in games where he was careful and deliberate with the football. He might be decent, but nobody is rushing to call him a strength just yet. Wide receiver Robby Anderson has stepped up in a big way and become the closest thing to a strength at his position group.
Otherwise, Brady is still sorting out how to use the strengths and weaknesses of his own players. Just last week perennial fantasy sleeping beauty Curtis Samuel saw his first downfield target as Brady realized that he was, in fact, a receiver. Was that a momentary lapse in literacy or a sign of game plans to come? We have no idea, we just know that we have all gone a certain shade of Panthers blue in the face while holding our breaths for Samuel’s breakout. Honestly, the biggest strength the Panthers have while figuring out who they are is the anonymity that comes with that process. The Cardinals are only going to have so much film to work with in designing their defensive gameplan, Brady and Rhule seem smart enough to take advantage of that.
3. The Panthers defense seemed to put it together last week, now they get Kawann Short back, are they getting close?
Similarly with the offense, the defense is very young and also quite new to each other. I think volatility is to be expected more than sustained progress on a week to week basis. On the whole, week three was a huge leap from week one in terms of run defense and communication in the secondary. Getting Kawaan Short back should help, as the Panthers are only now learning how they can apply pressure from the defensive line. Their nominally best and only real veteran player should be a boon to whatever games they are playing up front.
4. Who is the X-Factor in the game and maybe an under the radar player or two?
Two players on that young defense are second year defensive end Brian Burns and rookie safety/linebacker Jeremy Chinn. Both players have immense speed and have displayed a knack for being around the ball whenever there is a play to be made. Expect to hear their names a lot on Sunday. The x-factor may well be Dennis Daley. The Panthers starting left guard has yet to play a snap this season, but is expected back for his first game against the Cardinals. If he can step in and give Bridgewater just a hair more time in the passing game or open a few more holes for Mike Davis in the running game then the Panthers might stop kicking field goals on all of their red zone possessions and actually start racking up some points.
5. Who wins?
I would trust a coin flip over any actual analysis of the Panthers, they are too young and too different week to week because of injuries to accurately predict. Add in a head coach who is new to both the Panthers and to the NFL, and that is just a barrel full of chaos. I can tell you a dozen different ‘whats’ that will factor into this week, but adding those up to a ‘why’ the Panthers will perform at a given level is more alchemy than it is algebra. I have to say the Cardinals win, but I wouldn’t feel safe about any money I put on that.