It’s week 16 of the NFL season and the 6-8 Washington Football Team will be facing a 4-10 Panthers team at home at FedExField on Sunday at 4:05 PM EST. The Panthers have a worse overall record, but seem to play much better than their record and have played tough against some good teams this season (losing to the Chiefs and Saints by 3 points or less and coming within a score of the Packers last week).
Panthers owner David Tepper fired Ron Rivera last year in order to sign the more analytically-inclined Matt Rhule, who previously was head coach of the Baylor Bears. Rhule brought his DC from Baylor Phil Snow with him to the NFL, also tapping highly sought LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady to join him as OC in Carolina. Rhule also elected to maintain previous Panthers special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn in his old role. Carolina is currently ranked 10th in offense, 27th in defense, and 16th in special teams DVOA as measured by Football Outsiders.
I asked Walker Clement of Cat Scratch Reader five questions to better understand the state of the Panthers and what to look for in this game. If you want to see Walker’s comments on Ron Rivera and Kyle Allen last season (or just take a trip down memory lane), check out our 5Qs last year.
1) The Panthers signed Matt Rhule, who was one of my favorite head coaching candidates in last year’s coaching search. What do you think of Rhule so far and are there any coaches below Rhule on the staff that have stood out and are worth talking about in more detail?
Rhule is a guy who understands that a team can’t be fixed in a day and that a rebuild start with establishing the right habits and strategies, what he calls ‘process.’ I’m thrilled with him so far and would say that our 4-10 season has easily exceeded expectations. He’s essentially the exact opposite of Ron Rivera in that he is focus is more on figuring out why something worked instead of just trusting that whatever did work once will work again. It is process over tradition.
As for Rhule’s staff, both coordinators have stood out big time. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow has taken the absolute trash heap that the roster was left in and, with the addition of seven draft picks from 2020, turned into a moderately successful and capable unit. Joe Brady benefitted from the bulk of the free agency class this year to add to some actual young talent that was already on the roster and has put together a respectable year. We try not to praise him too much out loud because there are teams who make bad decisions like the Jets who are already sniffing around him as a head coaching candidate. I personally wouldn’t hire a first year, fresh from the college ranks offensive coordinator to run an entire NFL team, but I also personally wouldn’t agree to make decisions for the Jets. We just like to be cautious, is all.
2) What do you think about Teddy Bridgewater based on what you’ve seen this season? Does he have a long term future in Carolina, or is he just a bridge to the next QB?
Bridgewater has been a polarizing figure here since the day he signed, which is hilarious for as mild mannered and good of a guy as he is. The fact is that he isn’t Cam Newton. Some fans love it, some hate it, and some are just polarized by the extremely inconsistent, yet efficient style of football that he plays.
As for his future in Carolina. Bridgewater is here for one more year and that’s all there is to it. The Panthers are drafting a quarterback as soon as they can find one they believe in. Bridgewater had an uphill climb to take the starting job here as his own long term spot and he only reached about the middle of that hill.
3) The Panthers recently parted ways with GM Marty Hurney just a couple of weeks later in the season than they parted ways with Ron Rivera last year. What do you think about Hurney’s time in Carolina, the reasons he was fired, and his chances of re-uniting with Rivera and finding success in DC?
Marty Hurney is responsible for most of the great players in Panthers history, but that seems largely on account of him being general manager for all but three years since 2002. The man does a good job in the first round of each draft and a well below average job in rounds two through seven. He was booted from Carolina because new owner David Tepper wanted to have a more data driven approach to team management in everything from roster construction to salary negotiations to the draft. Hurney is more of an old school, goes-with-his-gut kind of guy. If Dwayne Haskins really isn’t the future of the Football Team then I can’t imagine a better leadership combo to get y’all to your next franchise quarterback than Rivera and Hurney. However, having watched what they did with Newton while we had him, keep your fingers crossed that they get you to the draft and that somebody else takes over as soon as that top pick is locked in.
4) Rivera brought many of his coaches from Carolina to DC, though notably made some changes among the top coordinators and a few of the position coaches. The full list is here. Do any of those names (other than Rivera) stand out to you as coaches Panthers fans had particularly strong opinions about, for better or worse, and what were those opinions?
Well, it isn’t all bad. Sam Mills III received nothing but positive reviews from inside the building after starting as an intern here. I don’t know if he is ready for his own position group yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was. The current offensive line staff is also responsible for getting a number of undrafted free agent guards to huge contracts elsewhere after getting their start with the Panthers. But I am glad to see that degree of nepotism on another team’s staff.
Do you ever wake up from a dream and realize that you didn’t skip a math test this morning because you graduated from school a decade ago and no longer have math classes? That’s what I felt like after reading that list. Rivera was fired from the Panthers largely because he wasn’t good at bringing in new guys and listening to new ideas. He was loyal to a fault. That shows up on that list in names like Richard Rogers and Jack Del Rio. Good luck with their units. Scott Turner, on the other hand, has a chance to be something positive. The work he did with his dad (you see how he got the job), Norv, could have saved Rivera in Charlotte if they could have fielded a quarterback better than Kyle Allen.
5) How would you gameplan to beat the Panthers this week on both sides of the ball?
To beat the Panthers offense all you have to do is take away the short passing game and put pressure on Bridgewater. He is an inconsistent deep passer. Crowd the box and bring five every play. You’ll get home more often than you get burned. Alternatively, just let them beat themselves. The Panthers roster is still only half formed and the a lot of the talent it does have is injured. They are capable of threatening any team in the league (see: Chiefs, Kansas City), but they’ll lose to anybody (see: Falcons, Atlanta) if you let them.
On defense, it is hard to say. Every week features a guy we’ve never heard of making a play at what was supposed to be a position of weakness while guys who are supposed to be superstars miss plays. I’d say your safest answer is to know where Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn are on every down and then run plays away from them.
Thanks again to Walker Clement for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Panthers. And happy holidays everyone!
As of right now, Vegas has Washington as 1 point favorites over Carolina. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Washington wins by more than 1 point
Washington wins by 1 point or it’s a tie
Carolina wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 42.5 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
43 or more total points are scored (both sides combined)
Fewer than 43 total points are scored (both sides combined)
If you could trade one of our coaches for one of the Panthers coaches, who would it be?
This poll is closed
Ron Rivera for Matt Rhule
Scott Turner for Joe Brady
Jack Del Rio for Phil Snow
Nate Kaczor for Chase Blackburn
None thanks, I’m good good with our coaching staff