It’s week 11 of the NFL season and the 3-6 Washington Football Team will be facing a 5-5 Carolina Panthers team on the road at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC this Sunday at 1 PM EST. The Panthers have had a tumultuous start to the season. After trading for QB Sam Darnold, they started the season hot, winning their first 3 games (Jets, Saints, Texans), before losing their next 4 games (Cowboys, Eagles, Vikings, Giants). The Panthers then split their next 3 games with a close win against the Falcons, a blowout loss against the Patriots, and a blowout win against the Colt McCoy-led Cardinals.
Panthers owner David Tepper fired Ron Rivera two years ago 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 has been marked by both the quality of their defensive line and the paucity of ability in their offensive line so far this season. According to ESPN analytics, Carolina’s defensive line is ranked 4th in pass rush win rate and 14th in run stop win rate so far this season. However, Carolina’s offensive line is ranked 27th in both pass block win rate and run block win rate (they might be missing OL coach John Matsko). This has created quite a split in defensive and offensive performance, with a particularly good pass defense and a particularly poor traditional offense in terms of deep passes and rushes up the middle. The Panthers defensive line is undersized and oriented towards getting after the QB, making them particularly good against the pass and particularly poor against the run.
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. We have played Carolina in each of the past 2 seasons, so you can click on the following links if you want to see Walker’s comments on Ron Rivera et al last year or the year before (quite a trip down memory lane).
1) Sam Darnold has gone from looking like a competent starting QB in week 1 to the Sam “Ghost Whisperer” Darnold of last year’s Jets’ fame (feel free to disagree in your answer). What have you seen out of Sam Darnold, what accounts for his hot start and subsequent decline, and what is his future in the NFL?
I think Sam saw enough coaching versus vanilla enough defenses to start the season that he was able to function. He also benefited from a small amount of luck in turnovers. He made at least one, if not more, boneheaded decisions in his early games that would have completely changed the course of a given game but for a defender dropping or never seeing the ball. Once defensive coordinators started to roll out more complexity in their schemes and had more film on Darnold? Well, you saw the results.
As for a future, I’m not sure Darnold really has one. Panthers fans are crossing their fingers, toes, and any other available appendages that the team will be able to find a willing trade partner in the offseason. The theory is that general manager Scott Fitterer can entice some team into taking Sam Darnold (and his $18M guaranteed contract) if we also send along a nice enough draft pick. I think it is nice to have dreams. Maybe some coach actually believes he can still save Darnold, but I’m still firmly in the same mode I was when they made the trade: I’ll believe it when I see it.
2) What did you see from Cam Newton last Sunday, what does his return mean for the Panthers, and how does he change their offense?
You mean what did I see besides two touchdowns in his first two plays? Sorry, that was such a highlight that we’re all still reveling in it a little bit. The honest answer is that we didn’t see much from Cam, and that was partly by design and partly a consequence of his joining the team two days prior to the game. We are looking forward to this week’s game because it will be an opportunity to see what he’s got. There will be the caveat still that he only has one week of practice under his belt in a new offense, but we should get an idea of how his shoulder is doing, where he is mentally, and how many miles his legs still have on them.
Because that’s the thing about Newton. When he’s all there, he stretches defenses in every direction. His legs made him a threat at the line of scrimmage and his deep ball ability kept safeties honest. That opened up the middle of the field for a healthy passing attack supplemented by explosive plays that often only happened after a designed play broke down. He probably isn’t *that* quarterback anymore, the question is what percentage of that quarterback can he still be. The follow up, to be answered in the weeks to come, is what percentage of that quarterback can he be sustainably.
3) You’re in the 4th year of David Tepper ownership. What are your observations about him, his strengths and weaknesses as an owner, and where do you think his arrow is pointed?
I think Tepper’s arrow is mostly pointing up at this point of his ownership. The Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer hires seem to range somewhere between above average and home run hires and that’s about all you can ask from an owner. That said, he has had two potential flaws appear in his tenure: he has been slow to make obvious changes and he, ironically, has seemed antsy to make rash changes.
The latter flaw is the most concerning. Tepper isn’t afraid to make his feelings known, even when that could be perceived as putting pressure on his GM to make a specific move. For example, when he was very publicly interested in Deshaun Watson and started doing his own digging into the quarterbacks current sexual assault allegations. He seems to be straddling the Jerry Jones line, where he knows he shouldn't meddle in a business that he is not an expert in yet he really can’t keep his fingers out of the big multi-billion dollar pie that he just bought. I get it, I doubt I could be half as hands off as he actually has been if I were in his role. So far he has stayed on the good side of that line and the only reason to mention it is because fans get worried when they see him making eyes at it.
The slow change that rubbed fans the wrong way was the firing of Ron Rivera and Marty Hurney. Neither ever demonstrated an ability to build a sustainable roster or coach a game with the intention of winning. Both seemed to be stuck in the philosophy of “trying not to lose” which is a very different thing from “trying to win.” Panthers fans saw the writing on the wall (since they often spray painted it there themselves) for a year or two in advance of either firing actually occurring. These were the first years of Tepper’s ownership and he was clearly trying not to blow everything up on Day One while he was also learning how to own a football team. Some fans see the extra time Rivera was afforded as being the one of the more consequential dominos in the extended saga of Cam Newton’s injuries. A coach with a longer leash might have afforded Newton actual time to recover instead of rushing him onto a field when he couldn’t physically jog.
Those concerns are all early days and lessons hopefully learned. I’m optimistic that Tepper is smarter than your average billionaire and will keep letting the people he hired do their jobs. But I also think, now that he has his feet under him, that he won’t be slow to pull the trigger on regime change if they don’t prove up to the task.
4) Where do Panthers fans stand on Matt Rhule, how he’s been as a head coach, and what his future looks like?
Rhule burned a lot of credit early with fans when he signed Teddy Bridgewater, cut Cam Newton, traded for Sam Darnold, and traded away Bridgewater (in that order). Fans generally like what he has done with the team outside of the quarterback position and they are happy to finally have a head coach who doesn’t treat offense like a four year old staring down a plate of vegetables.Now that Cam’s back, a lot of people are willing to let bygones be bygones. But while Darnold was the face of the franchise and struggling? There were a lot of calls for Rhule to be fired. I thought it was too early for that, but I am still leery of his ability to scout quarterbacks.
5) How would you gameplan to beat the Panthers on both sides of the ball
To beat the Panthers offense? Disguise coverage and blitz packages as much as possible, stress Newton’s processing and communication abilities as much as possible while he is still rusty and working on establishing a rapport with a new offensive line. Other than that, be safe and see what he brings to the table before trying to commit too hard to a specific concept. Also, you might want to have a man each who is specifically responsible for Newton and Christian McCaffrey on every down. Otherwise the Panthers will keep the ball on the ground all day and just grind away yards and clock in between scores.
To beat the Panthers defense? Be patient and convince Heinicke that throwing the ball away will be the discretional part of his valorous performance. The Panthers got healthy on defense last week for the first time since Week 3 and they seem to be about as healthy again this week. A fully healthy Panthers defense has an unparalleled secondary and obscene speed in the front seven. Running the ball to calm down their pass rush and create some space for Heinicke to work is a must, but don’t stick to that if you aren’t gaining any yards on first and second down. Third and long is a feast for these guys. Rivera’s teams used to struggle with this, but they shouldn’t be afraid to incorporate a short, quick passing game as an extension of their running game.
As of right now, Vegas has Carolina as 3.5 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Carolina wins by more than 3 points
Carolina wins by 3 points or fewer or it’s a tie
Washington wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 43 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)
Of the following NFL head coaches hired in 2020, which do you wish the Washington Football Team had hired?
This poll is closed
Ron Rivera (currently 3-6)
Matt Rhule (currently 5-5)
Mike McCarthy (currently 7-2)
Kevin Stefanski (currently 5-5)
Joe Judge (currently 3-6)