The Los Angeles Rams open the 2019 regular season by traveling to face the Carolina Panthers in Week 1. It’s a tough test, but given that the entire TST staff is predicting a Rams win I think we’re all feeling good about this one.
To get a better sense of the Panthers and how they’re looking coming into 2019 after a disastrous denouement in 2018, I linked up with Walker Clement from Cat Scratch Reader, the SB Nation community for Panthers fans.
I know it’s not the most fun stretch in Panthers history, but I just want to go back to 2018 to kick things off. That seven-game losing streak from Week 10-16 and the correlating deterioration of QB Cam Newton’s shoulder effectively ruined a very promising start. Are you concerned that even with Newton ailing you guys couldn’t pull more Ws out of some of those games and what that could mean for 2019? Is there anything from that stretch that could affect 2019 positively or negatively? Did that stretch affect the offseason plans and the 2019 NFL Draft class (looking at you, QB Will Grier...)?
The Panthers have always been a weird team with Ron Rivera and Cam Newton. When they are talented, they play to the absolute limit of their floor. When they are more holes than roster, they play to the ceiling. Last year, they were talented. They are more so this year. Panthers fans are understandably nervous. That said, it all comes back to Newton’s health. Everything else from 2018 is either hail in the maelstrom that will fall as our season falls apart or nothing worth remembering as Newton leads the team to new heights.
The decision to draft Grier comes back to the need for a backup quarterback that predates Newton’s most recent iteration of shoulder injury. Rivera and General Manager Marty Hurney have been looking for a long term back up to Newton since they realized Derek Anderson was eligible for Social Security. Grier would have been the Panthers pick in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft whether or not Newton was injured.
Okay, on to 2019. We spent our preseason sitting most of the starters and starter-adjacent players, though we did lose ILB Micah Kiser to a pec injury. Other than that, I’m not sure there was much to take away from our preseason. What about you guys? Was there anything you gleaned from your preseason contests that could clue us in to what to expect from the Panthers in 2019? I know you guys covered the value (or lack thereof) of the preseason on your podcast, but having watched very little of your preseason action I didn’t know if there were any takeaways of sincere import.
Besides the all-important take away that Newton might have a functional throwing shoulder again, the Panthers didn’t learn an awful lot in the preseason this year. The offense was kept so vanilla as to be kept off the field for the most part and the defense was kind of average. The team may have uncovered a couple of talented guys in linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk and running back Reggie Bonnafon, but they won’t have a grand impact on this season barring exceptional circumstances. The preseason, as it turns out, is the preseason. Caring about, as the Panthers did, doesn’t mean you are going to learn anything from it, as the Panthers didn’t.
In recent years, you guys have come out cranking on defense to start the regular season. You kept the Cowboys to 8 points last year. The 2017 San Francisco 49ers kicked their 2017 season off scoring a whopping 3 points against you guys. The 21-20 loss to the Denver Broncos in 2016 is the anomaly, because in 2015 you started off with a 20-9 win at the Jacksonville Jaguars. Is that the expectation headed into 2019? It’s not as if you guys are wildly better on defense ESPECIALLY in that 2015 season when you led the NFL in scoring. What is it about the good starts defensively?
Defense is Rivera’s stock in trade. There have been years where he honestly seemed to trust his defense to score more than his offense. I’ll bet anything that he takes a stronger hand in developing the defensive gameplan for Week 1 than he does for any other week. At least, I would have made that bet in years passed. This year, Rivera is debuting a new 3-4 defensive scheme for the Panthers and taking over from second year defensive coordinator Eric Washington as the play caller. That could mean any number of things, but the smart money is on a defensive fireworks show to rival even Aaron Donald’s efforts.
As for that Broncos game, don’t put too much credit in that. That game was marked by bad blood as a Super Bowl rematch just six months after the original. Imagine the Rams playing the Patriots this Sunday instead and trying to draw conclusions about the rest of the season. The Panthers and Rams don’t have any real blood, good or bad, between them. We should be in line to see a story book match up between an offensive prodigy and a guy who thinks on the opponents side of the field is a good idea.
Let’s talk about new cats. Who are the first-year Panthers that are going to make a difference this year? I know you guys had some key free agent additions, but the buzz I’ve been hearing about Brian Burns... How are the rookies looking? Any UDFAs of note?
The rookies that Carolina is excited about are, as mentioned, Burns and a rookie left tackle, Greg Little out of Ole Miss. Burns is in line to possible start at outside linebacker pending the status of Bruce Irvin’s hamstring. Little has spent the last few weeks in the concussion protocol and is doubtful to play on Sunday. That outside linebacker position for Burns is largely a pass rushing position in the Panthers new 3-4 defensive scheme that I mentioned earlier. The Panthers focus this offseason was to get faster on defense, and putting Burns on the edge with his incredible first step and quickness is how they plan to accomplish that goal. Burns tied for third in the NFL with four sacks during the preseason, all during limited action in each game.
As for UDFA rookies, something will have gone terribly wrong if any of their names come up in big moments on Sunday. The Panthers roster is brimming with second and third year talent, but light on rookies after Burns. Guys like Christian McCaffrey (already a superstar), D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, Donte Jackson, Efe Obada, and Ian Thomas have earned all the buzz so far. That is a large part of why the Panthers are involved in as many dark horse contender conversations as they are. A few breakout performances here and there puts this team in a whole different light.
Forget a score prediction or what not. Let’s look deeper into the season. After this one, you guys have a short week to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football before a two-game road swing facing the Arizona Cardinals and Houston Texans. Aside from a win, what would you like to see from the Panthers? What would make you feel better moving forward into 2019? What silver linings in a loss would have you feeling better about this season than you might now?
Week 1 can be full of shenanigans for every team. This is the time of year where the Jags can beat the Pats. Win or lose, the Panthers need to walk away from Sunday’s game having proven that they can rush the passer with this faster, younger defense that they’ve built. They need to prove that Newton’s throwing shoulder can survive a whole game. That doesn’t mean he can chuck it 80 yards out of the back of his own end zone, though it wouldn’t hurt, so much as it means he can throw thirty passes a game and put as much oomph on the thirtieth pass as he did the first. Basically, they need to prove they belong in the NFL.
That said, the Panthers also kind of need a win here. The Rams under Sean McVay have had no trouble establishing themselves as one of the big boys of the league. Rivera’s tenure, meanwhile, has had as many ups as it has had downs. To give you context, the Panthers have never in their 25 year history posted back to back winning seasons. Under Rivera, they have managed to win the NFC South three times in a row. The middle year in that streak was a 7-8-1 division crown built purely out of chaos. Rivera’s Panthers have lived in that chaos during his eight years in Carolina. It’s time he proved capable of rising above it. That means beating good teams as well as the ones you are supposed to beat.
Thanks to Walker for the time.