In 1995 the Carolina Panthers played their first game in franchise history. Despite the 23-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers became the most successful expansion team in NFL history with a 7-9 record before accelerating towards an NFC Championship game the very next year. The Panthers seemed to be a young team destined for success early in their history. Since then, 2 Superbowls have been reached, albeit both losses (2003, 2015), and after a few subpar seasons and a quick rebuild the Panthers seem en route to another Superbowl. For this year, the playoffs should be a very realistic target.
In 2015, the Panthers were led to a 15-1 record by the career year of Cam Newton. 45TDs through air and ground, a deep threat of Ted Ginn Jr racking 10TDs and a devastating defense consisting of 4 pro bowlers (including 1st team all-pros of Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Josh Norman). All the way to Superbowl 50, the Panthers played and came up one “no dive” away from a potential win. The next year saw a decline from Newton and the Panthers and no return to the heights of 2015. As a result, the Panthers turned to a new chapter in their history.
First, a new coach in former Temple and Baylor Head Coach Matt Rhule. Rhule turned a 4-7 Temple team into a 10-3 success before being picked to become the new Bears Head Coach in Baylor. Whilst never defeating a ranked team with the Bears, Rhule led Baylor to an 11-1 record and was hired to replace Ron Rivera, coach of 9 seasons. Along with Rhule came fellow college coach Joe Brady. The former LSU passing game co-ordinator who oversaw the rise of Joe Burrow was to oversea the new young buck bought in to replace the oft-injured and recently cut Cam Newton. Whilst the QB in 2020 was journeyman Teddy Bridgewater, there is now “young buck” at the helm in Sam Darnold.
The running game has changed from Jonathan Stewart to the dynamic Christian McCaffrey. The O-Line has been refuelled, whilst it may be seen as a possible weak point but Taylor Moton, John Miller and Matt Paradis will keep the centre and right side of the line solid. Third round rookie, Brady Christensen will look to compete for left tackle with Cameron Erving and Greg Little. However, with Joe Brady at the helm and Darnold trying to regain confidence. Expect screens utilizing the skills of Christian McCaffrey and the speed of DJ Moore. Moore, Robby Anderson and 2nd round rookie steal Terrance Marshall Jr, will stretch the field which will force the defense to sit back a few yards. That will allow screens more room as well as for the running of McCaffrey. The play action will be lethal for the Panthers. With the LBs and safeties deep from the Moore and Anderson threat, running room will be set up. Once McCaffrey guts the defense, the LBs will start flying down from deep to stop the run, allowing a room for the deep throw in behind. Whilst some would look to Darnold’s dreadful Jets career, the Jets were never in a position to help him succeed, a place almost polar opposite to the Panther’s situation.
Now for the defense and, oh boy, is it YOUNG. The great Luke Kuechly retired before the 2020 season, Short, Davis and Norman long gone. In came Derrick Brown, Brian Burns and Jamie Chinn. Brown is powerful, and whilst he only recorded 2 sacks in his rookie season, a sophomore leap should be expected. Jeremy Chinn is versatile. The LB-safety hybrid can play all over the defense and match up with receivers, tight ends and running backs. However, the real star is set up to be Brian Burns. Burns has an incredible ability to pass rush. He has utilized his extra tape study to not just beat tackles with his physical skills but also his brain. Burns now utilizes “ghost” techniques to get the tackles to bite before exploiting his leverage advantage. Burns can also play in coverage which allows for versatility in defensive scheming for defensive coordinator Phil Snow. Versatility is major on this young defense. Brown has the athleticism to play along the defensive front. Burns can rush or drop into coverage where the Swiss army knife of Jeremy Chinn patrols. This defense only now needs experience and it will only get that by playing.
The Panthers may start slow this year but they can reach the playoffs by the end of the year. Especially in a division of the rebuilding Falcons and the Brees-less Saints. A wild card spot behind the all-dominating Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a realistic and probable goal. Next year, if Darnold hits, a Superbowl? It’s possible, perhaps even probable. It won’t be long before the Panthers have another taste of a Superbowl and this time, they can get Superbowl glory.