CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WSPA) – The Carolina Panthers finished the 2020 season 5-11 in Matt Rhule’s first year at the helm. Injuries played a pivotal role in the team’s underwhelming campaign, including the absence of all-pro running back Christian McCaffrey, but several players emerged, providing optimism for the future.
After acquiring first year NFL Head Coach Matt Rhule from Baylor, optimism was renewed in Charlotte as the Panthers moved on from its franchise quarterback as well as its long-time head coach. Both Cam Newton and Ron Rivera were the remaining pillars of that 2015 Super Bowl team. Newton and Rivera had been pivotal to the Panthers’ rise, but after two straight losing seasons it was clear the team needed to move in a different direction. Enter Matt Rhule.
Rhule came to the Panthers with an impressive resume that included resurrecting college football programs and even a stint with a super bowl champion. After a successful walk-on career as a linebacker for Penn State, Rhule got into the coaching ranks almost immediately. Eventually he landed key assistant coaching duties at Temple in the late 2000s. In 2012, he joined Tom Coughlin’s staff with the New York Giants, the eventual Super Bowl champions. He then returned to Temple to become the team’s head coach. After four seasons with the program, Rhule’s Owls went 10-2 and won their first conference championship in over 45 years.
That landed him a job at Baylor, a struggling program in need of a complete overhaul. Rhule’s first season was a massive struggle and they managed just one win. But in three short seasons, Rhule brought the team from a 1-11 record to 11-1 in 2019 and spots in the Big 12 Championship and the Sugar Bowl. With that drastic of an improvement in such a short amount of time, Carolina came calling with hopes of a similar transformation.
5-11 is nothing to write home about. But given Rhule’s history, it may just be the darkest moment before the dawn.
His presence with the Panthers brought a new philosophy to the club and an innovative staff as well, including the hiring of the 2019 national champion LSU Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady to call plays. Rhule’s defensive-heavy mindset to go along with Brady seemed to be an effective pairing. Despite a very young defense that had been depleted of stars in recent years, the Panthers competed hard in every game and were able to hang with some of the league’s most prolific offenses. There were several bumps in the road, but Rhule’s influence on the team’s culture, and its identity, became more clear as the season went on. They were going to give every opponent their best, even if they were a distant mismatch on paper. And that alone should give fans reason to feel optimistic about where the franchise is heading.
Too Close For Comfort
As previously mentioned, the 2020 Panthers were extremely competitive throughout the season and were routinely engaged in close games. The problem was, they were too often on the losing side of those close contests.
11 of the team’s 16 games were decided by one possession. A testament to their ability to string together four competitive quarters. But eight of their 11 losses have come in one possession games, an indictment perhaps on their ability to close games out. That will certainly be an area of focus going into 2021.
A large part of that problem has been with the offense’s production late in games. They scored an average of just six points in the fourth quarter, ranking 27th in the NFL. Conversely, the defense has surrendered an average of just over seven points in the fourth quarter, ranking 17th in the league. If the offense can add a field goal to its average in the final frame next season, they’ll likely find themselves on the winning side of these tight showdowns more often than not.
New Faces, New Places
Adding to the fact that a new coach and new regime was taking over in Carolina, the team had several new faces to the lineup as well.
Teddy Bridgewater came in from New Orleans via free agency to take over the void left by Cam Newton. Robby Anderson was acquired to provide a deep threat to the offense. Some key rookies were introduced to the lineup perhaps sooner than anticipated. And Mike Davis, in his first full season with the Panthers, assumed the bell cow role in the backfield as Christian McCaffrey missed 13 games due to injury. A lot of newness surrounded the team this past season, but hindsight might favor that adversity.
Starting with Bridgewater, it wasn’t a great season. Not by a long shot. But there were certain elements of his play that worked well at times. For one, he was very efficient. He completed nearly 70% of his passes, and threw interceptions on 2.2% of his throws which ranks in the top half of the league. But all that being said, the efficiency came at a price. And frankly his ceiling appears to be capped pretty low, though the floor may be relatively high. His 15 touchdowns ranked 24th behind the likes of Mitch Trubisky and Gardner Minshew, both who played significantly fewer games than Bridgewater. So while he was adept at running the offense, and signed a multi-year deal with the team, Bridgewaters immediate future as a starter is not by any means guaranteed.
Robby Anderson was a welcome sight to the offense, and definitely lived up to the hype in 2020. He led the team in receptions with 95, and tallied over a thousand yards in his first season away from the Jets. Anderson not only provided that deep threat, but he was a reliable receiver on short and intermediate routes as well. He quickly became a primary target for Bridgewater. His three touchdowns was second on the team, surprisingly, but those low numbers can largely be attributed to the offense’s lack of splash to begin with. With a full offseason and more comfort with the coaching staff, look for Anderson to build off of an impressive year next season.
Mike Davis filled in admirably for Christian McCaffrey, who’s one of the most irreplaceable players in the NFL. McCaffrey was sidelined after week one with a high ankle sprain, and then later missed time due to a quad injury which eventually shut him down for the remainder of the season. In the three games that he did play, he was his usual self. McCaffrey tallied 374 total yards and six total touchdowns, including 17 receptions. Of course no one expected the same from Davis. But Davis did provide quality starts for the team. Most surprisingly, Davis contributed heavily in the receiving game. He caught 59 passes for 373 yards and two touchdowns. On the ground, although he averaged 3.9 yards per carry, he added 642 yards and six scores. The Panthers as a team averaged a fifth best 4.7 yards per rush in 2020, and Davis was a big part of this team’s success on the ground.
Finally, there were rookies who saw a lot of game action this season. For first year players brand new to the NFL, this was a group that grew significantly over the year with the arrow pointing up.
Fountain of Youth
That brings us to the youth on this team, particularly the rookie class that took a large amount of reps this season. While there were apparent growing pains, they gained valuable experience. Safety Jeremy Chinn was the group’s largest contributor to the team. He totaled a team-high 117 tackles, had a sack, an interception, and two fumble recoveries for touchdowns in the span of ten seconds. Chinn established himself as a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and made big plays in big moments on several occasions. Carolina got a good one there.
Derrick Brown, their first round selection, took some time to get acclimated to the defense. But as the season progressed, so too did his comfort with the system. The chemistry along the defensive line improved as well, and Brown began making an impact in the latter portions of the schedule. Brown started 15 games, had two sacks, eight tackles for loss, and 12 quarterback hits. With Kawann Short returning next season, and presumably a real NFL offseason for Brown, the defensive line could be the most improved unit on the defense next season.
Fourth round selection out of Greer, Troy Pride Jr., was thrust into action fairly early on due to a depleted secondary. With that came the expected struggles for a position that requires quick adaptability to the speed of the game. But overall, Pride played well given the circumstances. He started eight games, saw action in 14, and finished with 42 total tackles. For a fourth-rounder, the Panthers are likely pleased with what they saw from the Notre Dame product. With Donte Jackson’s return, Pride was relegated to limited snaps, and he was held out of the final two games due to injury. So his improved season ended prematurely, but there’s plenty of room to impress in a defensive backfield that desperately needs playmakers.
Aside from the rookies, there are several young players on the team. Edge rusher Brian Burns has quickly established himself as one of the better pass rushers in the league. The 22-year-old had a team-high nine sacks and 21 quarterback hits in 2020.
D.J. Moore missed a couple games due to injury, but still led the team in receiving yards (1,193) and touchdowns (4). At just 23 years old, he has a huge amount of upside in an offense that is stacking playmakers. Adding to that, Curtis Samuel is just 24 years old as well. Samuel made a big impact in the receiving and rushing game as he was used situationally out of the backfield and was successful when doing so. He averaged nearly five yards per carry for two hundred yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He added 77 catches for 851 yards and three touchdowns in the air.
The Panthers had a season made up of more struggles than triumphs, but they took an important step towards becoming a consistent contender in the division. They brought in a defensive-minded, but young head coach. They deployed their rookies early on to jump start their development. They brought in a new quarterback, new system, and new playmakers to gel together in a short amount of time. Oh, and they did all that without their best player.
Given all that transpired this season, all of the adversity this team faced, and given the experience they gained, the expectations should be much higher for 2021. And really, that’s all you can ask of a first time coach with a new QB and a relatively young team. Carolina is trending in the right direction, and now they just have to stay the course.