CHARLOTTE — OK, good season, everybody, I think we learned some things; see you at free agency and the draft. Wait, what, there's more of this?
Yes, this season has contained multitudes, and it feels like it has gone on for years already. But after the Panthers take a break this weekend, there's still a five-week sprint to the finish, and there's a lot on the line at a number of levels for players and coaches and beyond.
But the bye week is a chance to reset a bit, to get some perspective on what's happening elsewhere and what's happened in the past 12 weeks, and get ready for the busiest five of the year. Also, bye weeks are great, I wish there were more of them, but 17-game seasons have jacked up my internal clock. The last 25 years or so of my life have been built around a 16-game season, so the entire rhythm is off. But I guess it's like an extra encore you weren't expecting at a show. Still, it's a long year, and everybody is ready for the break. As one fellow employee said earlier this week, the goal is to stick toes in the sand (or somewhere) and wish you didn't have a phone for a few days.
But football never really stops anymore, and there are plenty of questions to work through. So let's get to it:
Looks like the rest of the NFC South lost last week, and now the Panthers sit in third place in the division. Since the Panthers are a game and a half back from the Buccaneers, what are the odds of the Panthers making the playoffs now? — Nathan, Winston-Salem, NC
One of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of football, a gunslinger from Corellia (which I think is in Mississippi) named Han Solo, always said: "Never tell me the odds." This usually caused his left tackle, a big hairy kid from Kashyyyk (which I think is in Idaho) named Chewbacca to say: "GGGGWWWWWAAAAGGGGHHH."
Some things are best left unquantified. And yet, the world is full of quantifiers, who can sometimes be helpful but often just stomp all the life out of a story.
The quantifiers of the New York Times have calculated the chances for the Panthers going from 4-8 to the playoffs at exactly 8 percent. That's up from the 3 percent chance they had last week before beating the Broncos.
(You can play with the buttons and figure out the rest of the chances at this link, but the short version is, they go up with every win).
I can't begin to know how they came to this conclusion, but I know the Panthers have done enough that it's still a conversation, that they'll control the number by how they play the final five games, but also that they need the Buccaneers to start losing.
Now, Tampa Bay's quarterback is old, and another one of his offensive linemen just got hurt (high ankle sprain for right tackle Tristan Wirfs), and the Bucs are 5-6 after an overtime loss to the Browns, and they've got a tougher schedule ahead of them than the Panthers do.
But that schedule also includes the Panthers on Jan. 1, so they have some say in the matter.
Until the Panthers win a road game, or put a couple back-to-back, it feels weird to be talking about the playoffs. But they have won three straight at home (which they haven't done in a while), and there are (ostensibly) winnable games upcoming against the Steelers and Lions (though the Steelers and Lions view their Panthers games the exact same way).
Darin, what do you and the other beat writers do during the bye week? Do you guys also get vacation time to spend with family and friends? Or do the higher-ups expect articles like Ask The Old Guy to be cranked out, regardless? Obviously, breaking news can disrupt a planned bye-week vacation. Any good memories you can share? — Dan, Venetia, PA
Dan, I don't do it for the higher-ups, I do it for the people. Thus, I have hand-crafted this artisanal Mailbag just for you. Congratulations, and because I care, I'm also making you this week's Friend Of The Mailbag, and will get a special something in the mail, also just for you. Actually, I may hand-deliver it, and sing it outside your window. Please don't call the cops.
We'll take some time off, and we won't be in a stadium five hours before kickoff on Sunday, but again, football never really ends, so you always have to be ready for anything. That's why they call it news.
The great thing about technology is you can do a lot of this work from anywhere. Once upon a time, a long time ago one summer, I was about to board a boat called the Minne-Ha-Ha on beautiful Lake George with the kids when the phone rang, and you find out that Steve Smith Sr. broke his arm playing flag football. The Minne-Ha-Ha was going to set sail with or without me, so calls were made, and we got a short version of the news in the paper, the kids didn't throw me overboard, and we went about enjoying a lovely day. But the news was there waiting for me again when we returned to shore, so we made more calls and wrote a longer version of the news to replace the first one.
And as the legendary general manager Hyman Roth once said, "this is the business we've chosen."
We'll have some more stuff for you at Panthers.com the next couple of days. But this weekend, we're going to breathe for a minute, because December (and January) are going to be interesting.
I know there's still a long way to go this season, but what free agents currently on the team have the best chance of getting signed after this season? Also, any plans for the bye week? — Amanda, Mooresville, NC
Amanda's kind. She seems genuinely worried that I've been doing this every day since mid-July and that my nerves are a little frayed, and I'm about to snap. I appreciate the concern.
She also wants to know what the next inevitable thing is, which I also appreciate because there's nothing like being prepared.
We talked about this a few weeks back, but the Panthers actually have a shorter list of stuff to do this offseason because they've got a decent core of guys signed for the future already.
There's a level of interest in all three, and Bozeman and Foreman are fairly central to the personality they've established under interim coach Steve Wilks.
The way the Panthers are protecting and running right now, keeping both of them would likely be something they'd want to do.
And if they can hang onto Bozeman, they can offer the 2023 head coach (whether it's Wilks or somebody else) a turn-key offensive line to begin next season with (since Ikem Ekwonu, Brady Christensen, Austin Corbett, and Taylor Moton are all under contract through at least 2024 already).
There are some key backups and special teamers coming up as well, including long snapper JJ Jansen (Hey, did you guys know he's played a lot of games here? More than all but one guy ever. They have the same amount, and they know each other well. Read this story to find out more about that), but in terms of big-ticket items, it's not a long list.
Well, Darin, it was nice to see Sam come in and pilot the team to a nice win. Kind of weird not being miserable for the whole game. Will he get the reins for the rest of the season? Does this finally signal a breakup with Baker? Does this do anything to make the Panthers think about keeping Sam around? Also, I was at the Cleveland game (loss) and the Arizona game (loss), but I didn't make it up there for the Tampa game (win) and the Atlanta Thursday night game (win). Does this mean I need to stay home from now on? Am I a bad luck charm? — Paul, Wilmington, NC
Been nice knowing you, Paul. Sorry, you can't come back once you admit you're a gooch. Don't get mad at me; I don't make the rules.
I think thinking in terms of anything for the rest of the year is a good way to get in a ditch. There are no mandates or guarantees. Wilks is trying to win each game the best he knows how. And while we've been conditioned to think of quarterbacks as a protected class, he's not treating any of these guys differently than any other position.
You get to play as long as you play well. So Sam gets another chance in Seattle. How he plays there will determine if he gets another one. And after that, PJ could be well enough to play, and Wilks will probably go week-to-week deciding which one gives him the best shot.
The thing with Mayfield is, when he's had chances, he hasn't played well. More than any other factor, that'll be the thing that keeps him off the field (though with the way this season has gone, there's no reason to think anything will go according to plan).
Happy bye week, Darin! Do NFL beat writers consider other teams' beat writers as competitors or allies? I wondered after reading a Q&A column from a team with an identical record as the Panthers and fans that are snarling with each other! — Susan, Inman, SC
I hate them all.
Actually, that's not really true. I only really hate Scott Bair in Atlanta, and not because of divisional rivalries; it's because he calls his mailbag "Bair Mail," and people who come up with jokes funnier than mine are my enemies. (I have a lot of enemies.)
Some of these people are among my dearest friends in life beyond football. Darren Urban from the Cardinals was at my wedding, and I only sometimes hate him because he's taller than me and is more handsome, and also a better writer. We've talked about doing joint mailbags one day (Two Darins, No Waiting) but we can't decide which spelling to go with (mine or the wrong one). He also went to the other ASU, and he's still a little salty that his Cronkite School education doesn't also come with the pride of being from a football school.
There's also Wes Hodkiewicz in Green Bay, who will forever in my heart be Young Wes, because I remember when he started in this business. He was earnest and hard-working and nice, and thank goodness we beat all that out of him. Besides, Firmly Middle-Aged And Prone To Injury Wes just doesn't roll off the tongue the same way.
I could go on and on, but no, these are my people.
Hi Darin! Although you aren't at meetings and the locker room all the time, can you sense (and tell us) if and what specifically changed since the coaching change? Looking from afar, it seems that now, in the games they win, the team has enough cushion to survive a recovered onside kick or a muffed punt. Before, any mistake would probably lead to a close loss. Can't be as simple as PJ's or Darnold's play only, can it? Thanks! — Fernando, Sao Paulo, Brazil
No, but it's also not the kind of thing that's explained by any one thing or person.
Playing more competitive football convinces people they can do more of it. So even though they lost at Baltimore, the cats on that defense knew that they could stop almost anyone, and that carried over from Lamar Jackson to Russell Wilson.
The difference was playing competent offense against the Broncos which they didn't do against the Ravens. It's amazing what that will do for a team's belief.
Wilks appears to have something to do with that. But as he often says, it's not about him (editor's note: it's a little about him, whether he acknowledges it or not).
I have a feeling old stereotypes could get the best of this team. I really like Steve Wilks, but then again, they always say, "never hire the interim." Along with that, CJ Stroud looks fine but once again, "Don't draft Ohio State QBs; they don't play anyone in college." It's just looking like we might be passing up on two good opportunities; at least that's how I see it. Am I overthinking it? Do they even pay attention to stuff like that? — Trey, Chesapeake, VA
Depends on who you mean by "they."
Stereotypes are generally bad things, which is why you should always avoid all of them all of the time.
Smart people will consider every factor independent of the category it comes from, at least if they want to make a good decision.
Most interim coaches are just there to get teams through the last couple of weeks of a lost season. But the Panthers are playing differently now than they were after five games, so Wilks is getting a different kind of audition, not to mention a longer one.
They'll go through a coaching search, but he's going to be part of it, and every game he leads is now part of his resume. The fact he's won three straight home games can't hurt his candidacy, nor will his command of the locker room, nor his ability to coax just enough offense out of a less-than-ideal quarterback situation (at least in the home games).
As for Stroud, I hesitate to get into too many particulars of college quarterbacks just yet (we have plenty of time for that), but people in the scouting business I trust who don't work in this building have suggested to me that Stroud is being asked to do more than some Buckeyes quarterbacks have. Now, do all Buckeyes quarterbacks have the advantage of playing with superior personnel, which can make them look better than they actually are? That has been the case in the past.
But that's why scouts want to see guys at the Senior Bowl, at the combine, and at private workouts, to isolate as many of the factors as they can, so they can make the best decisions possible.
Big fan of the Mailbag. Also a big fan of the Gamecocks. It's been a wild few weeks for teams with Carolina in their name. The Panthers are coming off another win at home, and the Gamecocks finished the year with back-to-back Top 25 wins over Tennessee and the University of Pickens County. All of that to say, this seems like a great excuse to talk about the Gamecocks on our roster. What can Shi Smith and Jaycee Horn do during the off week to come back as bigger assets for the offense and defense, respectively? Horn's was one of the names we heard a lot about recently as a "foundational piece" of this team. What are the next steps to build on that foundation?
And since we're here, I would love your thoughts on Shane Beamer and the turnaround in Columbia. Keep Pounding and Go Gamecocks! — Alex, Charlotte
Referring back to the previous question, there is one stereotype I will hold dear — never encourage Gamecocks fans, or let them think they're getting good at football, or they'll never shut up about it. (Kidding. Mostly. Although they lost to Appalachian State the other year, so they belong to us fully and forever now.)
Beamer has done a great job in Columbia, for sure. He seems to be good at this coaching thing. He also still has a shiny coat, which is probably from the mayonnaise bath last year. As it pertains to the Gamecocks on this roster, they're in two different spots.
Horn has the chance to be one of the best cornerbacks in the game. An important element of that will be keeping a fire lit under him on a daily basis. Not that he's not self-motivated, but if a player with the talent of Horn gets elite coaching on a regular basis, he's going to get better. He's good enough to get away with talent a lot of days, but the difference between talent and skill is the kind of thing that comes with time and an excellent mentor. Finding one of those for Horn should be the priority for whoever ends up coaching this team in 2023, whether it's Wilks or someone else. Someone as talented as Horn is too precious of a commodity not to push.
Smith flashed often enough in training camp that he went from a guy on the fringes of the roster to the starting lineup. He has big-play ability. He hasn't always been consistent or run the sharpest routes, which is part of the reason Terrace Marshall Jr. has replaced him in the starting lineup.
With so many questions about the future of the offense, his part of that question is harder to answer because any changes at quarterback or to the structure of the offense around him will make a difference.
As I prepare to go watch my beloved Tar Heels face off against the evil cult that is the Clemson Tigers in Bank of America Stadium this Saturday with both teams limping to the championship game, I'm reminded of attending my first-ever Panthers game, where 14-year-old Jonny went to see Johnny Manziel (who was the same age at that game that I am now, ... what am I doing with my life?) and the Cleveland Browns come to town in Week 16 of 2014 (easy math to find out how old I am) where the Panthers prevailed and eventually won the NFC South with a beautiful 7-8-1 record.
These examples of teams that might not be great with a chance of coming out on top remind me that in these conferences and divisions, someone simply must win. So I ask, after watching the Bucs punt away their game against the Browns, the Falcons throw a goal-line interception with the game on the line, and the Saints getting shut out for the first time in a mind-boggling 332 games, along with the fact that (as the NFL scout that I am) I'm not convinced on any QB1 early this draft anyway, and from what I've heard Steve Wilks certainly isn't in the business of tanking. I may have given up on this season after sadly watching us lose to a bad Rams team, but why not us? — Jonny, Chapel Hill, NC
Why not, indeed?
Although Jonny's easy math problem didn't account for the fact he asked it to a sports writer. Never ask people like me or Scott or Darren or Young Wes to do the math. We write about ball games because we're too dumb to do the math for a living.
Seriously, somebody has to win the NFC South. I have no idea who it's going to be. Tom Brady being Tom Brady makes you kind of want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but things are falling apart around him at the moment.
Wilks has been talking about 2014 since he took over, and there's a reason for that. No reasonable person should have been thinking about the playoffs at 3-8-1. And yet, the Panthers ended up there.
They had a young and healthy Cam Newton then, and that makes a big difference. But if they can keep getting competent (not excellent) play from the quarterback room, this year's team has a shot.
And until they don't, Wilks is going to keep preaching hope, and plenty of people in that locker room believe him.
And best of luck to the Heels on Saturday. It would be Drake Maye's second-biggest win of his career after coming to Boone earlier this year and hitting a late jumper like his brother for a 63-61 win over a football school.
I am trying to imagine all of the QB possibilities for next year and end up getting a headache. Do we give Matt Corral an opportunity for on-the-job training, start over with a drafted QB, try another project, or keep a current QB as a gap for Corral?
The list goes on, and there is the possibility we may have to trade up with little capital in hand. Certainly, none we can afford. This time, more than ever, we have to get it right. — Stephen, Columbia, SC
The short answer is all of the above.
The Panthers have had to play three quarterbacks this year. That's not ideal. But the reality is you're always going to need more than one. So Corral can be part of next year's answer, but there's no way you can be honest with yourself and think he's the only part. We haven't seen him play.
Things can always change, but if I had to guess right now, I'd anticipate another drafted quarterback and then some degree of veteran who is capable and understands the role as a guy who might need to start but clearly isn't the future (think Jacoby Brissett in Cleveland this year).
They can afford whatever they want; it's just a matter of how badly they want to. When they had nine picks in the next two drafts (as they did before the Rams game), that lack-of-capital part might have been true. After trading Robbie Anderson and Christian McCaffrey, they have 14 picks in the next two drafts, and all seven of next year's are in the first five rounds. That gives them the ability to move around if they need to.
But there's a lot of season left, and no way to know whether they'll need to move up to take a quarterback. I think people make too much of draft position as it pertains to the future of the quarterback position. The Panthers had a couple of top-three picks active on Sunday. The Bills found a franchise quarterback with a seventh pick, the Chiefs a 10th, the Packers a 24th and the Ravens a 32nd. The Patriots had one for a long time that they took 199th.
Creating the conditions for success is far more important than any particular pick or player.
Hey Darin, I've given you a break for a few weeks, so we're back to it this week. There are several things on my mind, but since I know you abhor lengthy diatribes, I'll keep it simple. While watching TV recently, a friend asked me if we could change the channel to ESPN for a sports "thing." My response was, "No, we're watching SpongeBob. Go away." Which, of course, is my way of saying "thank you" for the most excellent story on Jordan Trgovac. Without a doubt, one of the best pieces you have done recently. And yes, I realize it's two weeks old, but reference my comment about giving you a break.
While there is no real question here (because there is no obvious answer), I would like to think the Panthers would retain this woman as she gains experience. I know your crystal ball is "in your other pants," but take a shot anyway. What do you think? — Howard, Star, NC
Thanks, Howard. That story he's referencing about scouting assistant Jordan Trgovac (which you can read here) was one of my favorites as well, because her story has a lot of layers. She's obviously bright and doesn't take any crap off anyone. She also knows she's still learning how to be a scout, and knows how to fit into a group dynamic. In short, she gets it.
She's taking her first steps into the world of scouting, but the Panthers also know that building a personnel department is just like building a roster — you need to have a deep practice squad so you can develop players for the future.
Keeping people inside your organization for several years gives you the opportunity to grow in a number of ways, and as she adds experience, her perspective can help the people around her.
Let's go lightning round (brought to you by the patron saint of the lightning round Jeff from Fuquay-Varina) to close it out this week.
How many of the Panthers players understand if they win out, they would be 9-8 and control the NFC South? Oddsmakers have them going 3-2 with underdogs against the Seahawks and Buccaneers. I believe they are coming together, and coach Wilks has them playing football worth watching! Let's go, Cardiac Cats. We need six straight wins, one down, five more to go! Keep Pounding! One game at a time. I'm all in! — Joey, Riverview, FL
Well, which is it Joey? One at a time? Or six in a row? You can't have it both ways.
Also, yes, I believe they are aware.
Why does no one recognize the value of Ian Thomas in the Panthers' offense? He doesn't catch a lot of passes because nobody throws to him, and what is thrown to him, he catches. Being a great blocker is essential to a good running game. — Tommie, Charlotte
Ian is more than a willing blocker; he's a capable one. I think because of years of guys like Greg Olsen and even Wesley Walls, people identify tight ends based on their passing stats and judge them as such. But Ian can be one of those old-school, root-em-out blockers, and when you want to run, you have to have one of those.
Now that Mayfield's time in Carolina appears done, is there any benefit financially to releasing him rather than keeping him on the roster as insurance? Thanks for all your good work, DG. I've been following you since the inception. — Tom, Garner, NC
I mean, you could save 5/17ths of his base salary (around $1.4 million) by cutting him now, but until I knew that all of my quarterbacks were going to stay healthy all year, I wouldn't go throwing any of them away unless there was a reason to. Look what happened to the Bears the other day. They almost had to go into a game with just Nathan Peterman, who they promoted from the practice squad the day before.
Will you be filling in as D-line coach now that Pot Roast (Terrance Knighton) is heading to Nebraska? — Paul, Wilmington, NC
I will not. Coaching is hard work and takes a lot of time. And I'd rather sit with my toes in the sand or on my couch and write jokes on the internet. It's much easier and requires little to no math.