CHARLOTTE — The bye week came at a time when the Panthers certainly needed it.
Not that the news since they left Miami has been good, as they put two team captains on injured reserve (Christian McCaffrey and Donte Jackson), and parted ways with offensive coordinator Joe Brady on Sunday after the week off.
And while the rest was welcome after 12 straight weeks of NFL football, the Panthers are clearly going to be ready to get back to work tomorrow. Defensive end Morgan Fox said as much on Monday, because they'd all love to have a different result to talk about instead of that last one.
Whatever else happens down the stretch, the Panthers have five weeks to work, and for some of these players, these weeks could make the difference in the rest of their NFL careers.
So there's no real reason not to be focused on those five, and what might happen within them. Panthers head coach Matt Rhule tells the guys all the time that if they focus on the daily, the larger issues will take care of themselves. We'll find out how that manifests itself in the next five weeks, starting with Sunday's game against the Falcons.
That said, let's dig into the post-bye bag, and see some of what's on your mind.
Coming out of the bye week with a 5-7 record and a tough schedule to finish the year, it looks like the chance of reaching the playoffs is pretty low. At what point do the coaches start looking to next year? With key starters like McCaffrey and Jackson going in to IR, how important are these next five games for some of the rotational players to step up and impress the coaches and prove their worth for next years roster? — Matt, Frome, England
As disappointing as the Panthers' current record is, shouldn't this be used as an opportunity to make lemons into lemonade? Most fans have hoped for better results but realize the Panthers are a team in transition. That being the case, wouldn't it make sense to ensure the entire roster gets sufficient playing time on film for Panthers' coaches and staff to evaluate? Coaches could effectively identify and address areas where players need improvement, both as individuals and in groups. Staff gets a broad view of the team to use in building a plan to address shortcomings during the upcoming offseason.
Importantly, I'm not asking to tank the remainder of the season. Address the players and make them part of this transition. Asking a player to step onto the field and give their best effort is always the standard, but being aware that getting more or less playing time is not a reflection of the value the team is assigning them is important. At best, this may even bring better results on the scoreboard. At worst, the change can provide a baseline for use in adjusting a roster that's not that far from being consistently competitive. — Randy, Goose Creek, SC
From the English countryside to Suburban Summerville, this is kind of the question of the week. What do they do with some of these guys in the next five weeks?
And to be honest, some of the late looks at younger players are going to be organic, and naturally occurring.
We're going to get a good chance to see Chuba Hubbard down the stretch with McCaffrey out for the season. Hubbard's going to get carries, and if he could improve his hands as a receiver, it would certainly help in a number of ways as they plan for the future.
It's probably overstating it to say future roles are on the line (all three of them should be on the roster because they're young and talented and cost-effective for 2022). But they can help the staff frame future roles with the way they play now.
We know the Panthers want to be deep in the secondary based on the allocation of resources, so seeing how Henderson and Taylor play the next five weeks will help them make plans for the future, as the front office can see what to expect.
Is Brady Christensen a left tackle or do they like him more at guard? If so why hasn't he started yet? — Kenneth, Bristol, TN
He was a left tackle in college. Expecting him to be one in the NFL is a big ask. And expecting him to transition to a position he hasn't played as an NFL rookie is also one.
The whole reason they moved Taylor Moton to the left that one week against the Eagles was, in part, so Christensen's professional first start wasn't at left tackle. That's partly because the concerns about his arm length are valid, and partly because of the weight of expectation.
I think he can play tackle, but I get the sense they think he's better at guard, long-term. But that takes time to figure out, and he hasn't had that luxury this year, as he's played all over the place out of necessity.
There could be a job available soon because of injuries and other issues (John Miller's injured again, Michael Jordan is dealing with a recent hamstring injury, and Trent Scott is on the COVID-19 list). So Christensen's going to play this year; it's just a matter of where.
The hope would be that they could find one particular spot and let him work there so he can refine techniques, because that's what he'll need as he develops as a pro. But considering the situation the Panthers have been in up front all year long, expecting that now doesn't seem realistic.
I think you've alluded to this before, but I think our team is more built for speed rather than power, and a few times this season (Dallas, Minnesota, Washington, and a few others), we have been manhandled by powerful offensive lines. I know it didn't really happen this week since the Dolphins were able to throw it so efficiently, but it has become a recurring problem for our defense. I know you have expert and insider knowledge of the personnel and coaching staff, so in your expert opinion, how do we fix this problem and become a more versatile defense rather than a one-trick pony? — Grant, Gahanna, OH
Part of it is structural, as they've put together a defense that's able to play man-to-man coverage and get after quarterbacks. Those are valuable. But when you have less than 500 pounds combined on the edges in Brian Burns and Haason Reddick, it can make you susceptible to a power run game.
Reddick's strong for a guy his size, but he's still a guy his size.
One player I'm interested to see develop is Yetur Gross-Matos, who has the kind of heft to set the edge in the run game. They still need to be able to pass-rush, because not every team is built like Dallas anyway. But it's reasonable to think that adding some bigger bodies to the edge makes sense, to go along with the speed rushers.
With the Panthers parting ways with Joe Brady, what are the advantages of releasing him with only five games left? — Seth, Charlotte
As Rhule said Monday, once you realize you're going to do something, you might as well go ahead and do it.
I think Joe's going to coach in the NFL for a long time. He's smart, and he's well-trained.
But it's also evident that what was happening here wasn't working for a lot of reasons (including but not limited to personnel, coaching, and bad luck when it comes to injuries). Fixing that offense is going to be the focus of the offseason, and they know that. So they started now.
Now I realize reading back that my last two week's questions have certainly been negative. Seeing the team starting 3-0 before going downward certainly causes that. (Seriously, seeing them start 0-3 would have stung far less than this.) So I have two questions this week. For the first one, I thought I'd ask about you. How do you tend to spend the bye week? Do you like to spend a week away from football as much as possible, or do you also stay very in-depth with everything going on in the league, even on the team's bye?
As for my other, with the last two years' unfortunate string of injuries to Christian McCaffrey, do you think, even as soon as next season, there's a possibility they move him away from running back, and almost exclusively to a receiver? Obviously, he's a stellar runner, but of course he's also proven he's an amazing receiver, so I was just wondering if there might be any thought in moving him to the latter full time to help take some of the damage off his body. — Eric, Brick, NJ
See, the bye-week is about self-scouting. And Eric can be pardoned for any perceived tone, as questions tend to track along with the results on the field.
Different people handle byes different ways. Some people can't get away from football. I need to at least once a year. I spent Saturday with the family harvesting a Christmas tree and installing and decorating it. (To answer the next set of questions, always real tree, with multi-colored lights. Because it makes my house smell like a mountain lodge, and to support local agribusiness, that's why. And white lights are certainly tasteful and refined, but I've never been described that way either.) I need a break from football, though, and going straight from training camp through the preseason and then 12 weeks of the regular season is a lot.
I try to catch up when I get back. I saw enough of Kenny Pickett's highlights from Saturday night to know that he's pretty good and that fake slide is going to get some quarterbacks destroyed someday (defenders are going to stop giving people the benefit of a safe landing if quarterbacks keep that up). I saw enough of Peyton and Eli and the Patriots Monday night to know that Eli is the funny one (he's the Letterman to his brother's Leno), and that throwing the ball is overrated (three pass attempts in a game is about two too many unless they all travel 30 yards or more in the air).
As to the second and more serious football question, I think McCaffrey is a running back. It's what he's good at. He has not been fortunate the last two years.
I think if you wanted to do something to help him, the answer might be another running back. Alvin Kamara has dealt with injury issues too, but when he's paired with Mark Ingram, he's still been a dynamic player. A complementary back (and maybe that's Hubbard) seems a more sound strategy at this point than changing positions.
And because Eric is self-aware, considerate, and still got to football, I'm making him this week's Ask The Old Guy Friend of the Mailbag, and now that the merch is starting to hit the mailboxes, he's in line for the 19th piece of it behind me, Hal from Canada, Westray from Kershaw, Joseph formerly of Concord who's moving away for some big fancy job with a desk, Sunny from Houston, Adam from Germany, Long-Winded Donovan, Juan from Argentina, Wise Bob from Colorado, Newlywed Alex, Every Day Susan from Training Camp, Lynn from Lake Wylie, Scott With Good Taste in Music, Cory Who Got Right To The Point And Begged, Peter the Australian Punter Expert, Brad The King of Date Night, Shane Who Knows What's Up, and Rich the Pickle Guy.
(And again, we're in the process of getting those out now. When you get yours, send us a photo on social media so all your friends can be well and truly jealous of your fine material possession, because that's the true spirit of the season).
Darin, for those of us making the journey north for the Buffalo game, I have to ask, ... Anchor Bar or Duff's? I've been told (I have co-workers in Buffalo) that Buffalo is a friendly place to Panthers fans because of the whole "Carolina North" thing. — Dan, Pittsburgh, PA
I don't pretend to know everything. So for this question, I went to a true expert in this field.
Senior producer Kyle Toot from our video department worked in Buffalo for three years, and because I trust The Tooter, I'm letting him field this one.
He says that Anchor Bar (the alleged home of the Buffalo Wing) is a fine establishment, and if you're the kind of person that needs to check a box off life's little list saying you went to a famous place, you probably won't be disappointed. He says the wings at Duff's are fine as well.
The place he prefers is Gabriel's Gate, which he says is the choice of the local cognoscenti, and also has outstanding French onion soup and beef on weck. They apparently also have a Buffalo head on the wall, and that's good enough for me. (Though I'd really like to walk into a bar one day and see the back half of some of these animals. I can't stand waste, and using the whole buffalo appeals to my spirit.)
So if any of that turns out to be wrong, don't blame me; blame The Tooter.
Though I do know enough to know that you order wings with bleu cheese there. Because ranch is for children, and also @panthersbill.
And because I live in Charlotte, I also have friends and neighbors and co-workers from Buffalo. We all do. They make sure to tell us about it on a regular basis.
One old guy to another: The Panthers (and most other NFL teams) spend thousands of millions of dollars on quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and the defense. I grew up on the premise that the best defense is a great offense. Well, Old Guy, they can buy the sun and the moon as stars, but if they don't wake up and spend a bunch of cash on building (and keeping) a world-class offensive line, nothing is going to get any better. A quarterback can't pass if he is on his back on the ground. Backs can't run if they are getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. It ALL hinges on the offensive line! Maintaining ball control and clock time, wears down opposing defenses, and keeps your own defense fresh. Offensive lines tend to thrive and get better as the game goes on when they are moving the ball and scoring .... they feed on it! I'd love to see a financial spreadsheet showing player compensation by position. I can almost guarantee you that the offensive line will be at the bottom of the pecking order! Wake up Panthers management! If you truly want to KEEP POUNDING, you've got to get it done in the trenches! The stars will take care of themselves. — Jim, Timberlake, NC
And all God's people said: "Amen."
Yeah, they're aware this is the next position to be fixed. And while they might not spend an entire draft on it next year, it would be justified if they did.
Jim actually got me to digging around the internet, and there are some resources online which show how teams spend their money. Spotrac.com has a handy chart, that shows the Panthers have spent 11.38 percent of their cap space this year on offensive linemen (which with five divided by 22 represents 22.7 percent of the starting lineup). That number ranks 26th in the NFL.
It's actually not the position that ranks lowest in the league rankings, though. That would be tight end, where after trading Dan Arnold to Jacksonville, they have a lot of guys on their first contracts, so none of them are making much.
But yes, they're going to spend more on offensive linemen in the future.
The big extension for Moton this offseason was the first step, and it won't be the last. I anticipate them using both free-agent dollars and draft picks to address it in the offseason. Perhaps enough of both to justify all of Jim's exclamation points (which make me wonder if he's as old as he says he is, as age tends to mellow a man).
Hey Darin! Thanks for keeping us in the loop with the Panthers online. Have you heard any news as to when Jaycee Horn may return, or are we just shutting him down for the season? — Judd, Bluffton, SC
It was never particularly likely that Horn was getting back from his broken foot this year, as the initial estimates had him returning in late December or early January at the soonest.
While the team's position in the standings isn't the determining factor here (his health is), I think it's reasonable to conclude that they wouldn't consider it if the playoffs weren't a possibility.
But that's not what's making this decision. He's too valuable a commodity to risk the chance of setting him back next year by playing him before he's 100 percent. He might try to push it, because that's the kind of player he is. But I think they're going to lean toward the side of caution because he's so critical to the next few years. With Jackson and Stephon Gilmore pending unrestricted free agents, they know they need him at his best in 2022.
Hey Darin, I'm writing this on a Thanksgiving where I woke up to an empty house (other than my mini-Panthers [read house cats]) and can't help but feel thankful for everything that you and the rest of the Panthers organization do. You, always engaging us, even with the silliest of questions. Will Bryan, bringing us all the ways to watch, listen, and engage week in and week out, and the stats and storylines to watch. Bill, who let us Grill him endlessly until you came to the rescue, and still goes out each day and provides us with great insights and looks inside the organization. The photography team, which keeps our timelines blessed and phone screens fresh. Every one of you, and I know there are countless more that deserve thanks, help make us fans some of the most engaged in Our League, and there's no team I would rather have been rooting for for the past 26 years. So, from me and the mini-Panthers, and I'm sure from all of us fans all over the world, from Canada, to Kershaw, to (at least formerly) Concord, to Houston, to Germany, to Argentina, to Colorado, to Training Camp, to Lake Wylie, to Australia, and every single place in-between, Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Holidays, and Keep Pounding! — Nathan, Grand Prairie, TX
I saved this letter for a reason. I know there's not a question in there, but I don't care. My threshold for Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving leftovers is almost limitless. (Though I did ditch one forgotten portion of green bean casserole from the back of the fridge this week. [My general rule on leftovers is that they're good until you finish them, or they let you know they're bad by changing colors or growing fur. Miss me with your alleged "food safety." I won't be a pawn of Big Grocery.])
So thanks Nathan, for all the kind words about this amazing team of people I get to work with every day. It takes a lot of people to create all this content, and we do it for people like you. And your cats. (Especially your cats).
That'll cover us for this week. Don't forget to drop your questions in for next week's bag, in which I am happy to explore any more opinions anyone has about the indigenous food in Buffalo, or really anywhere else.