CHARLOTTE — There are things in each of our lives that are certainly unpleasant but, in most cases, not terminal.
Like turbulence on a flight. Or dental work. Or talking about your feelings.
Or the way the Panthers are playing offense at this present moment.
The reality is, that the Panthers are 1-12 and have fired a coach already because the offensive blueprint wasn't quite right, and removing the architect did not magically result in a stable foundation either. It's clear that changes need to be made.
The question is what degree of change it would take for this to be bearable.
It's hard to imagine when you're sitting in Seat 48F, and the plane is shaking like a wet dog. Or when you're flat on your back in the chair, and the dentist says, "this might sting a little," which is always a big lie. Or when someone — it doesn't have to be your partner, it could be your parole officer — says, "We need to talk."
But all of those things are generally survivable with enough novocaine.
At the moment, it can be hard to watch the way the Panthers are playing offense and imagine it will ever get better. But they don't even need to consider being great on offense yet; they just need to become competent to make a huge difference.
The NFL average for scoring in a game is between 21 and 22 points a game. Specifically, the Los Angeles Chargers are 16th at an average of 21.7 points per game, and the Cincinnati Bengals are 17th at 21.5. The Panthers are 30th at 15.2.
So, for the sake of this exercise, round up. If the Panthers had scored exactly 22 points in every game this season, and not a single point more in any of them, they'd be 6-7 right now and tied with the Falcons for first place in this trailer park of a division (since two of those hypothetical wins would have been against the Saints in Week 2, and the Bucs in Week 13). That wouldn't feel great, but it would certainly feel a lot different.
It's hard to picture a great offense right now. But it's at least easier to imagine an average one, which changes everything and is a whole lot better than talking about your feelings.
But feelings, many of you have. So, once again, we're here for you. Have a seat on the couch. I'm listening.
There is a term in the restaurant industry that escapes me at the moment when it is no longer feasible to remodel a location. You bulldoze and rebuild. My question, quite simply, do you think there is an HC/GM tandem that could turn this franchise around? — Stephen, Columbia, SC
Of course there is. They just have to find that combination and the staff to go around them.
Again, one of the biggest factors in this mix is the neighborhood they live in. The NFC South is a Jerry Springer episode having a smoke on a roadside carnival ride while hooking up with one of the lesser Kardashians. It's messy. And the biggest loser in this division this season might be the team that wins it because they're going to get smoked by either the Eagles or the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs and will pick 19th in the draft for the privilege and probably won't have a decent quarterback next year either.
But it's also feasible to create enough of a fix to approach that status in a hurry.
The Panthers have the league's fourth-ranked defense, which gives them a chance every week. And that defense in 2024 should include a two-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher (franchise tag pending), Derrick Brown (who has played Pro Bowl-level football but might struggle for recognition because 1-12), a smart and steady middle linebacker, a turn-key secondary, and Frankie Luvu if they re-sign him (which they want to).
They have a solid core of special teams players, which (other than last week) gives them a chance to score points, flip the field, and occasionally return things.
And on offense, as long as the new coach is a fan of putting square pegs into square holes, they could have the makings of a solid offensive line (when everyone is healthy). Now, if they want to run a scheme that's counter to the parts on hand, it's going to take a few more people to rebuild it.
The quarterback is here. He needs to get better and get better help around him. Both things are achievable, and it doesn't have to be a five-year process. We'll see how it goes. It's not a small job, but there's no reason it has to take forever, either.
Well, we were officially eliminated from the playoffs. That being said, I'm pretty sure we only lost one coin toss all season to this point. That's got to count for something, right? — John, Matthews, NC
John actually sent this question over a week ago, but I held it for a minute to give it time to breathe and for me to give it the attention a query of that magnitude deserves. That's right, dear readers. I committed a journalism.
The Panthers were indeed 6-1 on coin tosses this year prior to the Saints game, with the lone loss coming at Miami. But something else changed that day, something which could have potentially changed the fortunes of not merely a football team but perhaps the financial futures of a pair of key individuals.
Settle in, folks; this is going to turn into a Paul Harvey bit, and if you don't know who Paul Harvey is, call and ask your grandparents. They also still use their phones as phones and would like to hear from you anyway. (This segment is brought to you by the good folks at Select Comfort Beds, Bose radios, and Citracal.)
Now, the rest of the story.
At the beginning of the season, the Panthers elected six captains for the coming year. The longest-serving Panthers player among them, linebacker Shaq Thompson, earned the honor of calling tails in Atlanta in September, and it was, in fact, tails. There are days in your life when you're set along a path.
Alas, Thompson would not get a chance to build on this success after a Saints player fell across his leg the following week at home, leading to a season-ending broken ankle. Things seemed dark, and not just because they were without their defensive signal-caller and the conscience of the locker room for the rest of the season. There was suddenly a void for coin-toss callers as well.
Players are all unique human beings with varying motivations, motivational styles, habits, and quirks. Some guys get themselves ready for games by listening to loud music and working up a sweat before games. Others sit in their lockers and pray. Some hobnob with friends from the other team, catching up and visiting. Some ease into the day quietly, walking gentle laps around the field when they arrive at a visiting stadium or picking up blades of grass to check the wind. But among the group of five remaining captains and Shaq-replacement Luvu the following road trip to Seattle, it seemed no one really felt like talking to the officials that afternoon.
At that moment, a hero emerged, narrowed his steely gaze, stared fate in the eye, and proudly declared: "I will call this toss, setting into motion a chain of events no one can predict." Or something like that. Punter Johnny Hekker, in his first year as a team captain here but 12th in the league, stepped forward and took on this weighty responsibility with both gravity and honor.
He called heads. It was heads.
This went on with no rhyme or reason until they got to Miami in Week 6. Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas was honored that day for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So, the commemorative coin had imagery honoring him and the Dolphins logo as the head.
Hekker was certainly not inclined to step into that sacred circle and send his troops into battle under the enemy's banner. So he defiantly called tails. It was heads. Undeterred by this cruel twist, things went OK for a moment as the Panthers ran out to an unexpected 14-0 lead. It was not to continue that way.
But clearly, it was time to reconsider his method and to consult with his most senior advisor, a man who knows his secrets, shares his own, and can be trusted to the very grave.
Not that specialists don't work hard, but they do have a lot of free time between assignments, and much of that time is spent discussing the finer points of football strategy, theology, and current affairs over meals or between-meals nourishment. So when Hekker and long snapper JJ Jansen decided they needed a new plan, it figures that it would be food-related.
These think tanks often convene early on Wednesday mornings over coffee or on Thursday late-morning over pre-practice sandwiches. But these two have developed such a chemistry that sometimes they don't need words at all. So at around 6:42 p.m. ET in Chicago in Week 10, just over an hour and a half before kickoff, everything changed.
At that precise moment, Hekker and Jansen were enjoying honey-flavored snack waffles for a last-minute burst of carbohydrate energy. The brand is unimportant. Besides, these two (especially Jansen) are such media darlings that giving away such valuable commercial real estate without compensation would be foolish. And friends, Johnny Hekker is no fool. So from that day forward, Hekker and Jansen would flip that snack waffle around 93 minutes before kickoff and base that week's coin toss upon its result, trusting the gods of high-fructose corn syrup to lead them on a path of destiny, possibly glory, and certainly eventual endorsement wealth.
It worked! After the snack waffle suggested tails in Chicago, and it was tails, Hekker was wise enough to respect an omen and precedent. Let the tape talk, the coaches say. So the snack waffle said heads in Tennessee and Tampa. And Hekker listened.
That continued Sunday in New Orleans, when at 11:27 a.m. ET, the snack waffle landed nutritional information label side up, clearly telling them tails was the right call. The official toss landed on heads for reasons only explained by local voodoo. Blame Marie Laveau.
But the sign of a professional is finding an appropriate method and sticking to it. Will they reconsider trusting a snack waffle in Jacksonville in three weeks? They will not.
"I mean, a coin flip is supposed to be 50-50," Jansen helpfully pointed out, thanks to his salary cap guy's knack for numbers. "And the waffle's 3-1 now, that's 75 percent. Are you kidding me?"
They are not kidding. This is serious business.
So, while John from Matthews might have hoped to slide into the lightning round, brought to you by Jeff from Fuquay-Varina, with hopes of me cracking wise, that was not to be. No, dear readers, this question deserved an investigation, nay demanded the effort required to get to the bottom of an issue of this seriousness.
Hekker calls the toss because five other guys (Luvu, Taylor Moton, Brian Burns, Bryce Young, and Adam Thielen) are shy about being on mics before games. He was kind of winging it at first, but then Jansen and fate interceded over snack waffles, and a tradition was born.
So now you know, ... (dramatic pause), ... the rest of the story.
(I can't believe they pay me for this.)
Now that the Panthers have been eliminated from the playoffs would sitting Bryce Young for the last four games to save him for next year be a wise move? — Gary, Summerville, SC
(I figured after that last answer we needed a good short one.)
What can Bryce possibly learn at this point besides bad habits? I know people are talking about his poor footwork, but running from a 300-pound nose tackle is likely affecting him. And even when he isn't really being pressured, he's feeling pressured. (Seeing ghosts?!?) I can't tell that he's getting better at reading coverages and protections. But again, it's hard to tell since our WRs and OL (in general) would all be second-stringers on most other teams. Why not "protect his ankle" and let him learn by watching Andy Dalton and talking to Jim Caldwell on the sidelines? At least he wouldn't get hurt and, hopefully, wouldn't be seeing those ghosts next year. — JD, Port St Lucie, FL
OK, since there were a couple of dozen versions of this question this week, it feels like it demands a more thorough answer than the one I gave poor Gary (who meant well and didn't deserve my curt response).
Here's the thing about not playing Young the last four games — what are you protecting him from, and what will cause the least damage?
And that's a more complicated answer than it might appear.
Young was brought here to be a long-term fix to a long-term problem. So, a short-term bump they might or might not get from playing Dalton could create more issues down the road than it solves today.
It's obvious that Young was talented enough to deserve his draft status — source, anyone with two eyes. It's equally obvious that this situation has not been conducive to offensive success. And a closer look at what's happened of late also points to the fact that Young has some very concrete things to work on in the coming months.
When Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian was discussing the plight of the rookie quarterback (he was the GM when the Colts had a kid who led the league in interceptions and went 3-13 named Peyton Manning), he said Young would have the opportunity to make the biggest strides this coming offseason, because he can spend the entire offseason working on his craft, rather than having workouts, going to the combine, and not knowing who his coach would be until late April. Now, it's likely to be early February before he knows his next one, but the point stands.
The next coach of the Panthers will be charged with fixing the offense, but also some particular mechanical things about Young. And while that work can't happen yet for obvious reasons, there are things Young can learn about playing quarterback in the NFL that best happen while playing in the NFL.
JD is correct that the cast around him is not ideal. The Panthers need to upgrade at wide receiver and at least get healthier on the offensive line. (In case you haven't heard, getting five games combined from your projected starting guards while playing six different left guards and seven different right guards in a year might have something to do with the pressure that's coming up the middle and changing so much.)
And to run the risk of being reductive to the point of absurdity, the best way to learn how to play football is to play football. Building experience while building character.
I'm a long-time Packer fan and a rather recent (since 2018) Panther Nation convert. I read you often and love how you respectfully address each reader's questions. Would you agree with the following opinion? While I do agree that Bryce Young has talent, I think, as painful as it sounds, he should play elsewhere or become a backup. This team does have talent but is not in the right positions to make a difference with Bryce. There are just too many things to fix on offense with a rookie who always needs to get rid of the ball in a hurry. There are possibly some bigger veteran QBs becoming available next year. I'm sorry, but size matters. — Dave, Albemarle, NC
The world is full of people who will tell you now that Young's not big enough to do this job. You couldn't really find them in April.
As soon as he's in a system that suits his strengths, with a more stable group of people around him, we'll find out for sure — but this year offered neither.
And realistically, when you give up what you give up to get him, you don't bail on that project after one season.
But we do appreciate you bailing on the Packers to sign up here. Who would do that? Only a person of character. Hard things on purpose. Respect it.
Howdy Darin, with another season down the proverbial pooper, I have been reflecting on Panther seasons of yesteryear that were doomed to a similar crapper. Do you have any good stories from seasons lost that everyone would like to forget about? The 1-15 2001 Panthers were so bad that friends and family would give away tickets to any poor soul who would take them, which, of course, allowed my father to take his 8-year-old son to go see his first Carolina Panthers game back on a brisk October day. Chris Weinke threw for a respectable 76 yards as he dueled the colorblind (supposedly, that's what my dad said from his days in Tampa Bay) Vinny Testaverde and the Jets. A real pillow fight of a game riddled with interceptions and punts, but I was able to witness the unreal punting power of Todd Sauerbraun as he consistently flipped the field for our defense that day. It was inspiring to see a man launch a ball with his foot that far as the rest of the fans jostled to the bathroom and concessions for more stale nachos. He would simply jog back to the sideline and get a low five from John Fox as he tried his best to chew through an entire pack of gum in one game. Although the Panthers' defense that day caused four turnovers, our anemic offense couldn't muster more than 12 points, and we sadly lost by one point. However, I left that stadium that day as a Panthers fan for life.
So please, distract us with a story that reminds us why we are Panthers fans during these tough seasons. Maybe a Brian St. Pierre story or something. — Paul, Wilmington, NC
Well, I could say 2001 led to 2003, and 2010 led to Cam Newton, but no one knows what the future holds.
I maintain that this isn't as bad as 2001 and 2010 because during those years, there was no way of knowing that the quarterback of the future was ever coming. Bryce Young is a work in progress, but I feel OK suggesting he's neither Chris Weinke nor Jimmy Clausen.
But I also admire your recall of a magnificent game featuring a future Panthers legend in Vinny Testaverde. The colorblind story is true, though that didn't explain the three picks he threw that day. Paul, your first game turned on a missed extra point by John Kasay, and that practically never happened. (He was 587-of-598 on PATs in 20 years; lightning strikes the same place twice more often than Kasay missed extra points).
I'm not a jukebox, but I do love a good Brian St. Pierre story, and since Paul was courteous, I suppose I can oblige.
No one imagined when the Panthers signed him in November 2010 that he was going to start. No one imagined he was going to play at all. But it was a complicated year, and John Fox was determined not to play rookie Tony Pike. It was a principle thing for John, who was trying to prove a point. So St. Pierre goes from changing diapers on a Monday to practicing on Wednesday prior to the Ravens game.
But the strange part is that he wasn't doing individual drills, holding a clipboard, or getting ready to be a backup that week. He was working with the ones on that Wednesday morning. This was a surprise to many people, including St. Pierre's agent, who may or may not have gotten a call from a certain reporter on the side of the practice field as it was happening.
"He's doing what?" the agent replied, in a tone of surprise tinged with horror.
Not only did St. Pierre start that week, he threw an 88-yard touchdown to David Gettis, which became a thing of mythology. (Someone should tweet at Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports and ask him how Gettis is looking in practice.) It was also just about the last pass St. Pierre threw in anger. His arm wasn't ready for all that. After a 37-13 loss to the Ravens, his career was over (though he did hang around for another six weeks to let the swelling subside).
Hi Darin. I hope you are doing well. My question is about Chris Tabor. Do you think he will still be with the Panthers in some capacity next season? Even if he rallies the troops and we win the rest of our games, I don't think it's likely Mr. Tepper will make him head coach. — LeeAnne, Lincolnton, NC
To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, Tabor being the head coach next year doesn't seem likely, and no one really expects it (though it hasn't been said explicitly).
(In theory, special teams coaches make great head coaches because they deal with the entire roster, and their job description is resource management. They know how to adapt to changing situations on a second-to-second basis, and they're generally quite good at game management since they seldom get a chance to run a play coming out of a long TV timeout. Baltimore hired a young special teams coach named John Harbaugh once upon a time, and that worked out OK. It never caught on, but maybe it should.)
I think it's reasonable to want Tabor to hang around as special teams coordinator. He's really good at his job. When you survive a coaching change above you, there's usually a reason for it. He and offensive line coach James Campen were the holdovers in the Rhule-Wilks-Reich transition.
But any new head coach is going to get to pick his staff, so there are no guarantees for anyone here. I think you could make a case for keeping a number of coaches here, but that's a call that will be made by the next guy.
Darin, thanks for all your hard work throughout this agonizing year. You deserve a raise! I thought I was onto the decoding of the Panther passing game where third and short and fourth and short means go long! But that can't be right because usually, the receivers run the wrong or maybe the right route. I'll never understand this passing game, but Bryce has got a magic when he runs. He's made a couple of guys look the stooges out there! The passing game just looks like they haven't practiced enough! Or even practiced together enough. Chris Tabor seems like a "get it done" kind of guy. The passing game must look better at practice, or does it? Help us, Darin, for this is the kind of issue that gets coaches fired. — Don, Trinity, NC
I strongly considered editing Don's question after the first exclamation mark. But I have a lovely and talented wife who loves me for reasons I cannot comprehend, a beautiful family with a sense of humor, my health, and a job I enjoy with co-workers I respect in a city I love. Asking for one more thing would just be tacky and beneath me. [Darin, remember to delete this part after you forward it to the boss.]
Dang it, that got through.
Yeah, the passing game, to make a long story short, hasn't worked all year. And people have been fired for it. The short-yardage attempts at chunk plays were a mystery to many when the run game was going so well, but a calculated effort at going long is not the kind of thing we should dismiss. At least they were trying something different. Watching practice last week was like watching a different team. It just didn't work out.
But Don's other point about Bryce on the run is valid. He put Saints linebacker Demario Davis on skates Sunday, and Demario Davis is very good at his job.
I don't think you want Bryce running all the time for the obvious reasons. But he's got the ability to escape pockets and make plays, and getting him on the move to throw would be a fun option to explore someday as well.
Hi Darin, I'm a Rock Hill boy raising a little family with my wife in Germany, and the Panthers are a big channel for me to exercise and embrace my connection to home. I've got an hour-long commute over here to and from Hamburg each day, and whenever a new Panther Talk, or Jordan and Jake, or (yes!) Happy Half Hour drops, I happily consume it. Our win/loss record has been pretty abysmal of late, but the content put out by the Panthers organization is top-drawer and really helps to keep my sentimental Carolina-itch scratched.
I love football- it's American, it's nostalgic, and I had a ball playing it myself (halfback and defensive end) back in my youth. That I've got an NFL team based in Carolina, let alone 30 minutes from my hometown, is something I've deeply cherished, especially since packing up and moving half a world away. I'm also an optimist — I love it when the Panthers win, and I find silver linings when we lose. Frankie Luvu, Derrick Brown, and even Bryce are a few of the dudes who keep me happily coming back every Sunday, believing in the power of the turnaround and with a jersey on (currently Kuechly or Luvu, color to match the guys on the field of course!).
Which brings me roundabout to my question: There's really no bottom for me, so long as the Panthers play in Carolina on Sundays. The logo, and the colors, they sort of represent home to me, and I wear any number of Panthers paraphernalia just about on the daily. The only thing that can shake my optimism, and the thing that I'm afraid of, deep down, is the Panthers being moved out of the Carolinas. The general mood on both social and traditional media is pretty down on the Panthers these days, which I have to assume translates into some bad economics as well. How worried ought I be about that? Can I relax and enjoy these diehard days of stubborn fandom without worrying about the floor dropping out? Talk me out of that existential concern, Darin, and I'll make Slow Ride my song of the day. Best regards — Daniel, Husberg, Germany
Daniel, that kind of question is way above my pay grade (until that raise Don's trying to get me kicks in), but I think economics actually provides security in that regard. In short, the Charlotte market is growing, not shrinking. New money and new people keep pouring in every crack of this region. If you were starting a brand new sport from scratch in America, Charlotte is one of the places you'd put a team because of it.
Things are rough right now — on the field. But the results of ball games are a temporary condition, and there's no reason to think this isn't absolutely an NFL market and one of the better ones.
Mostly, we appreciate you being loyal to your home from so far away. In fact, I'll send you something else to wear since I'm making you our first German Friend Of The Mailbag and will get the appropriate honorarium on the way soon. It might be a month before it lands, but something cool is definitely coming your way. Until then, enjoy this photograph of Johnny Hekker in lederhosen.
As a former PSL owner (20 years) and a young 76-year-old fan, it's really difficult to cheer for the team this year. However, there is a young man who has been chosen "The Carolina Panthers Fan of the Year" who deserves some recognition. It would be nice if Panther Fans could be encouraged to vote for Cameron Pierson to become the NFL Fan of the Year. It would send a message that our team may not be great, but our fans are outstanding. — Sandra, Mooresville, NC
I am pro-democracy, and think that's a fantastic idea. In fact, here's how you can do just that. Vote early and often.
And on that note, 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.
So, I think I'm going to go see us play the Bucs towards the end of the season. The seats I'm getting are in the 500 section. Do you think that if not many people are there (which will probably happen), I could try to sneak down to a lower level? Or do they have ushers and stuff to not let you sit lower if you don't have a ticket for down there? — Miles, Durham, NC
Security! Security! There's a bright, young, inquisitive, and persistent young man wearing a Friend Of The Mailbag T-shirt trying to sneak into the press box. Apprehend him immediately.
Seriously, Miles, you don't ask questions like that out loud, because now I have to be the heavy and say you have to do things by the rules like everyone else. Whatever happened to the rebellious nature of youth? Have I taught you nothing?
Hey Darin! What offensive lineman (especially guard) will be available in the late first round (if we trade up) or early second round that can block for Bryce? — Zach, Charlotte
See, Miles, Zach gets it. Right to the point, without asking if it's OK to cut class to read the Mailbag (which you should definitely do).
I mean, it's way too soon for draft projections, but you're at least barking up the right tree. It is said to be a deep class of receivers, so there's probably a good one available there in the 30s. If I were looking for a starting guard to go with the healthy returnees, I might be tempted to lean toward a free agent there.
Now, the both of you, GET BACK TO CLASS.
Do you guys update the roster weekly? I feel like every week I go to check on a number I don't know and don't see them listed. — Jonathan, Carolina Beach, NC
Not only do we update it weekly, we update it daily. Our crack digital staff also makes sure the gentlemen on that roster are taken out of meetings, dragged upstairs for a personal photoshoot, dressed in a blue jersey, and documented as a member of this fine organization for you, the reader. Either that or they Photoshop them. Hell, I don't know. Like I know how to do anything with a computer other than type.
Also, there have been what we call in the football business a "buttload" of transactions this year, so maybe it took us a second to get all the new numbers up there. But just for you, I'll make them work overtime the next two weeks. The new guy Cratchit down there has been slacking anyway.
Hey Darin, first-time submitter, I would just like to ask what your thoughts on the team are at this point and what you think we'll do differently next year? — Jaeden, Omaha, NE
I would love to give Jaeden the kind of 1,200-word response I gave John from Matthews about coin-tosses, but there's only time for one Paul Harvey joke each day. So now you know, . . . the rest of the Mailbag.