CHARLOTTE — Welcome to the Interim Mailbag.
Actually, we're still here like normal. But everything else has changed around us. The coach, the expectations, it's all so very different than we thought it was going to be in the offseason.
But when you're in this situation, all you can do is adapt. In a sense, interim coach Chris Tabor is perfect for the gig because he's used to changing tires on a moving car in his day job as a special teams coordinator.
And he's got the kind of attitude a team needs in this situation for the next five weeks.
Players like him because he's got a natural sense of fun about him and knows how to keep things light. But they also know he's going to coach them hard and won't take a lot of crap in the interim. None of this is permanent, but he still has expectations, and if you're not meeting them, you're going to hear about it.
So with that, we'll wade into the bag, knowing there's only so much clarity you can have about future events. A lot of the stuff people want to know about will hinge on the long-term coaching situation because that person will have a big say (as you might imagine) in the staff around him and the priorities of the organization moving forward.
And we can't know any of that in December (though plenty will try to guess). So, to the extent that we can, we press forward.
Why was the rebuild not done right? The defense has been being built for years, but why did the offense just get a bunch of experienced players whose teams didn't want them to get dropped into here instead of rolling with what worked last year, just adding Young to the mix? Was it really worth trading away DJ Moore over a defender who can't help Bryce Young develop? It's no different than when experienced quarterbacks were just being dropped in instead of a draft-and-develop quarterback, and it just feels like the team is years away from being relevant again, especially with another new coach and, most likely, a new GM on the way. It's been too frustrating of a last half-decade now. — Eric, Brick Township, NJ
There are a number of assumptions in that question that I'm not sure you can fairly make. No one knows what else is coming or not coming or who else is going or not going. In situations like these, when there are so many unknowns and so much speculation in the media, fans tend to latch onto the ones that affirm their opinions, whether they're correct or incorrect.
But at a very basic level, without giving up DJ Moore, the deal for Young doesn't get done. You can't make the three players the Bears might have been interested in (along with Brian Burns and Derrick Brown) equal in a vacuum because the Panthers might have valued them differently as well. In general, pass-rushers have a higher value than receivers, and all Brown is is the most consistently high-producing player on the team this season.
In hindsight, this project did not go as planned. But in theory, a veteran coach with experience working with quarterbacks, a deep and diverse staff, a veteran slot receiver like Adam Thielen, a vertical threat like DJ Chark Jr., a drafted rookie receiver like Jonathan Mingo, an experienced tight end target like Hayden Hurst, and a running back with a proven track record as a pass-catcher like Miles Sanders seemed to be the right mix.
Clearly, it wasn't.
How quickly it takes to fix it depends on what the next step includes and who comes in with which ideas.
Things can change in a hurry in this league. The Packers look a lot different than they did a month ago. The Lions definitely look different than they did after seven games last year. Nothing in this business is permanent.
If Bryce Young was a bust, he'd be struggling, and the rest of the offense would be doing well. But since the whole team was struggling especially the offense, it was a case of bad coaching. I believe Bryce will be OK after all. Agree? — Gary, Hickory, NC
One of the smartest people I've ever met in the football business once cautioned me of the dangers of evaluating individual parts when a collective failure occurs.
So it's tricky to say it's all this or all that.
What we know about Bryce is largely based on what we knew about Bryce a year ago. And the Bryce the NFL knew a year ago was the consensus No. 1 overall pick. Not just here but across the league.
It's reasonable to think the problems are not his and his alone and that they can be fixed. It's also reasonable to conclude that it takes more than one person to fix any problem.
So if the right cast is around him, yes, I think Young's got everything it takes to be a quality NFL quarterback. We'll see if that cast arrives.
Hi Darin, first-timer here. Thanks for all of your articles and the Mailbag. Remember way back last year when the OL would be in a jumbo package with an extra offensive lineman or even a solid fullback in the backfield, heck they even put Cade Mays back there, and not just on short-yardage situations? I miss those formations. Any chance we will see them again soon? With Giovanni Ricci on IR, can we find a similar guy and get him to help block? — Ken, Charlotte
We caught our first glimpse of it last week in the fourth quarter when they brought in extra linemen and as heavy a package as they could muster for the two-point conversion.
Since they only had two tight ends active because of injuries to Hayden Hurst and Tommy Tremble, that was about all they could do to bulk up that grouping of people. It ended up not being a power play, but Young was able to run the conversion in regardless.
It's a throwback formation, but if you're a throwback fan or have a throwback body, it's the kind of thing you have to like. You put extra linemen on the field; that becomes a statement of intent.
It worked. What the heck, do more of that.
Thank you, Darin, for keeping us well informed on our favorite team. Bryce was so good at Alabama in play action that I thought the coaching staff would surely use it, especially when you're having success running the ball. But all we seem to do is line him up solo in the shotgun and wait for the sack or something worse.
With nothing to lose and an interim coach talking about having fun playing football. Do you think we might see some trickery in the final games, or are we doomed to the same boring campaign we've watched all year? Some of us are loyal and just don't jump ship because we're losing. A fun play or two would help morale and give a little hope to a depressed fan base. Really enjoyed watching the run game excel on Sunday. Panther fans have always enjoyed good defense and a good running game. Keep Pounding! — Don, Trinity, NC
There was significantly more running last week, and significantly more Bryce under center, where play-action can work best. It's also reasonable to suspect that could be a trend.
They ran the ball 34 times against the Buccaneers and threw it 31 times. That's the first time the ratio has tilted that way all season. And Hubbard delivered. In fact, go vote for him, to congratulate him for his efforts.
As for large people and trick plays, as mentioned above, I'm all for it.
Mays was a fullback last year when they went heavy, so what the heck, throw it to him. He swears he has great hands.
Give him a chance to prove it.
You score a weirdo touchdown, and dudes are going to get excited. You score any touchdown, and dudes are going to get excited. Scoring touchdowns is the common thread.
Hey, Old Guy, two quickies, if I may?
1) From your supreme journalistic perspective, what's more challenging and/or rewarding to cover? A really good team, an average team, or a really bad team?
2) is there such a thing as "Tranquil Moxie?" Because that's the vibe I got from Chris Tabor during his press conference, and I dig that vibe.
Thanks as always. — Rich, Mt Olive, NC
Even in number one, that question contains multitudes. There's a challenge in trying to come up with compelling stories in a season gone off the rails, but it's not impossible. Last week's Chris Tabor feature is an example. Talking to his family and his former St. Joseph, Mo. neighbor Mike Rucker, you start to develop a real picture of who the interim coach is. But it's hard to carve out that kind of time to write 4,000 words and all the injury reports and transactions and all the other stuff that happens in a week, and it's hard for a story like that to take root when a lot of people have stopped paying attention.
But they pay me to write the stories, whether the team wins or the team loses, so my obligation is to tell them the best I can. And I won't lie, I'm proud of that one, and hope you all enjoyed it.
The 2001 and 2010 seasons were fascinating to cover in their own ways. One was a slow-developing train crash, and one was a borderline mutiny. They were compelling drama if not artistic successes. Bouncing between 7-9 and 9-7 and not changing coaches left me a lot of Januarys in which I could actively parent small children, which was rewarding in its own way, too.
It's also challenging to cover unexpected prosperity. The 2003 season provided non-stop stories (in addition to a month of what amounts to unpaid overtime). But it was amazing because the city was on fire with excitement, and that fed everyone around it. It was the same in 2015.
The people who get into this business for the right reasons get into it to write stories whether it's easy or hard, but the hard ones are more rewarding. That's when you find out who the pros are. It's a little like players. Anybody can give effort when the team's winning. John Fox said he watched film of the 2001 team in advance of taking the job here so he could see who was working hard and who wasn't. The ones who quit in 2001 weren't around for the Super Bowl run in 2003. He made sure of it. (After covering every minute of the Fox Era, you build up a lot of stories. One of these days, we have to collect them all. Also, this gives me an excuse to use my favorite pregame picture of the year below.)
As for Tabor, it's impossible not to love his vibe. He gets it. He knows this is a business, and they're supposed to perform. But he also said his favorite job was being an elementary school PE teacher because he could run around with kids and play the parachute game. This is supposed to be fun, and he keeps it that way.
At the same time, he has football gravity. He's known around the league as one of the best special teams coaches in the game. He gives off confidence based on competence. You're not the only one who noticed that.
DG, It's the other Old Guy again with a perplexing question. Terrace Marshall Jr. seems to have disappeared from the team. During Steve Wilks interim HC experience in 2022, he appeared to shine and have resurrected his career. He began 2023 a little rocky with a couple of scratches and then turned in a fine day versus Minnesota. He's now been inactive again for four weeks and has watched folks get elevated from the practice squad to play. Has he lost his football knowledge and ability? What gives? P.S. I've been following you since the very beginning with the Panthers, even when you were in Rock Hill. You give great insight. — Thomas, Garner, NC
If you were around for the Rock Hill days, you are well familiar with those stories I referenced above from 2001, 2003, and 2010. And I appreciate the OGs here at the ATOG, so I will make you this week's Friend Of The Mailbag, and get the appropriate honorarium on the way soon.
It's way too soon to close the book on Marshall, though this year has been a mystery.
Here's what we know about him. He's big and can run. He's not a huge separation guy based on route-running, but he can create opportunities because he's a good contested-catch receiver because of his size and strength.
He's another guy you don't want to write off based on what's happening in this situation. Too talented. He's among the players here who have never enjoyed ideal offensive circumstances under which to shine. Would he look different in a different system? Possible. He's under contract and inexpensive, so there's no reason not to wait and find out.
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.
Darin, don't worry; I got an easy question this week. I got some Bojangles for the Titans game, and it was pretty good. My question: What is your favorite restaurant to get during games? — Miles, Durham, NC
My guy, Miles, the young person who asks good questions and shows up consistently, which I love. I wish I could get takeout some games, but on game day, I eat whatever is available, and way too much of it. Nobody likes to hear sports writers complain about free food, but some places are definitely better than others. At home, we get Bojangles in the press box after games, and nobody complains about that.
Speaking of, the OG Bojangles on West Blvd., the very first location of the franchise so near to my arteries, opened again today after remodeling. This is cause for celebration.
Did Jaycee Horn get injured again yesterday, or was he pulled because Mike Evans was getting by him? — Clyde, Lancaster, SC
Neither, though some bad reporting on social media might have gotten the better of you. Jaycee was on a pitch count, which is reasonable for a guy coming off a 10-week injury. He'll get more and more work as the season goes on.
It's been a tough year; what would make it better would be to see those black helmets this year. Are we going to? — Joey, Shoreham, NY
(How's that for a tease?)
Can you tell Thomas Brown to sign another veteran O-lineman, and also, can you tell him to have a great day? — Aiden, Duncansville, PA
They brought in big ol' Gabe Jackson last week, and he's started 130 games in this league. He hasn't played since last season, so this week might be a stretch to get him ready in a hurry, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him on the field before the end of the season.
Ran into Thomas and passed along your message. We both appreciate you thinking of him at a time like this. It's very human of you.
Happy 21st Amendment Day, Darin. This has to be a special day for you, right? — Will, Rock Hill, SC
I come from a long line of independent distillers, so we celebrate the end of Prohibition on many days, but especially on Dec. 5, Will. In fact, I'm about to celebrate it soon.
This a rebuilding season for us? — Michael, Raeford, NC
It's the NFL. Nothing stays the same. Actually, that applies to life as well. You're either rebuilding or you're interim. And really, aren't we all interim? Whoa, that's deep. And I haven't even started celebrating my Constitutional heritage yet.