CHARLOTTE — It's Election Day, which means you all have choices to make.
Whether you make them is up to you (though I sure hope you do, even if you don't agree with me on particular issues). The point is that everyone has a say, the opportunity to register their feelings in the form of a ballot, and to take an active part in their own governance.
There's a lot of skepticism about the process, and a lot of people have strong feelings about it or might not be sure it's the right way to do things. The one thing I know for sure is that the doing it has its own value. It's a little like football in that way. But I've never felt better about little-D democracy than the days I spent working the polls for the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections (where I'd be today except for Thursday Night Football stealing my normal Tuesday day off). Seeing the people who agree with me and the people who don't step up and do their part makes me feel more American than Steve Rogers, and seeing families bring first-time voters to the polls and take pictures reminds you it's a life-changing act of personal agency that we shouldn't take for granted.
Which brings me around to a point, and I promise I'll tie this back to the football in a second.
I may not have stickers for you (though I suppose you could print out our Mailbag logo and tape it to your shirt for your social media clout if you choose), but we do offer you the chance to participate. And speaking of clout, I was fortunate enough to be in a room with multiple Friends Of The Mailbag last weekend, a gathering that surprisingly didn't require the police on either end of the transaction.
A few of the most faithful of the FsOTM were in Cincinnati, and while the game obviously didn't work out the way they hoped (probably because they weren't wearing their shirts), I got the sense they didn't have a terrible time in the other Queen City. They were with their people, and they were taking part. They were becoming part of a greater whole, and when people get together and decide to do something, cool things happen sometimes.
Participating doesn't always guarantee the result you're hoping for, but being part of a collective effort does give you the chance to be a part of something special — but only if you do your part.
Thus endeth the sermon on public responsibility and the defiant act of bravery that is showing up, so with all that said, let's dive into the mail:
Well, that was. . . unexpected; seems like an understatement. Our offense was anemic at best, and our defense looked tired from the first snap, both of which are so insanely frustrating after the past two weeks. Oh, Cheerful Voice of Sober Expectations, can you maybe shed some light on why our offense doesn't seem to be able to travel, our defense played like a group of college frat bros waking up on a Sunday afternoon, and how our QB situation could possibly get any better this season? — Nate, Grand Prairie, TX
Yeah, that one was really something. Every year, every team seems to have a flat-tire game, one where the results don't seem to be tied to anything tangible. (I remember the Titans came here in 2011 and beat the brakes off rookie Cam Newton and what turned out to be a pretty decent team, but that day, they were helpless).
The interesting thing will be seeing how this team responds. There have been a few of those games that got away from the Panthers recently. The loss at New York last year was bad, but they popped back up the next week in Atlanta, and things still seemed OK. The loss in Miami last year was awful, and they didn't respond to that one at all.
Having seen so many of them, I realized that this Panthers team had one of those coming. I didn't necessarily think it was going to be last week. But it's hard to stay at the emotional pitch of the previous two weeks for an entire season without eventually losing steam.
The quarterback situation kind of is what it is at this point. There's no one walking in to fix things; they just have to hope that the three guys on hand play more like the PJ Walker of the second half in Atlanta rather than the PJ Walker of the first half in Cincinnati.
As a PSL owner since 1996, I'm extremely frustrated. Looking back over the first half of the season, the excuses made for the defense ring hollow after yesterday. Yes, the offense has created too many problems, but Luke Kuechly put his finger on the problem early in yesterday's broadcast when he noted teams were killing us on the edges with their running game. Our defensive ends are undersized, and our outside linebackers are slow to react or overrun their responsibilities. We've been spoiled by outstanding linebackers over the last 28 years, but this crop frustrates me. Darin, is this defense not as good as everyone thought? Has the rest of the league figured them out? I hear it in Luke and Jake Delhomme's voices that men who play their positions just aren't doing their job. Is there any hope this year? — Omer, Wilkesboro, NC
Well, for starters, I am not in the hope business. And for the second, the next time Luke talks about a group of linebackers who are as good as he was, he'll be wearing a gold jacket in Canton. So maintaining perspective is important.
That's why I think last year's talk about "the second-ranked defense in the NFL" was always a little misleading. They put up good numbers and had and have some very good players. But there were structural issues that kept it from being as good as some people were telling you it was.
Last year's Panthers defense was built for speed rather than power. They adjusted some things this year to try to address that, but the people out there on the edges did not have a good day against Joe Mixon.
As they build this thing for the future, finding an edge-setting defensive end and a pass-rusher to complement Brian Burns is nearly as important as finding a quarterback. Not as important, but close. If those two things happened to be the same person that would be amazing, but to find guys like that, you have to take them very high in a draft. (This is also why I was opposed to the notion of trading Burns for draft picks because you'd have used most of them trying to find a guy as good as Burns).
Again, I'll leave hope to other people. But I also try to look at 17-game seasons the way they judge gymnastics and diving and stuff at the Olympics. Throw out the low score and the high score, and see what the middle looks like. One game isn't the definition of a team, no matter how good or bad it may be.
Why isn't Sam Darnold starting? He was 3-0 when Christian McCaffrey was in the lineup last year. While with the Jets and Panthers during his starting time, no other quarterback has had a worse offensive line or receivers around him. He is too classy to say anything about it! If Darnold had been drafted to Cleveland instead of the Jets, he would still be starting and Cleveland would be a playoff team today!!! What do you say? — Mo, San Jose, CA
I'd say that's an awful lot of exclamation marks you've got there Mo. You don't want to use them up all at once.
With the way things are going this year, it almost feels inevitable that we'll see Darnold again at some point.
He's active now, and as you mentioned, he's saying all the right things. And it's fair to acknowledge that Early Sam was a perfectly functional quarterback last year. When McCaffrey got hurt, and the Wheel-O-Linemen began to spin in front of him, he suddenly got worse at his job. But part of that was also on Sam.
If he ends up playing soon, or at all again, he will doubtless have better protection than he ever did last year. That's what investing in offensive linemen does for a team. And he'll still have DJ Moore, and he'll have a back in D'Onta Foreman who (while not McCaffrey, few people are) has shown he can provide a steady backbeat to a competent offense.
I don't want to wade into other team's business, but what I do believe is that the Panthers have made the situation for any quarterback better than it was a year ago, and at some point, they need the quarterback position to play better, whether that's Walker, Darnold, or Baker Mayfield.
I am not going to get into the state of the Panthers other than repeat a John Fox regular "It is what it is." I am trying to go through all of the possibilities for QB next year. The "franchise QBs" in the upcoming draft have gone from a solid five to maybe three, but most likely two, if that. Carolina also has the need for all of the draft picks at positions other than QB. We are down to four QBs on the roster, and only our rookie on IR has much chance of being here next year. He needs at least another year to measure his potential. Do we draft or trade up to draft one of the top two or three?
We surely would not have to move up much. Do we spend money on another maybe FA? Did I mention we are tight on cap space? Dare I suggest we maybe use the next eight games to see if we really have an option in-house? I turn it over to you and your knowledge and insight. — Stephen, Columbia, SC
It's always a shame when any player gets hurt, but Matt Corral suffering a season-ending injury did deprive everyone of an inevitable chance to see him play this year. Whether that would have been a good thing for him or the rest of us, we'll never know.
There's so much uncertainty about the future of that position, but there's uncertainty about a lot of positions, beginning with head coach.
Between what we've seen so far and what we'll see over the next two months, we'll have a reasonable book of evidence on the three veteran quarterbacks, all of whom are out of contract after this year (Walker will be a restricted free agent, the other two are unrestricted).
If you were trying to guess right now (and my crystal ball is in my other pants, thanks, Ben McAdoo), it seems reasonable to predict that a drafted quarterback could end up here. The next eight games will determine how high in the order he could arrive or whether they have to do something to get there. But it's also too soon in the process to know exactly the order they'll come off the board or who their preference actually is (depending on who you ask in the building, there could be different answers, and they'll likely change over the coming months).
The cap space isn't really the problem a lot of people think it is (we explained some of that here), primarily because they already have a lot of boxes checked off and because rookie quarterbacks are cheap.
But the position remains the thing we'll talk about the most over the next six months, so let's not be like Mo and use up all our exclamation marks in November.
It didn't even take close to the end of this game to call it a total embarrassment, pathetic, and a disgusting loss for the franchise. For as many steps forward as the team has taken, this game looks like the defense has taken three steps back. This leads to my question. As much as it was good to keep the core of young players in place, should they have been more active at the trade deadline? At least in shipping off a few older players for more mid/late round compensation because it just seems like the team is going to be a few years off from competing with a new coach/QB combo incoming. — Eric, Brick, NJ
Yeah, that was a bad one game, as bad as it gets. But they've also got eight more to play, and somebody's got to go play them.
Eric's likely alluding to guys such as Shaq Thompson and Donte Jackson, whose names came up on the internet, though that was more of a case of people wanting to create content that people would look at on the internet rather than a desire to reflect reality.
And maybe they could have been more aggressive in flipping every asset which wasn't going to be here in 2025, but at a certain point, they still have eight games to play in 2022, and somebody has to go play them. Draft picks tend to get viewed as commodities, but what they actually are are opportunities to acquire people. And those two people in particular, team captains and elders in that locker room offer value right now as opposed to hypothetical value.
The history of the Carolina Panthers highs and lows: What are the five best and five worst moments in our beloved Panthers history? — John, Lockport, IL
Dang, John, it's a short week, and you're asking a question that could fill a long book.
We can get people to submit their own lists (and hey, audience participation, that's today's theme), and maybe we'll do that over the next couple of months.
But off the top of my head, I would point to the 1996 playoff win over Dallas, the Steve Smith Sr. double-overtime touchdown in St. Louis, the Sam Mills interception for the first win in franchise history, the DeShaun Foster touchdown run in Philadelphia in the 2003 NFC Championship Game, and the entire 2015 season and all the amazing things Cam Newton did as a collective entry for the highs.
Having seen with my own two eyes the 2001 and 2010 seasons (both remarkable in their own ways), there's always something worse if you go looking for it. I was also a witness to both 0.0 passer rating games in franchise history (Randy Fasani against the Bucs in 2002 [a game which they still nearly won] and Walker's half-day in Cincinnati [a game which they were never close to winning]). I don't even want to make an encyclopedic list of the bad on a day like today, though, because the sun is shining, and American democracy is in action. You will not spoil my mood John, no matter how hard you try.
Hi Darin! Teams have found a way to go 0-8 after playing us. What do you think is causing this strange streak? — Jake, Rochester, NY
Whoa, is that right? (Researches furiously on the internet.) Dang, that's really something.
I committed a journalism, and I learned that the Panthers equipment staff actually leaves a dusting of magic herbs and incense burning when they leave the building each week, cursing the opposing team as they pass through the smoke on their way to the door, leaving them powerless for a period of at least eight days. They also leave voodoo dolls of the opposing team's quarterback and coach pierced with a Phillips screwdriver hidden underneath their lockers to jinx them. They stopped sacrificing a live rooster in the training room when we hired Augusta Stone a few months back because she likes chickens, but it's kind of a shame because that one really worked (they only did it for special occasions).
Actually, I just made all of that up. None of that is true. The Panthers equipment staff carries a lot of stuff, but magic herbs and incense and voodoo dolls and chickens ain't on the truck. Screwdrivers, they've got a lot of, because Don Toner can fix anything.
I would love there to be an actual reason for this. But because life is often without hope or meaning or at least a sense of humor, this is probably just a random statistical coincidence. Which kind of stinks, actually, but not as bad as what the chickens left behind.
Unrelated to the Sunday blowout: Do you think we'll ever make the light blue jerseys our primary home option? I feel like most of the fans like it better than the black, which could be our new alternate. Also, we might actually be able to wear it at home since the black is too hot. — Grant, Gahanna, OH
Interesting idea. Worth thinking about. Although I do kind of like the black jerseys with silver britches. I'm a traditionalist that way. But blue jerseys/white britches is kind of growing on me, as long as they also wear white shoes because that makes dudes look fast.
But they are wearing all black Thursday night (perhaps you've heard), and that's part of the reason we haven't seen as much of the blues this year.
The short answer is, teams are allowed to wear their alternates three times a year, including the preseason. To wear the black helmet Thursday with an all-black uniform, that counted as one of the three alternates. Which only left two, and when Washington wanted to wear white in August, and the Panthers chose not to melt on the surface of the sun, that took one of them off the table.
They'll wear the blues again in Tampa in Week 17, and until then, it gives us something to debate, which is what America's all about.
I've seen the replay of that penalty on DJ after his touchdown catch in Atlanta. The rules prohibit players from removing their helmets while on the field of play. In the replay, you see DJ walk toward the back of the end zone, step out of the end zone, then remove his helmet. He did not "remove helmet while on the playing field." I think that was the wrong call. Comments? — Alan, Sebring, FL
The main reason interim coach Steve Wilks didn't want to litigate this one in the aftermath of the Falcons game is that there's no recourse. It's not like the league's ever going to admit a mistake and let them fly back to Atlanta and do the extra point over. So they move on.
But it's also worth remembering that Moore popped his helmet off while on the field following a fourth-down drop, and that tight end Stephen Sullivan was in all the celebration photos after the touchdown without his helmet on either.
So it was possibly a make-up call on DJ, or possibly a simple misidentification of the player being charged with a foul, but it was definitely not something they're going to get any satisfaction out of by arguing.
It's nice that CJ Henderson had an interception at the end of the Atlanta game because, for someone that was touted as one of the fastest DBs on the team, it appears that most teams view him as the go-to guy when they are looking at third and long. Of all of our DBs, he appears to be the weakest link in the secondary. Is it just me or have you noticed this as well? — Joe, Charlotte
Being the Panthers cornerback other teams target isn't the same as being a bad cornerback. When the option is throwing at Jaycee Horn or Donte Jackson, Henderson's going to get a lot of traffic.
Henderson is certainly talented, but he hasn't always played with great technique, which coaches have emphasized to him. He was much better in Atlanta, but in Cincinnati, he was both targeted frequently by Joe Burrow and also not at his best.
Having a lot of young talent is a good thing. Being able to coach them up and develop them is another key component, and we'll see what that looks like moving forward after the changes made to the coaching staff.
Let's go lightning round to close it out this week:
Ah, touche, Darin! I didn't really expect you to publish my question (which you didn't really answer btw), but I'm glad you had fun with it! I've read this column long enough to know I walked right into that. Maybe I'll ask something more meaningful in the future! — Jeff, Fuquay-Varina, NC
Yeah, Jeff caught me in a non-patriotic mood last week and took a little abuse. But Jeff's a good sport for emailing back and not lighting a bag of poop on fire on my doorstep, so I'm making him this week's Friend Of The Mailbag and getting him the appropriate honorarium on the way soon.
I'm also working to make the lightning round a little punchier, so quit being such a long-winded gasbag, Jeff.
Why doesn't the team practice Chi Gong meditation? On their own and as a team? I guarantee it will help with everything in life - including athletic ability. Going into a game with a clear mind is what is needed; just saying. — Sam, Lexington, NC
I don't know anything about Chi Gong, but I'm all about T-Rex's "Bang A Gong (Get It On)." And also The Gong Show.
A clear mind would be nice, though, yes. Tell me more about acquiring one.
How do I post an incident of a Falcons player shooting the bird during Falcons/Panthers game? I have the video clip of this. Did you see it? — Thomas, Clayton, NC
So does that make it a dirty bird? Wish I could help. I barely know how to type words on the internet.
Why would we start this guy? Second question why does Mac hate you? — Joshua, North Myrtle Beach, SC
Which guy? You've got to be more specific or Jeff's going to yell at you.
Which Mac? Mac Jones? Mac Davis? Big Mac? If you mean the bad-dancing local sports talk radio host with the weird belly button, I didn't realize we had beef. If he wants one, he knows where to find me. This is a democracy, so if he wants these hands, I'll share them with him like an I Voted sticker.