BOSTON — Such a lovely city, full of history and art and wonderful food. And the weather, sublime, with no humidity, couldn't be more pleasant.
You got a problem with that?
Yes, people got in some fights this week; perhaps you heard about it. But it continues to fascinate me which ones get attention and which ones don't. The Panthers and Patriots had their share of the common kind of dust-ups in practice, the kind that happens when somebody hits someone harder or later than they want to be hit, and teammates roll in to their defense. This week, they kept rolling in. It was real, and it was intense, and then it wasn't.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule had a point recently, when he said if you want to punish a player, you take away his chance to practice and compete. Running a lap isn't a punishment because you have to do extra conditioning; it's a punishment because someone is in your spot while you do it. So after the last big fight, which spilled into the stands around the field, he told them the next one would be the end of joint practices, and they'd go back to work against their own. It's not a coincidence there were no more fights after that.
I mean, at least until I get in the press box Friday night. If Mike Reiss wants a piece of me, he knows where to find me. Tom Curran, I'm not messing with, because he's a wily vet, and old-man-strength is real.
So in the spirit of grace and love and mutual respect and cooperation, let's try to get through this week's mailbag without any conflict. Or else I'm more than happy to share these hands with you.
We have plenty of correspondence dropped off by our neighborhood mailman, Cliff. We know his name, even if he's never been in our kitchen.
Why do the Panthers use a quarterback competition strategy? This is a bad idea. You need your core team to be established as early as possible. Building a winning team takes time, especially for building a strong bond between QB and his team members. I am a little worried our management team, and coaching staff can't make the decision soon enough and ends up another disappointing season. — Greg, Fort Mill, SC
Reps with the people you're playing with are a good thing. But it's also helpful to know which people belong in which group. And as someone who believes in science and data and things we can measure and observe, I don't see the harm in comparing things and then measuring them over the span of about three weeks.
So when they traded for Baker Mayfield and talked about making him compete for the job, it was legitimate, because they wanted to see if he was going to go out and win it.
Some people work better with a little motivation. Steve Smith Sr. used to invent perceived slights to fire himself up. I remember once he went on and on about when he turned 30, people said he couldn't run anymore. I asked him to identify who those people were. "Oh, they're saying it," he replied. (Narrator voice: No one was actually saying that.) But it kept him up on the balls of his feet, and that's the point.
Mayfield can say he's not walking in here with anything to prove, but making sure he has something to prove isn't the worst management strategy.
Same with Ikem Ekwonu at left tackle. That's what he was drafted to do, so sure he's going to end up there. But making sure he walks in the door knowing no one is ordained, and they have to earn things has a certain value. Jordan Gross was drafted to be their left tackle, but they put him at right tackle as a rookie. Jaycee Horn was drafted to be a shutdown corner, and when he went out to his first day of OTAs, they had Donte Jackson and A.J. Bouye as the starting cornerbacks. These things tend to sort themselves out when you let them breathe.
The only thing worse than waiting too long to make a decision is making the wrong decision. Maybe this is a problem if they're still going back and forth on things the Wednesday before the Cleveland game on Sept. 11. That's not what's happening here.
We're going to cut a quarterback, and we didn't draft Matt Corral to cut him. That being said, why is PJ Walker playing for the entire third quarter and part of the fourth against Washington instead of splitting it with Corral? Rhule has said Corral needs the reps, so why isn't he getting them? I know we want to bring him along slowly, but it kind of felt like we were throwing him to the wolves. Are we trying to help PJ find a job? What am I missing here, wise one? — Connie, Charlotte
Again, I think it's helpful to realize you don't get bonus points for making decisions before you have to. Everyone has to get to 53 at the same time (Aug. 30). Getting there three weeks early isn't an advantage, because other stuff keeps happening.
Situations change around the league all the time. Guys get hurt. Teams decide they don't like a certain player as much as they thought they might. So if you have assets at the quarterback position, maybe someone would be interested in them. But the other factor is injuries can happen on your own team too, so it's best to have as many options as you can for as long as you can.
Corral is going to get plenty of time to prepare. That fourth quarter against Washington was not what I'd describe as an ideal situation for a lot of reasons.
As someone who has watched more than 25 years of this stuff, you can tell when somebody's trying a little too hard in the preseason. It was almost like someone called down from upstairs and demanded that the Washington coaching staff try to win the first game in team history played under the Commanders branding or something (because the new fight song didn't appear to inspire them to new heights). Late in that game, Washington started throwing the kitchen sink at the Panthers — zero blitzes, delayed blitzes, stuff that most people just don't do in the preseason. They were clearly trying to win a game, even though it really didn't matter at all.
So Corral's stat line looked bad, and he nearly got his head jerked off. But I actually kind of dig the fact that when he was out there without a hat on, he was still looking downfield trying to make a play. You'd rather see that than a clean passer rating in a preseason game that didn't mean anything and included no chances taken.
The "Baker or Sam" conversation has officially carried on for far too long. It's up to you to call it now - so would you rather have Baker's beard or Sam's hair? — Travis, Gastonia, NC
See, this is why we take time to be thorough because this is a legitimately tough call.
Sam Darnold has an excellent head of hair. I'd never wear a hat if I had hair like that. The kind of hair that always looks just right, with no effort. It's casually great.
But Mayfield's beard is pretty strong too, and I can't grow a decent beard. When I decide to stop shaving for a month or two, people start giving me change and sandwiches or crossing the street to avoid me like I'm offering them a pamphlet outlining my political beliefs.
The wild card here might be offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. When he was in Green Bay, he had the close-cropped, distinctively Midwestern vibe. The (in)famously slicked-back New York style was a look, one you try for a while and realize it's not for you. But now that he's an assistant again, and in the South, he's got a definite flow going. Ben McAdoo's got the hair of a man who can say, "As long as we don't resort to cannibalism, I think we have a chance to get out of this pretty good," and sell that line. You can't say that with a crew cut, or people might think cannibalism is actually an option you've planned for. Give Ben McAdoo credit for reading the room and going with the haircut that suits his place and time.
This is a request more than a question, can Matt Corral have first go with a better O-line and wide receivers Friday? Ask Rhule for a fan. — Christopher, Inman, SC
It's a fair point, but it's unlikely you'll get everything you're hoping for Friday night against the Patriots.
They're not going to play a lot of starters, if any. But Corral should get some chances to be in better situations (and since the Patriots have won something lately, maybe they won't go to the wall to secure an all-important August victory).
It's probably also important to remember that Corral's "time to develop" is going to extend far beyond August. A year of practice and meetings and time with McAdoo and Mayfield and the rest of the room will be better for him than a snap in a game being played with and against guys who aren't necessarily going to be on a roster in two weeks.
Do you see 10-7 as a realistic finish this year if Mayfield plays back to his 2020 form? — Tom, Mesa, AZ
As the great orator Ben McAdoo said the other day, "I left my crystal ball in my other pants." (Side note: Ben McAdoo is good at saying words in an interesting way. He should do more of it.)
But in general, I don't think it's a leap to look at what's been done here and see a reason for hope.
If Mayfield plays the way he did in 2020 with the Browns (when he led them to their first playoff win since 1994 [which was a year during which Baker Mayfield was in diapers]), then you could see good things happening here.
The offensive line is so much better than it's been in years. Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore are top-shelf playmakers. The defense is solid (thin in some spots, but good), and the special teams have improved with the addition of some real adults in that room.
Will the Panthers need a lot of things to break their way this year to make a playoff run? Of course. No team in the NFL makes the postseason without a healthy share of good fortune. Making the playoffs also isn't the same as being a good team, especially in an expanded field at the end of a 17-game season.
But with average-or-better quarterback play, it's reasonable to think it's possible. Why not?
Hi Darin - just curious as to how the joint practices get arranged? Is it decided by the NFL as part of scheduling or is it a case of clubs contacting other clubs to set it up? I can't recall ever reading anything about how it comes about who practices together. — Richard, Littleport, England
It's a great question because I think people assume that because the NFL is a multi-billion-dollar industry, that it's meticulously planned in every way. (I mean, we have turned the release of the order of a list of items we already knew existed into a holiday! Go figure.)
But preseason schedules are a little more loosely governed, and teams have a lot of latitude in making them. So the chance to schedule a joint practice tracks with who you play and when.
Say, for instance, two owners were close personal friends. They might arrange the schedule to make sure they get to see each other one more time each year in the final preseason game. More helpfully, a team might look at its schedule for the coming regular season and try to tailor its preseason to the future.
So if you're playing a lot of 3-4 defenses during the season, one might seek out opponents you're not going to see during the regular season who also play a 3-4, just to get some work against that alignment. Or, if you know you're going to see a particular style of quarterback, you might try to find a chance to prepare against someone with similar traits.
In that regard, the Patriots were a good matchup for the Panthers this week, since they run a lot of different defensive looks out of a 3-4 base, so the Panthers saw a lot of stuff that could prove helpful over the last two days.
But preseason games are largely up to teams to schedule, so they try to arrange them the best they can.
Now that the league has reduced the preseason to three games instead of four, do the coaches view joint practices almost as a preseason game? — Eric, Jacksonville, FL
No, they view them as a much better alternative to a preseason game.
A game is dictated by a lot of random factors you can't control. So when they were looking at quarterbacks last week in Washington, one had to start his drive deep in his own territory, the other in the red zone after a turnover.
In a practice, if you want to see them both get 12 snaps of red zone work, you can script 12 plays of red zone work. If you want to concentrate on a two-minute offense, you can build a schedule to provide for that.
Letting quarterbacks wear red jerseys, which means they can't be hit, is a bonus. That allows them to get that work without the same degree of danger.
In terms of getting ready to play regular season games, joint practices are better than preseason games in practically every way. It's not as good a television product, and people aren't as likely to tailgate and drink a bunch of beer before a 9:30 a.m. practice (or maybe they are, who am I to judge?). But as an actual tool of instruction and evaluation? Give me a joint practice every time.
Greetings Darin! It's been a while since asking you a question. I just want to know your thoughts and the Panthers' depth on the defensive line. Panthers brought Carlos Dunlap and Danny Shelton a few weeks ago. Do the Panthers sign a few veteran D-Linemen soon? Or will they look to possible trade and waiver wire cuts? — Jeff, Henderson, NV
Hey Darin. What viable/legit options are out there for us to add another true 4-3 defensive end or another edge-rusher because I don't see Yetur Gross-Matos, or Marquis Haynes Sr. as a scary enough option to keep teams from doubling Brian Burns every down. Thanks as always! — Alan, Indian Trail, NC
A two-for-one special, a joint question, if you will.
(Now if Jeff and Alan end up fighting, that ain't on me. In fact, I'll make them both this week's Joint Friends Of The Mailbag and get the appropriate honorarium heading their way in an effort to increase the peace.)
The short answer is, yeah.
They have looked for defensive line depth. They will continue to look for defensive line depth. Derrick Brown and Matt Ioannidis could be a solid pair of starters, but it thins out fast behind them. Games like Friday will be a good chance to gauge some of that depth.
Defensive linemen are a little more available this time of year, especially if they're older or have big contracts (see Malcom Brown getting cut by the Jaguars this week). There are some guys on the street now, and there are some guys who will be on the street in the next 12 days.
This is also the time of year when GMs who have gotten to know their own roster start calling their counterparts, trying to exchange some of their surplus for some of the other guy's surplus. "You've got way too many nose tackles. Could I offer you one of our ___ in exchange?"
There are a lot of phone calls happening right now. There will be more in the next 12 days and beyond.
Hi Darin, been a while since I've written in. With Bradley Bozeman now injured, will the competition between him and Pat Elflein carry into the regular season once he returns, or has the job turned into Elflein's to lose? You're the best Darin (actually the only one I know of). — Carter, Charlotte
You should know more Darins. Darins are delightful and live to make other people feel more safe and welcome. Just look how happy Samantha on Bewitched was; she had two of them. (And yes, I've already answered that question. There is a clear correct answer). I would also steer you to Darren Urban of the Arizona Cardinals, who is smart and funny, but not in the way you'd describe someone who wasn't also devilishly handsome. He writes a good mailbag too, though I'd have called it Urban Scrawl or Bird Droppings.
As for Bozeman, he's going to miss two or three weeks, depending on how he heals, with an ankle injury he suffered Tuesday.
While other competitions became clear early, that center one hasn't. I realize Elflein is one of those pinatas of a certain portion of the fanbase, but when he's playing center, he's a capable NFL player (he was sometimes overmatched at guard, especially when he was playing next to an undersized center last year. But at center, his athleticism can shine, and he's smart and tough in a way that coaches like).
Bozeman's also a good player and has started 48 games the last three years for a team with a good line. So when he's back, I would imagine he'd continue to press for more playing time. Nothing is automatic around here, and the season is long, so things change. I'd be surprised if Bozeman doesn't end up starting at some point, but I also have the memories of 14 starting lineups in 17 games fresh in my mind. Having options is good, and Bozeman is a good one.
All right, Darin, I won't lie, I read every mailbag, but every time I submit a question, I scroll through very fast to see if my question was remarkable enough to weasel its way past your better judgment. Thus far, I think I'm like 2-for-5. Not bad as long as we aren't looking at that like Panthers fans reading into training camp passing stats.
Sorry for the ramble, I probably already disqualified myself for this bag, but I'll still ask the question I came here wanting to before I got all reflective. You could always delete all this and only post my question if you like it, and only you and I would know, and only one of us would feel a shred of pain over it. Okay, yes, question. Who do you feel are candidates for team captain this year? I remember all the hoopla made about it last year, and I've had some thoughts for carryovers, such as Shaq Thompson, Christian McCaffrey , or Taylor Moton and JJ Jansen, but are some possible new faces on the way? Jeremy Chinn? Frankie Luvu? Xavier Woods? So many options! — John, Matthews, NC
Anything I can do to prevent even a shred of pain for others, I will do (that's how us Darins roll).
Captaincy is an interesting discussion. I heard some people complain that there were too many of them last year. I mean, it doesn't really hurt anybody if there are four or seven, so why anyone would care about the difference is beyond me.
There are clearly people in that locker room who lead. Shaq is one of those guys. He has become the conscience of that room in a way that other defensive players like Mike Minter and Mike Rucker did in the past. Time and perspective are good for that. And Jansen is like the institutional memory of the place now, so people are going to listen to him. And McCaffrey and Moton do their work so meticulously and well that you want others to follow their example. There are more.
Brian Burns is turning into one of those guys as well, a player with big talent and developing the leadership skills to match. One day Jaycee Horn will likely be like that too because he was born to this game, understands its rhythms, and plays it at a high level.
All those guys on John's list are good thoughts also. A locker room can't be all leaders and speech-makers, or nothing ever gets done. You have to have quiet workers, too (along with the occasional harmless goofball, jokester, or valedictorian). Groups of people require different kinds of people. And leading is not a binary thing. There are plenty of ways to do it. Having a variety of perspectives is good for the room.
Let's go lightning round to close it out this week:
Hi Darin, Enjoy your articles. Follow Panthers every day, all year round. I want to watch the preseason games. I live in the Asheville area. Any insight on how to do that? — Sandy, Weaverville, NC
Sandy, thanks. We do it for the people. And because of that, we have collected all the many viewing and listening options for the fans here in one handy link. If you click this link, you should find everything you need, whether you live in Weaverville or Worcester (which these people say as Wooster, which rhymes with rooster, which is weird, but I ain't going to fight about it).
Hey Darin! As usual, I'm coming in with a double whammy (not to be confused with the joint practices this week). 1) Matt Corral's first professional game-time action was ugly. Like, we can all agree, that was insanely bad and unnaturally lucky for Our Team. In contrast, Ikem Ekwonu's first game was enough to propel him to the top of the depth chart. But what about the rest of the rookie class, the guys maybe not getting as much pomp and circumstance? 2) In reference/follow-up to my tweet about you and Augusta both making Boston jokes upon arrival in MA, who do you think would come out on top in a full Content Team-wide Pun-Off? — Nate, Grand Prairie, TX
This is the lightning round Nate; one question. Actually, I'll play along because I want everyone to get along.
Brandon Smith did some things in limited work in Washington that made you think he'll show up this year, even if it's just on special teams (that's an important thing). And Amaré Barno made a few plays. Will be interested in watching both of those guys Friday.
A pun-off in this department would be something to see. I work with many creative and funny people. I love my co-workers. Sometimes @PanthersBill is funny. Sometimes.
While all the hubbub has been about the QB competition, and rightly so, who has been the unexpected camp MVP, in your humble but accurate opinion? And with the heat in Spartyville, I bet you would enjoy the cooler temps up here in the high country. — Chuck, West Jefferson, NC
I'm going to blow your mind with this one Chuck. You know who was really good in Spartanburg? DJ Moore and Christian McCaffrey. Those two young gentlemen are good at playing football, and have a real future in this game. But it's the way they go in practice that you love. You can spot somebody who doesn't want to be there. They genuinely do.
Also, I would love a training camp that was a little cooler. Maybe with a little more altitude. If only there were a town within a two-hour drive of Charlotte to pick a random number, maybe at 3,333 feet above sea level, that would be a groovy place to set up shop for three weeks. But they don't let me make those calls.
Genuine question about personnel, more particularly Frankie Luvu. I know he's a linebacker, and I've heard all offseason that he'll step up in the defense to fill the void of both Jermaine Carter and Hasaan Reddick. I know he can't play both positions at once, so which position will he be playing? More of an inside linebacker or an edge rusher? Or is this a super secret Phil Snow project that we don't know about? Anyways thanks for doing what you do. Don't get into a fight today. — Cody, Four Oaks, NC
Frankie's naturally more of a pass-rusher, so he'll be more of an edge player. But he can cover and do some other things so they're expanding his role. Damien Wilson is more of the Jermaine Carter replacement, and he's a bigger two-down run-stopper. Cory Littleton has also been good at filling in for Shaq during training camp. They have four guys to use in combination for those three linebacker jobs, and that's a good thing.
As for getting in a fight, it's early yet, but we're doing our best to keep it peaceful. Because making your way in the world today takes everything you've got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn't you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came. You want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name.
If only there were a place like that.