CHARLOTTE — It's reasonable to feel a little whiplash. A week ago, everything seemed borderline normal, or as normal as anything could be in a situation like this.
And then, that happened.
The game in Jacksonville was one you might be tempted to just burn the tape and forget, but it's part of the record and part of the process for Bryce Young as he develops for the future.
Prior to that game, he had strung together probably his best five quarters of the year, leading the game-winning drive against the Falcons and then playing well against the Packers. There would have been a very different Mailbag last week except for some unforeseen circumstances (more on that later), so this week is like two 'Bags in one. The good, the bad. Balance to the universe, except everything was out of balance in 2023.
So here we are; it's 2024, and the Panthers are about to embark on another offseason of change (though to what degree we do not know now). But change is coming; that's a prediction we feel safe making.
At any rate, there's one more to go, and then the offseason begins in earnest, so let's let the duality of the last two weeks wash over us.
Can we just throw in the white flag and concede the game to Tampa Bay to keep anyone else from getting hurt, especially to protect Bryce Young since our offensive line has proved to be incapable of protecting him? How many times has Young been sacked this season? How much can his body absorb?
Now, on to happier thoughts, right? Darin, what are you planning for you and your family during the long off-season? Got any trips planned? If you come to Eastern North Carolina, feel like a Bar-B-Que Adventure and do a BBQ tour? YUM! Or, maybe a North Carolina Wine Tour! My wife will be the designated driver so you and I can really enjoy ourselves. By the way, I really enjoyed your Egg Nog this Christmas Season! Thanks, it was great!
My advice to the Panthers is as soon as the season mercifully ends, DON'T "Keep Pounding!" Really, you guys need some off time to rest, heal, and get your game back! Enjoy the time with your families and forget about football for a while. Next season will come soon enough.
And to the Panther's Nation, this season was a huge disappointment for everyone, but we aren't giving up are we? We are PANTHERS after all and our team WILL come back with a ROAR, just don't know when. Lets not let the team down! We'll do the pounding while they follow the doctor's advice and rest.
Who knows, stranger miracles have happened. Go Cats! — Jim, Timberlake, NC
It's tempting, I get it. In fact, several players were asked a version of that after last week's game, and they all said the thing you have to say in that situation. You can't not play, so you have to give it what you can while you can.
As for Bryce, the factual answer is 59 sacks, which is way too many. He's also played behind seven different left guards and eight different right guards. Also way too many.
If nothing else, he's dispelled the notion that he can't physically hold up to the NFL. He's still on his feet after all that, which proves he's tough, and beats the alternative.
As for Jim's other suggestion, I'm not telling you when I'm going anywhere, because I don't want you to rob my house. Though I do have a picture in my mind of riding around in the back of a convertible with Jim and our wives, eating barbecue, and drinking wine. Sounds amazing, honestly. We might have to book that trip. But there's some other business to attend to before the offseason really kicks in, as you may have heard.
When is someone in the Panthers organization going to realize that Young is not an NFL-caliber quarterback? I've been a fan since Day 1, but this is the worst group of talent I have ever seen, and it runs from the top to the bottom. — Roy, Charlotte
It's worth pointing out that this question came in at 1:40 p.m. on Christmas Eve or about the second quarter of the Packers game.
My guess was that Roy's response would have been quite different a few hours later, after Young had his best individual game of the season, with season highs in passing yards (312) and passer rating (110.0).
But such is the fickle nature of fans who live and die with every game and those who make every instant a referendum on forever.
When it didn't go as well last week in Jacksonville, the reactions got salty again, as you will see.
Hey Darin, It's me again. Let me start off by wishing you a Merry Christmas. Now for my question. Do you know where I can get some Kool Aid????
I've been watching the games and reading the Mailbag all along. I've seen some steady improvement from BY9 over the last few games. It may be enough to think the Panthers just may be on to something here. I think the final two games and next season will say more, so I'm holding my enthusiasm in check for a bit.
It seems the farther Bryce and the offense get away from Frank Reich's playcalling and schemes, the better he's doing. Thomas Brown is doing a pretty good job as OC. I can tell it's a little bit of a learning curve, but he's getting it. I now see actual adjustments happening on both sides during the game. Wow!!! What a concept. Receivers getting open, blocking is getting better, etc. It's getting fun to watch again. It was rough going there for a while. Maybe, just maybe, it's time to take a sip of that Kool Aid.
BTW, you're a damn good writer, and you do a great job, especially with your in-depth articles. Keep it up. — Scott, Hampstead, NC
Yeah, disregard the previous post, please. This was the worst of the worst. Bryce can't play unless everything around him is top-notch. He'd do ok with a team like San Fran. But the minute things break down, he's absolutely garbage. A No. 1 pick should raise the level of the team instead of needing the team to raise his level. When the ones in charge realize this, then they will need to change. It's a cold, hard reality that most people see, unfortunately not the ones that were so adamant about picking the smallest, slightest QB in the draft. We've seen enough of Bryce to know his fate. Good luck finding a coach who wants to come here and risk his reputation to developing Bryce. — Scott, Hampstead, NC
See what I mean about two mailbags in one?
Poor Scott was just coming around, was seeing the possibilities in Bryce, and was so full of the Christmas spirit (or perhaps just the egg nog) that he even said a nice thing about me. It's a miracle.
Then, last week happened, and he was back to himself.
Scott's still Scott and it's still spelled Kool-Aid, and we're right back to square one. As Bryce will be when he meets his new head coach and gets to spend an entire offseason with him.
Everything's doom and gloom at the moment, but I don't believe they're going to have a hard time finding someone to coach Bryce. He's still the guy who was the consensus top pick around the league last spring, and most reasonable people understand this was a systemic breakdown, not something you can pin on any one person.
Hey Darin! Happy New Year! With Ikem Ekwonu giving up three sacks to Josh Allen Sunday, and with note of his recent struggles on the edge, is there any possibility that the Panthers could move him inside (maybe to solve the guard problem once and for all)? — Zach, Charlotte
They're going to address the guard situation one way or another this offseason. Getting guys healthy will be a part of that. Getting just five games combined from Brady Christensen and Austin Corbett had a lot to do with those 59 sacks, as did so many other people playing their spots (seven, and eight, respectively).
I'm having a hard time believing that Ekwonu forgot how to play football. He went 10 weeks without giving up a sack a year ago, so he's clearly capable of playing the position effectively. There were things happening around him that made his life harder, but he had stretches this year when he looked good again. But his problem is that when things go wrong, they go wrong in a big way, and they're very visible. And since he had a habit this year of playing 77 good snaps and three bad ones, those bad ones tended to be the things that were easy to notice.
He could move inside, but then you have to find a left tackle. That's easier said than done. As a longtime reader, you're perhaps aware of the history of the time between Jordan Gross and Ekwonu's arrival, which included a different guy every year (some of them more qualified than others).
And Ekwonu could clearly excel at guard. His strength is his strength, and allowing him to play in a phone booth would accentuate that. But you'd also be creating another problem by doing that. Is the answer free agency or moving Christensen back out there? That's a question for the next coach and how he prefers to play.
Now, you've been hanging around the house too much, so I'm not sure I'm the only one thinking this, but GET BACK TO CLASS, ZACH.
Hey Darin. Sucks we didn't get the win (against the Packers), but after seeing that game, I have very high hopes for next season. It was definitely our best game offensively. Bryce started connecting with receivers other than Big 19; he was making confident passes, and the O line was giving him time. The problem was the defense. If we had played as well as last week, we probably would have won. This begs the question: do we stick with the plan of drafting an offensive lineman, or do we draft a defensive tackle or corner? I think we should stick to getting some O-line, not because Bryce needs more time to throw, but because we need some better running lanes. What's your opinion? — Miles, Durham, NC
Two of my favorite young people, back-to-back. Love it.
We know now that the Panthers will pick 33rd and 65th (the exact positions of the rest are TBD, pending comp picks and where other teams finish), so they have chances to find contributors.
All this is in a vacuum at the moment because the identity of the next coach will determine a lot of things this offseason, but I think you can begin your wish list for 33 and 65 with receivers and offensive linemen. It's said to be a deep draft for receivers, and we'll get into that more as it gets closer, but that has to be on the list.
You can't expect another 100-catch, 1,000-yard year out of Adam Thielen, and Jonathan Mingo showed enough flashes he ought to develop (though he was placed on IR Tuesday with a foot injury). DJ Chark Jr. is an unrestricted free agent, so there's a spot to fill. And they need to keep guys in the pipeline at that spot (and the rest of them) to make sure Young has the best chances to succeed.
Would like to ask about Jeremy Chinn. Last year, it seemed that hardly a week went by without a mention of his name. This year, very little. Is this due to the new defense scheme? — George, Harrells, NC
Chinn became a tweener in this system since they acquired a couple of veteran safeties in Vonn Bell and Xavier Woods the last two years, and there's not really a natural fit for him as a linebacker in a 3-4. So he became the run-down nickel, something approximating the role he played as a rookie, even though he didn't have nearly the impact.
He missed five games but has played just 39 percent of the defensive snaps this year, and that's not what anyone expected, including him.
Jeremy's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, so he gets a choice in this, too. But if the defensive staff from this year remains, I have a hard time imagining him signing up to be a situational player again.
People have gone back and forth on him for years, but I think he's ultimately best suited as a will linebacker in a 4-3 defense. That's what he was as a rookie when he made a bunch of plays, and that's where he's best able to impact the game. Many other teams run 4-3 defenses and could use someone like him. Since the coaching situation is up in the air, it's hard to intelligently cross anything off the list of possibilities, but it seems reasonable that he might look for his chances elsewhere this offseason. If he hadn't been injured just before the trade deadline, that chance might have come sooner.
I'll try not to kiss the ring too much, but I do want to say I appreciate your take on things. Between what I have read from fan sites and your Mailbag it seems to be the general consensus that we need to burn down all of Charlotte and start over. It's nice to be a little more compassionate and level-headed versus reactionary. Hell, I still remember how contentious it was when Jake Delhomme was playing and how fans reacted to him. Still, I will agree that doing a rebuild during your rebuild is the worst it has been since I've been following the team (since 2006). I think the biggest thing fans want to see is a little hope for the future. A high draft position is nice, but a spark is even better.
Anyway, on to my questions. What are your thoughts on Yetur Gross-Matos? I think he has improved a lot this year and proved the doubters wrong about just being a 4-3 lineman, but is it enough to keep him? He seems like a guy on the bubble right now who could go either way.
Are there any unsung heroes of the locker room that you think deserve to get a shout-out? Between injuries and losing, it has been a rough season, but is there anyone who stands out as having a positive impact on the team that you would like to highlight? — Christopher, Raleigh, NC
Gross-Matos has played far better in this system than a lot of people were expecting. They kept throwing draft picks (DJ Johnson) and free agent money (Justin Houston) at it, and Gross-Matos outplayed both this year. He's actually pretty good at it, too, with the ability to be a complementary rusher and also the stoutness to set the edge in the run game. If he didn't miss five games in the middle of the year on injured reserve, he'd have likely earned a big payday somewhere (He's also an unrestricted free agent this offseason).
He's worth keeping around, though, and that's not something many people imagined saying last summer, so credit to him for improving and developing into a new player.
I'm actually glad you asked about unsung heroes because there's an anecdote that's been riding around in my notebook for half the year I never got to use, and this seems like a good spot for it.
Prior to Week 6 against the Dolphins, the Panthers activated native Charlottean Matthias Farley from the practice squad to start at safety. It was a big moment for him for reasons that transcend a paycheck. You get a chance to start an NFL game for your hometown team, and that's pretty cool, regardless.
Of course, that game didn't go well, for Farley or the rest of them, really. But what stood out to me was what he did postgame. As players around him dressed and vacated the locker room for the bus to the airport, he hung back for a few moments.
Matthias Farley, moments after starting in a 42-21 loss that dropped his team to 0-6, went around the locker room picking up litter.
Not just his, but other people's too. Food wrappers, tape, the stuff people leave behind and never think of again. But he picked up his area and then other people's. He left it better than he found it. That's all you can really ask of anyone in this life.
Matthias Farley is good people. I'll remember that more than anything that happened in that game.
In the last mailbag, you put out an all-call for an all-star alumni coaching staff. With Mike Minter leaving the Campbell gig, some buddies and I accidentally ended up in this conversation the other day. With their help, here is my all-star staff:
HC: Mike Minter,Associate HC/TEs: Greg Olsen,OC/QBs: Jake Delhomme,DC: Luke Kuechly,OLs: Jordan Gross,RBs: Brad Hoover,WRs: Mushin Muhammad,DLs: Julius Peppers,LBs: Thomas Davis,Secondary: Eric Reid,Special Teams: John Kasay.
A lot of these guys overlapped at different times, and for a lot of them, their love for the Panthers, experience in the league and in Charlotte, and their individual and team success would be hard to pass up. If JJ Jansen ever retires, bring him in to assist Kasay. Thoughts? — Zachary, Sanford, NC
You ain't getting Greg Olsen out of that sweet television gig for anything less than a head coaching job. But sure.
Minter did an amazing job in 11 years at Campbell, taking them into scholarship football and eventually the CAA, and generally putting the Camels on the map (and if you've ever been through Buies Creek, you know that ain't easy to do). Mike's the best, and I could see him coaching again somewhere.
Some of those other guys would be good at it but might not be about that life. You'd have to get Gross and Delhomme off the farm (and away from the Jordan and Jake podcast, which I have turned into a pro-egg nog zone), and there's a zero percent chance Peppers is getting back into football. He wants to do his best to disappear.
Jansen's more likely to work in analytics in the front office than coach, though Kasay is probably second to Peppers on the list of guys I could never see doing this.
It's fun to think about, and some of those guys could absolutely do it. But coaching is a labor-intensive lifestyle, and once you've put in enough time and earned enough money, not everybody wants to devote that many hours. I mean, it's hard enough to convince young people to work; once you get established in life after football, it's hard to go back.
It has been said that we have some really great coaches in the building already, in James Campen and Chris Tabor (who obviously got the nod to stick around after the new regime came in at the beginning of this season). After the Packers game, Thomas Brown seemed to be meshing pretty well with Bryce Young, and Ejiro Evero has been doing a phenomenal job, in my opinion, with the random mix of players he's had to deal with because of the rash of injuries we've endured this season. Given the fact that Brown and Evero both interviewed last offseason for head coaching positions, is it possible that we see someone internally get the head coaching job this go-round and keep some of the same staff that we currently have? I feel like this would help with continuity among our relatively young team. — Kevin, Mint Hill, NC
It's really hard to play the "we're getting the band back together" card when you're 2-14. The reasonable expectation is that they're looking for the same thing they were looking for when they hired Frank Reich, someone to modernize the offense and create something resembling a coherent and stable system here that lasts more than a year.
That said, I think there are absolutely a lot of coaches here worth keeping. I think if some young offensive coordinator ends up with the head coaching job, he'd likely be wise to want to keep Evero and a turn-key defensive staff and Tabor and a special teams group that has done good work while dealing with the trickle-down of all of those injuries. Even on offense, cats like Campen and receivers coach Shawn Jefferson are among the most respected in the league at their positions, so it's easy to justify keeping them.
But every coach goes into job interviews with an idea of who he'd want to work with or who he thinks he could secure. And he might have his own receivers coach or his own line coach. Or even a preference for a defensive coordinator. And that might not match with what's on hand.
So, as much as everyone wants to look in the crystal ball, it's still in Ben McAdoo's other pants and thus remains unavailable.
Once we know who's interviewing, you could probably start to spitball a few things, but it's so fluid right now that anyone who says anything other than "I'm guessing here" is not being honest with themselves or you. But it's not an out-of-bounds thought because this remains a good staff, so I'm making Kevin this week's Friend Of The Mailbag, and will get the appropriate honorarium on the way to him soon.
Good morning, Darin - What's up? Can't find the ATOG piece for this week. No column because of Christmas or what? Just checking to make sure you're OK. Have a great Game Day. #KeepPounding — Jeff, Concord, NC
I say this with all sincerity: nothing warms the heart like being seen, so the fact that somebody missed the Mailbag brings a smile to my face. It takes the better part of a day to curate and write and lay this thing out so that effort being appreciated is, well, appreciated. And Jeff's a FOTM, so I know this to be true. Thanks, Jeff.
But I got called away on another assignment last week, one of those stories that took me 52 years and 30 minutes to write. My father passed away last Tuesday morning after a long illness. That it was expected didn't make it any easier as we gathered around on Christmas to say our goodbyes.
If you've ever laughed at any of my jokes, it was because of Donald Gantt. He was great at one-liners (handshakes were often followed by "Gantt's my name, I assume you know yours"), and he could also set you up for the long play. I remember more than once him beginning a story on Highway 321 in Lenoir about the brave young native lad with the unusual name who went looking for better hunting grounds for his people and their futile search for him when he was lost. A 15-minute setup of a story for that spot just south of Blowing Rock where he could point to the yellow road sign and say, "That's why they put up all these signs that say Look Out For Falling Rock." He loved to laugh, and we shared a sense of the absurd. He had a standing shopping list for the flea market near our home of items I would re-purchase if he found them, regardless of price. That list included dogs playing poker paintings, a fez, an accordion, or a good monkey lamp. But the Holy Grail was an actual monkey. So one Thanksgiving, we went to the old Thunderbird Drive-In on Springs Road to kill some time before the meal and turned a corner and literally ran into a woman with a diaper-wearing monkey on her shoulder. With one voice, father and son turned to this woman and said with a tone that made it clear we were serious: "How much for the monkey?" He'd also stand up for principle and was willing to fight for what was right, but used wit as his razor. When one of his smart-aleck kids got (unjustly, I might add) called in for a conference with the principal, and his fourth-grade teacher said: "Your son's problem is he thinks he's smarter than everyone in the room, including me," she was not expecting him to reply: "Is he?"
But he was there for more than laughs. He also taught me another one of the most important lessons of journalism and life: the art of showing up. When I was in middle school, I had the brilliant idea of trying out for the school football team to pave the way for a lucrative NFL career. Turns out, on my best day I was like the Geoff Hangartner of Catawba Middle School. I may have understood the playbook inside and out, but it was imminently possible if not easy to find an athletic upgrade. In my case (not Geoff's, he was great), a Gatorade cooler or a traffic cone was an athletic upgrade. This was fine, except somebody had to pick me up after practice. So even though it was about 20 miles the other direction from his job, he was there every day, and I remember those long rides home as much as anything that happened on the field. (Although I once held a kid from Tuttle Middle School so egregiously that the penalty flag lodged in my facemask, and my attempts to protest were undone by the fact I looked like a jaundiced Phantom of the Opera. I should have thrown it back at them like Matt Willig.)
Sometimes I like to say, "I do it for the people," but it's mostly because that's what I saw him do every day of his life. He gave of his time selflessly, as a lifelong Scout leader and advocate for young people who needed a hand or someone to follow. He loved my mom. He raised three boys well, and an extended village of other people's kids that spread across the state. He worked hard. He knew how to fix machines, grow crops, cane a chair bottom, distill agricultural products into other useful things, sharpen a pocket knife so you could shave with it, tell a story, and a million other useful skills. The Foxfire books are about him. Yeah, and he landed a plane on top of a hardware store one time. If I ever grow up to be even a little like him, I will have done well.
So last week was sad, and we're still working through it, but our people were together on Saturday, and we remembered how you're supposed to do the thing — for other people. That's the most important thing.
(Also, what an insensitive jerk Jeff is. Who asks a question like that of a grieving man? Some people. Everybody go throw a rock at Jeff.) (Not really. We still like Jeff.)
Anyway, here's a picture of Dad and Mom celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary because it makes me happy.
And now that your host has taken this Mailbag that's normally full of fart jokes on the internet to a dark place, 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.
Sausage or liver mush? You know, good ol' country-style pork sausage or liver mush (some people refer to it as liver pudding)? I'm pretty confident that a good ol' country boy raised in the South such as yourself will have no hesitation in declaring which is your favorite. For me (and I fit that description myself), the winner, hands down, is liver mush. I love me some sausage and I'll not turn down a slab of country ham - but good ol' fried liver mush will win out every time. How 'bout you, Darin? — Jeff, Concord, NC
Since Jeff didn't realize he was walking into a bear trap with that last innocent question (I mean, seriously, would anyone have been surprised if I just took the day off?), he gets a bonus question this week.
Jeff, being a learned man, knows the correct answer is liver mush. I can get sausage anywhere. Rare is the place in this fine city where you can find a good liver mush for breakfast. Get you one at Brooks' Sandwich House while you still can. Send me all of your liver mush recommendations.
Don't think too much about the ingredients. (Seriously, it's everything from the rooter to the tooter, plus corn meal.) Too many questions will only ruin it. Just fry it and put it on toast or biscuit with or without an egg. Some people enjoy a yellow mustard accent, but I'm a traditionalist.
(Also, the first bereavement food delivery to Mom's house last week was a fresh pan of biscuits, plus ham meat [that's what my people call it], sausage, and liver mush. People showing up with food is part of the process, and a welcome one. Community supporting each other is the most important thing. Also, I was so full of comfort food last week I became uncomfortable.)
Darin, could you explain what happens to the money once we release a player? Seems to always count against the salary cap. So who gets the money? NFL, owner, player? Thanks. — Graham, Burgaw, NC
Depends on the player's contract, and those vary. But in general, when a player is released, any of the non-guaranteed portions of his base salary just kind of disappear. They have to account for the prorations of signing bonuses against the salary cap, but the cash usually stays there to pay the next guy.
Can we have an update on the status of the Keep Pounding Drum? Has it been fixed? — Zach, Charlotte
I committed a journalism, and can confirm. After Mike Tolbert knocked a hole in it heading into the fourth quarter against the Packers, a repair was needed. We are reliably informed the drumhead has been replaced, and it will be in action on Sunday when the Bucs roll into town for the finale. Pounding will commence.
Finishing is important, gang. Don Gantt taught me that.