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Carolina Panthers

Ask The Old Guy: One play can change a lot

Ask the Old Guy

CHARLOTTE — The tone around here changed in a hurry.

After an offseason of hope with a new quarterback and a new offensive line and all the right moves, fans were left feeling some sort of way Sunday after the loss to the Browns — which was nearly the herald of a remarkable turnaround.

And that's where this one is weird. So if we're going to yell, let's at least yell about actual things. One of the things I preach about often is, while we expect sports to follow a central theme, a narrative arc, to fit neatly between our expectations, they often turn on exceedingly and incredibly random events.

The Panthers and Giants effectively played identical games last week, coming back from 13-point deficits to take the lead in the fourth quarter. The difference was Titans kicker Randy Bullock missed his field goal at the end, and the Giants won, and Browns rookie kicker Cade York smoked his from 58 (and it would have been good from somewhere in the mid-60s too), and the Panthers lost.

There, for the vagaries in the performance of a single act by two people who do not work for the franchises in question, lies the difference between 1-0 and smart and wise and ushering in a new age, and 0-1 with some painful reminders of the past.

It's OK to feel a certain way about the Giants and the Panthers, as long as you understand that if Bullock and York's outcomes were reversed, you would need to feel a version of the same way if we're being intellectually honest.

Obviously, it's an outcome-based business, but I know enough about math to know that one data point is not an average. Will the Panthers start as slowly this week as they did Sunday (they probably can't), or play like the second-half version? Will the Giants continue to be daring and bold, or will Daniel Jones be what Daniel Jones has largely been?

We'll find out Sunday, and then with two data points, you can actually calculate an average (though not always a reliable one). At this point, the Panthers are the same 0-1 as the Rams and Bengals, who played in the Super Bowl last year, and the Packers and the 49ers and 10 other teams. All those 0-1s are not the same. We know that. But there are a lot of shades of meaning that we'll be able to discern in the weeks to come.

So with that deep breath in mind (thanks for the tip, Zen McAdoo), it's time to get into the mail.


I realize there's a lot to digest from Cleveland: line play, penalties, tackling, etc. One thing aside from those issues that stands out to me was the play calls on the last drive from the Cleveland 15-yard line. Second and third down, we ran to set up a field goal. I felt we should have made an effort to get into the end zone; being over a minute left in the game is a lot of time. What say you? — Mark, Maryville, TN

There were a number of versions of this question, and Panthers head coach Matt Rhule had a two-fold explanation.

First, he said it wasn't strictly a choice to run, as they had RPO plays called, which gave quarterback Baker Mayfield some latitude. The choice to give the ball to Christian McCaffrey is not, on its own, unwise once they saw the way DJ Moore was covered.

They were also hoping to bleed the Browns out of timeouts, so if they did get the ball back, they'd have to hurry up to try to move it (not knowing what peril lay ahead).

People always like their coaches to do the bold thing, which is why emotions are tricky in football. Even though it wasn't purely a decision to run to the middle of the field, the decision to run and kick the field goal wasn't necessarily a bad one. But it feels better to be adventurous when it's not your money, so that's what a lot of fans expect from their football people.

Baker Mayfield


What a fourth quarter?!?! I was lucky enough to be in the stadium Sunday to watch Cleveland kick a nice long field goal to ruin a wonderful comeback opportunity. So, do we look at this game as "Cleveland knows Baker better than anyone else, so they knew exactly what to do to rattle him" or "Different year, different quarterback, same problems"? Give us some hope, DG! — Paul, Wilmington, NC

I'm not in the hope business, but it's hard for me to look at Mayfield and this team as the same anything from last season.

There are so many upgrades to this roster (and coaching staff) from a year ago that it's hard to apply last year's results to current events. That's part of the reason I cringe at the notion of an eight-game losing streak, because the team responsible for one of them is only vaguely similar to the one responsible for the first seven. "Every year is different," the noted Eastern philosopher John Fox once said.

I do think the Browns were highly motivated to give Mayfield the business, but not in a malicious way.

The same way Panthers teammate Donte Jackson said he wanted to pick Mayfield off 12 times in practice "just to shut him up," the people who knew Mayfield the last four years wanted to be able to stick it to him. He still has many friends there (though not everyone gets a Christmas card). They also know that he's not the tallest quarterback in the league, so if a pass rush isn't getting home, they should get hands in the air. That led to four passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. That and some problems fielding snaps (four fumbles, though he didn't lose any) and a ridiculously slow start kept the Panthers from delivering on an interesting comeback, which is something they didn't do last year.


Well, that one stung. I know a lot of fans will blame it on some (bad) calls that didn't go our way. A lot of the analysts will blame the sloppy start. Personally, I think the biggest issue was our run defense. We allowed Chubb and Hunt to cut through us for a total of 187 yards, averaging 5.6 a tote, and score to absolutely control the tempo while hiding the shortcomings of Jake Brisket under center. Considering this:

1) With Saquon Barkley looking like he's back to form and then Alvin Kamara the week after, are we in for a rough three-week start despite average or subpar quarterback play that we should be able to take advantage of?

2) How much of this loss is actually on my dog, Lukka, for eating my lucky hat? — Nate, Grand Prairie, TX

Lukka The Mailbag Dog
Lukka The Mailbag Dog

We're going to talk a lot about run defense until they get better at it, that's for sure. (I also can't decide if Jake Brisket is autocorrect run wild or the best Texas barbecue-inspired nickname for Jacoby Brissett ever).

What I will not accept is any attempt to blame Lukka for this in any way. Lukka is clearly a good dog, and if that hat was so lucky, it would have been on your head anyway, so it's more your fault than Lukka's.

As such, I'm making Lukka our first-ever (Man's Best) Friend Of The Mailbag and will get the appropriate honorarium on the way soon.

Also, you don't have to take my word for it that Lukka is innocent. I asked an actual lawyer, former Raiders executive Amy Trask (one of the smartest and wisest and nicest people in the NFL) to weigh in on the situation as well.

Do you think they would look to add to the D-line this week? — Andy, Colorado Springs, CO

I think the doors are open to many more things this week than last week. As explained in this space seven days ago, since veteran contracts are guaranteed for the season if those players are on the roster Week 1, teams are a little more hesitant to sign an old guy.

I don't get the sense they're ready to make an immediate (like today) move, but I do think it's reasonable to think some more established options behind Derrick Brown and Matt Ioannidis could be coming in the future.

They like certain things about Bravvion Roy, Phil Hoskins, and Marquan McCall, but there are some dudes on the street who are better able to help right now. Rhule mentioned on Monday that part of the problem with run defense stemmed from having some young guys not in the right places at the right time. They aren't necessarily young at linebacker, so that narrows the scope of possibilities.

I think it's something to keep an eye on. I also wonder if we see more and more Henry Anderson at defensive end, taking advantage of his experience in the run game.

Matt Ioannidis


Hi, Darin! Still trying to process everything that happened at the game! Besides some good old-fashioned tackling lessons/practice, what does our defense need to do to stop runners like Chubb and Barkley from controlling the game? — Susan, Inman, SC

See, even Susan is worried about the run defense. That's how you know it's a thing, because she's got one of the keenest eyes.

We could get granular and X-and-O, but the real answer is, that it's going to be an issue until they fix it. A lot of that will be about tackling better, and being lined up properly.

Barkley's able to make big plays. We know that. If he makes enough of them this week, it could be a problem.


I woke up this morning telling myself not to get too irrational about the loss yesterday, that's only Week 1, but I'm having a hard time with that. Everyone knew Cleveland was going to run the ball, and yet the Panthers got gashed all day long. The defense couldn't get off the field on third down, and the pass rush, like I've said multiple times, is not a threat at all. Where was Bradley Bozeman ? We all know Pat Elflein isn't the answer. — Jeff, Henderson, NV

Certain things get yelled about on the internet long enough that they become conventional wisdom, whether they're wise or not.

Here's the thing, Elflein really wasn't that bad Sunday, on second look. He's an utterly capable center. I don't think you want him playing a lot of guard (especially when he was paired next to an undersized center in Matt Paradis like early last year), but he's certainly functional in the middle.

(Here's where Darin wades into the internet, against his better judgment.) If you believe the people at Pro Football Focus, Elflein graded out quite well Sunday. Of course, if you're conditioned to think he's not any good, this just gives you a chance to yell about PFF being stupid. We have a tendency to like evidence that supports our preconceived notions and to distrust evidence that suggests a position contrary to our beliefs.

The short answer is, that Elflein's not really as bad as a lot of people think he is. The fact he was signed on the first day of free agency last year made a lot of people think he was viewed as a long-term answer when he was actually signed out of a certain degree of cost-certainty since he's a good value at his price, and capable of starting at center or being a quality backup.

Bozeman was given an opportunity to win a job in camp, and the ankle injury that cost him a couple of weeks came at a bad time. I'm not sure they've settled on anything there, and Bradley could end up starting this year (as he did in 48 games the last three seasons for the Ravens), but I do think that Elflein is better at center than he gets credit for sometimes.

Pat Elflein


Hey Darin, first-time questioner. Will we ever expect to see the old end zones ever again? — Joe, Charlotte

Welcome, Joe, we love our regulars, but new faces are always good to see.

This week's paint job was different, but also out of necessity. Since there was a soccer game Saturday, the field had to be flipped in 24 hours (which the grounds crew at Bank of America Stadium is good at). But the problem with paint is that it's not always easy to make it become dry when it's raining. So this week's minimalist look was because of the weather.

As for future end zone designs, what I can tell you is to stay tuned. You never know what you might see later this season.


As well as running goes, was there any particular reason why Christian McCaffrey wasn't utilized much at all? I know they'd like to keep him fresh for the season, but only two carries in the entire first half seem like a mistake of choice. — Eric, Brick, NJ

The least satisfying answers are the ones that begin: "Well, it's complicated . . ."

But it's complicated.

There is a line between too much Christian and not enough. That line is likely somewhere between the 14 touches he had Sunday and the 59 he had in the first two games last year.

I think if we're six weeks into the season and his usage tracks along with last week, it's reasonable to be concerned. If it was too much like the first two games of last year, it's also reasonable to be concerned. But I think getting him incorporated is clearly a priority in the passing game as well as the run game. And for the first 28 minutes last week, not much worked (21 yards on the first 20 plays, and they only had 53 offensive snaps all day).

It's also reasonable to wonder about DJ Moore's relative light day (four touches, including a rush attempt). Moore is very good in traffic and can make his own plays sometimes.

That's a long way of saying this offense is far from a finished product, at least, they hope it is.

Christian McCaffrey


Let's go lightning round to close it out this week:

Hi, please settle a bet for me. What happened to the receiver Brandon Zylstra? Why isn't he on the Panthers team anymore, and where is he now? — Robyn, Charlotte

Zylstra got caught in a crowded receivers room, behind a lot of guys with either more established resumes or more potential on offense.

But he's so good on special teams, and so versatile that I'll be stunned if he doesn't surface somewhere soon. Brandon's good people, and whoever ends up with him will have a solid player and a dependable backup kicker.

I hope you won your bet, although gambling is illegal here at Bushwood, and I never slice.

What is it like to feel something? — Jonny, Chapel Hill, NC

I have been fortunate enough to watch professional football in exchange for money for nearly 30 years, which has kept me from developing the kind of deep emotional attachments a lot of (normal) people do. Saturdays, on the other hand, are nerve-wracking for me.

Did you see Appalachian State's win on the road against a Top-10 Texas A&M squad last week? Of course you did. Or the rampaging mobs of students rushing King Street (possibly including some of my tuition money)? Of course you did. Or the 63-61 loss the week before, which included 40 points in the fourth quarter? Of course you did.

College football isn't great for my personal well-being. I remain grateful, however, that I went to a real football school, unlike some other people here in my department.

I would like to wish Quincy Singleton a Happy Birthday from his wife. What do I need to do? — Betty, Charlotte

You just need to know the right people. And to be nice. Being nice always helps, instead of yelling about everything.

Happy birthday Quincy; you're clearly a lucky man. Unless of course Betty's not your wife, that would make your life really complicated right now. But Happy Birthday anyway.

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