CHARLOTTE — There's a lot of stress right now, but if there's anything I believe, it's that it will be temporary, and you'll know it when it all comes together. When the time comes, you'll look back on this exact moment and laugh.
Who's bringing the mashed potatoes? Where can I buy indigenous hominy for this authentic recipe I read about in the New York Times? Is your brother going to set fire to the deck again this year trying to fry a turkey? Is Bojangles open, just in case? I can't read the date on this can of cranberry sauce; is it still OK? Do we have enough wine? You know your uncle is coming.
Take a deep breath. It'll be OK. The answer to those questions is, in order: 1) somebody, 2) who cares, 3) maybe and let's get video just in case, 4) yes, until 2 p.m. on Thursday, so we do have a backup plan, 5) it doesn't matter, it's fine, those dates are just suggestions so don't be a pawn of Big Grocery, and most importantly 6) probably, but he usually has an emergency bottle or five in the trunk with him anyway.
Thanksgiving is more stressful than it ought to be. So is football sometimes.
When you look back at last Sunday's Panthers game, it was a fantastic meal without the turkey. All the sides were there, the people were in the right place, and it was this close to being the kind of Norman Rockwell perfect we were all conditioned to expect was a normal family Thanksgiving.
But guess what, families aren't perfect, and neither are football teams. The Panthers had a defining game against a great opponent on the road won, except for the minor detail of not scoring points. One of these days, maybe, and perhaps soon, you'll look back on that game and realize a corner may have been turned, that they learned something about themselves, and that putting together a game plan that way isn't the worst idea in the world. Or maybe not; we'll find out.
Until then, let's get into the mail:
"UGH." It feels like Lucy pulled the ball away again, right as Charlie Brown was getting ready to kick it. We can't seem to win the close ones. The Panthers are a team working hard to find a way to do just that. I thought they fought hard. A defensive battle in which neither team was willing to give an inch. In the end, the Ravens, with the home field, finished with the win. But that could have been our game and our win.
We are easily as good as, if not better, than the rest of the teams on the schedule. Except for the 6-4 Seahawks, no other team has a record that is better than .500. With a solid run of wins, the playoffs are well within our reach, and I think we are the team to make that run.
I don't want to hear any more talk about draft picks next year. No more "At the end of the day," no more "it is what it is. "This is the here, and this is the now! This is our time to show the rest of the league what a team with an interim coach, a quarterback that no one wants, a squad of forgotten running backs, a mishmash of receivers, a young offensive line, a beat-up secondary, and an undersized defense can do. Win the next game, take a well-deserved break with the bye and then come back and show the rest of the league what we can really do. WE ARE THE PANTHERS!!
Oh yeah, my question. . . What do you think? — Michael, Rock Hill, SC
Well, for one thing, I think Uncle Mike has already gotten into the trunk wine (It's OK, his new girlfriend will drive him home, what's her name again? She seems nicer than the one last year but that one sure could dance). And for another thing, it's not really Thanksgiving until we see Charlie Brown, although leaving a dog in charge of multiple toasters is probably a fire code violation and a worse idea than your brother with a turkey fryer and a frozen bird. Also, why does the Brown family have so many toasters? But I digress.
Actually, Michael's was a fairly reasonable response to that last game, if not the rest of the season as a whole.
That was the exact game plan you want to stop Lamar Jackson on the road, executed well. He didn't do all that much, but when they gifted him a turnover on his own side of the field, you kind of expected what was going to come next.
Until or unless they find some better quarterback play (and right now, they've got the ones they've got, and they're hoping that the turducken that is Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, and PJ Walker can feed enough people the rest of this year) it might not matter. But other than the whole "passing the football" thing, that was a hell of a game. Now we'll see how much things change with Darnold at the helm.
But to Michael's larger point, I mean, Steve Wilks keeps telling people he's seen weirder things, and this schedule looks a lot different right now than it did in September.
The Broncos, Steelers, Lions, and Saints (combined record 14-27) are truly a jury of the Panthers' peers right now, and three of those are at home. I have no idea whether Geno Smith is actually good at football or whether Pete Carroll's just great at it, and God only knows what kind of shape Tom Brady and the Bucs are going to be in come New Year's Eve or, more importantly, the day after.
I'm not suggesting they're about to get on a hot streak and go roaring into the playoffs. I'm just saying that team was set up to win last week's game, which is why so many people in their offices are anguished about the way it turned out because it was there for the taking.
It's possible, I guess, that they could make a bit of a run. The people involved still appear to think so. So we'll see. They've reached the point where they also need things to happen to some people as well because all the margin for error is gone.
But because Michael is full of the spirit of William Wallace in Braveheart (or something out of the trunk), I'm making him this week's Friend Of The Mailbag, and getting him the appropriate honorarium soon.
What's up Darin? This is Zach, the 15-year-old student again. What are our odds of landing Bryce Young or CJ Stroud (or maybe Drake Maye if he drops out of college and somehow goes pro) if we win two or three games to end the year and be 5-12 or 6-11? Could we possibly trade up? — Zach, Charlotte
Shouldn't you be in class or something Zach? Kids these days and all their "holidays." Back in my day, we went to school every day of the year, except for when we were working on the farm, which made us appreciate education.
Well, as we mentioned last week (which you'd know if you were studying, Zach), Drake Maye is off the board this year since he will not be eligible for the draft until 2024.
But yes, all those other names (and a couple you didn't name) will definitely be on the table, depending on how the next seven weeks go.
The Panthers will certainly be looking very carefully at all the top quarterbacks (they already have been), but so will a lot of other people.
If the season ended today, they'd be picking second overall. Also, a lot of people would be saying, "Why did the season end on the Tuesday before Week 12 before we get to drink with Uncle Mike and watch the Lions?" But a lot can happen between now and then. Among their neighbors in that hypothetical top 10 at the moment, I count at least four who will also be looking for quarterbacks. Not everybody gets one.
But yes, all those extra picks they harvested a month ago should come in handy soon in case they need to move around.
The day they lost to the Rams, they had nine picks in the next two drafts. Then, after getting two things for one Robbie Anderson and sending Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers for a big ol' bag of stuff, they suddenly had 14 in the next two years (plus an extra in 2025). The other key is that all seven of next year's are in the first five rounds, which helps if they need to move around and make a deal. (You can see all of their 2023 picks here and the 2024 list here).
My suspicion is that they'll leave next year's draft with a rookie quarterback if only to get off the treadmill of mid-priced veterans. (Of course, not all mid-priced veterans are created equal, as Washington and Panthers legend Taylor Heinicke are showing us now. It can be done, it's just hard, and it usually doesn't last long.)
So stick with us, Zach; we'll have plenty about quarterbacks here at Panthers.com in the coming months. It's got to be better than Latin or coding or whatever they're teaching you kids these days.
Hi Darin! Happy Holidays! Thanks for the merchandise (the Friend Of The Mailbag shirt is sweet).
Will the Panthers ever beat an opponent with a winning record again? It's been a year, at least, since that happened. The Panthers offense really stinks, I mean bad. Besides the obvious sore spot (QB), this team lacks a true game-changing WR1, no TE, and a really non-creative game plan week in and week out. The Panthers need more weaponry sorely.
Also, why do the Panthers CBs always give so much cushion on passing downs? The secondary, mostly the CB room, was a supposed strength, but that's far from the case. It's Jaycee Horn, and that's it. Anyways, enjoy your turkey, or whatever is on the menu later this week! — Jeff, Henderson , NV
I love that Jeff led with the note of gratitude before he started taking a flamethrower to the rest of the place. You're welcome Jeff; wear it in good health. Also, yeeesh.
Yeah, they're struggling with the whole "offense" part at the moment, and a lot of that stems from the lack of stability at quarterback. They've been looking for someone to provide league-average play at the position for a few years now, and they haven't gotten it.
But Jeff also hits on the less-often discussed part of the equation. They haven't gotten nearly enough out of DJ Moore, and suffice it to say the tight end position hasn't blossomed as part of the passing game.
Moore's clearly off this year, stuck at 502 yards after 11 games. There are six left, and he's capable of big games at any time. But I mean, the fact he had 152 of those yards in Atlanta also suggests a problem since 350 in the other 10 games isn't what they paid him for. I suspect that's part of the reason Wilks aired him out a little bit publicly on Monday (and there's no reason to believe he didn't do it privately as well).
Moore's one of two receivers in the NFL with three straight years of 1,100 receiving yards (along with Buffalo's Stefon Diggs). That streak seems seriously unlikely to continue unless he gets really hot over the last six games.
And in fairness to Moore, this isn't all his fault. This quarterback situation isn't ideal, but he's never known anything else at the position in college or here, and he's always performed. Wilks is going to hold guys to high standards, and he needs his best players to play better if they're to have a chance.
Also, the cornerback thing is a fair concern. Donte Jackson getting hurt was a bigger deal than a lot of people might have considered. Horn is very talented, and so is CJ Henderson. Talented guys need coaching too, and Wilks is coaching a whole team now and doesn't have the ability to spend every moment with the secondary. Whatever happens at the end of the year, that group needs attention to make sure they get what they need. Henderson makes some plays but also has lapses that frustrate people who see what he's capable of.
Again, there's a different standard for guys with talent, and more will be expected of them. And if they don't deliver, Wilks is probably going to let them know about it.
Why are we pretending PJ Walker has played well this season? By my count, he's played one pretty good game (which ended in a loss), two where the defense gave up under 10 points which allowed the run game to carry him, and two of the legitimately worst QB games of all-time in his five games this season. No QB in the last five years of Panthers football has looked even close to as bad as he did in the Rams and Bengals games. Not Cam Newton, not Kyle Allen, not Darnold, not Teddy Bridgewater, not Mayfield. And he's done barely anything to balance it out besides happening to be playing in a couple of games where the defense balled out.
People were quick to call all of the above five QB's failures, all of which with comparably much better play than Walker. Why do you think people are so eager to give him the benefit of the doubt? — Jarod, Indianapolis, IN
The transitive property, maybe? Recency bias, perhaps?
I mean, it's fair to suggest that Walker suffers from the soft bigotry of low expectations. Being the most consistent Panthers quarterback this season is not the same as being good. But Walker was quite good against the Buccaneers and perfectly acceptable in both Falcons games. The Rams game was called to keep him from messing it up in Wilks' first game in charge, and the Bengals game was a superfund site.
It's just that Mayfield started the year off in a rough place and continued to get worse, and people remember the middle-of-last-year Sam Darnold more than the first four games of last year Sam.
So with Walker still on the mend, it's Darnold this week, and we'll see how that goes.
And yes, it's a little weird to hear people clamoring for Walker, but that's got more to do with the company he keeps than him. He's talented enough, his teammates believe in him, and he got them into the only thing resembling a rhythm they've seen this year. He's also been less reckless with the ball than he had been in the past (two touchdowns and eight interceptions his first two years, three and thee this year). It's not great, but great's not really on the menu at the moment.
What's the top five look like in your Thanksgiving power rankings? — Will, Rock Hill, SC
1) Gratitude and helping others.
2) Seeing one's people — the ones you're related to, and the ones you choose.
3) Not exploiting and displacing native peoples for the benefit of me and my colonizer friends.
4 tie) That weird stuff with the sausage and peppers and wild rice my sister-in-law makes, and old-school green bean casserole.
5) Listening to Alice's Restaurant on repeat in the car at least 3.8 times because that's how long it takes to get to mom and dad's.
Perhaps I've mentioned this in the past. If you are able to write or read about football on the internet in your leisure time, you're already among the most fortunate one percent of people to ever walk the Earth. Not everybody is, and there are groups here in town like Roof Above and Loaves and Fishes who are out there helping our neighbors who need a hand. It'll definitely make you feel better than spending money on stuff on Friday.
But back to the point, Thanksgiving is usually one of the best things all year because it gives us a chance to remember and appreciate what's good.
For those of you not old enough to remember, we used to have these things called radios in our cars, and you were pretty much limited to whatever came on them. And on Thanksgiving, that meant some DJ who needed a bathroom break or a nap was going to play Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant a time or nine because it's about 19 minutes long.
We also had these things back when I was growing up called protest songs, and this is one of the best ones in history, delivered slowly, with more of a sense humor and less of the righteous indignation but still plenty of both. It's about ending war in particular, but injustice everywhere in general. And there's a generation of us who grew up realizing we were stuck on the Group W bench, so we're just playing with the pencils and waiting for it to come around again on the guitar. We're not proud. Or tired.
Anyway, this song triggers a sense memory for me, and maybe 50 percent of my kids have grown to secretly appreciate it whether they'll say it or not, after being subjected to it when their dad said, "OK, it's my turn with the aux cord, and I'm only going to listen to one song." Do that enough years, and it becomes a tradition.
Traditions matter. Hang onto them and your people while you can.
(Another quick aside: Last year, we had everything laid out and ready to finish the sides we had to take to a dear friend's house. But some jerk had used the cream of mushroom soup at some point in the 11 months prior, and Harris Teeter was closed already. Have no fear, the Friendly Mart around the corner had it on the back shelf, next to the Spaghetti-Os and tonic water and deodorant, and I got an extra tin of Vienna sausages and some emergency jerky while I was there. Things work out sometimes, even if you have to pay $3.79 for a can of condensed soup.)
I was listening to Augusta and you discuss the state of Baker and the QB room in the 67 percent Happy Half Hour (Happy Thirduva Hour?). As a Baker fan from his Texas Tech days, his story has always been that his best ball is played when he maybe doesn't have the most team-centric mentality. Obviously, we aren't in the Animal House anymore and maturity is the minimum for the leader of a franchise, but why does it feel like the more he matures off the field the less he produces on the field? — Nate, Grand Prairie, TX
If that's the case, maybe he should start a food fight.
When Baker came here, I told his people I didn't care what reporters in Cleveland said he was like; I could watch him for myself and see what he was all about. And here's what I know (source, my two eyes) in terms of all the stuff outside the lines.
When he got hurt, he busted his tail to get back. More than one member of the organization watched him work out prior to the Rams game and the Bucs game and raved about the toughness and dedication he was showing in trying to get back.
And when he was healthy and backing up Walker, he might not have loved it, but he didn't sulk and was out there head-butting teammates without a helmet as a show of solidarity. The people in the locker room with him appreciated it. It would have been easy for him to check out. He didn't.
We'll see what happens this week, now that he's been replaced by Darnold. That'll be another test of that maturity. The trade deadline has come and gone, and he's a free agent in seven weeks anyway, so all of these questions seem pretty temporary.
Personality-wise, he's been fine. He just hasn't played well.
Huge fan of your writing; it makes me smile and laugh too. You write like you're speaking, and that's an easy read. Thank you for that. As mentioned before, I'm a huge Panthers fan since '95; I brought NC BBQ to Mo. in the wintertime, and I sell Tex-Mex to change things up, but my customers still ask for the vinegar-based bbq sauce. I didn't put it completely on the shelf for the winter in case they'd like some. That being said, everyone wants to know the now on all three of the active quarterbacks. Can you chat about our future QB in Matt Corral? Is he in the film room learning to study other defenses? Is he in the QB rooms during the week to ask and learn from others? How's his recovery coming along? Or is he just sitting on the couch at home playing PlayStation while eating his BBQ sandwich with East Carolina vinegar sauce? — David, Farmington, MO
Thanks, David, that's kind of you to say. I talk a lot, and that's just how it comes out.
Corral is still in the process of recovery from the preseason foot injury, still getting around in a boot but off his little scooter device. He's here getting treatment and working out with the athletic training staff as he can.
He's also in meetings and on the practice field, absorbing as much as he can.
It's impossible to know what comes next, with so much uncertainty on the coaching staff and the depth chart around him. He's under contract for next year, which is more than any of the rest of them can say, but beyond that, it's hard to know what's next.
Next year's coach, next year's coordinator, and next year's draft will have a lot to do with that.
Let's go lightning round (brought to you by Jeff in Fuquay-Varina) to close it out this week:
What do you rank, in order, as the top three most important Thanksgiving side dishes and desserts? — Eric, Brick, NJ
In addition to the aforementioned weird stuff with the sausage and peppers and wild rice my sister-in-law makes and old-school green bean casserole, there a few musts. 1) Dressing (not stuffing) since you've got to lay down a good base. 2) Gravy to keep the skids greased, as it were. 3) Something light and airy for dessert, like a good pound cake. On Friday, we have water and a celery.
Could Panthers legend Brandon Zylstra play GK for Canada in Qatar? — Aharon, Curitiba, Brazil
This is a trick question, Aharon. Brandon Zylstra can do anything.
No question, Darin, just a word of encouragement to let you know I love your article each week and look forward to reading it. Your humor is great - I get you. Your answers are honest and insightful. Your commentary is thoughtful. Again, no question. Keep up the great work! — Tracy, Lewisville, NC
Thanks, Tracy, if that's your real name. (Immediately begins wondering what Tracy's actually up to.)
Will you add Cam Newton back and bench Baker and Sam? — Owen, Plainfield, IN
Can somebody go get Owen out of Uncle Mike's trunk?
Happy Thanksgiving everybody, go make somebody else's day easier instead of harder.