CHARLOTTE — I'm just spitballing here, but I think, after doing this for a minute, that the only thing more vast and limitless than space is the number of football fans who want to play the backup, no matter what the position.
I mean, especially quarterbacks, but I've got to hand it to you people this week; there are some deep cuts in this Mailbag, some real Rush 2112-level stuff you never hear on the radio.
The Panthers have played three games so far, one result they enjoyed and two they did not. There were some common threads to all three games, and honestly, even the one they won was probably closer than it should have been. But the most important thing to remember is that there have been exactly three of them.
Yesterday, live on my TV (itself a miracle of technology), I watched the by-God American heroes at NASA steer a payload roughly the size of Derrick Brown into a flying rock 7 million miles from here. They called it DART, for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, because it's great when science and art work together, and our Derrick Brown-sized spaceships have cool names.
They did this by having courage and foresight (and also lots and lots of math). Ten months ago, a rocket was launched into the way-out-there. Inside it, a box they kept saying was as big as a vending machine intercepted a little moonlet called Dimorphos which circles around an asteroid called Didymos, and slammed into the moonlet on purpose. AND IT SENT US PICTURES DURING THE SLAMMING. It was as if Brian Burns was wearing a GoPro on an unblocked speed rush.
Now, all the people who think Bruce Willis and Aerosmith are actual astronauts immediately want to know if we blew it up. Settle down, cowboys; that's not what we're going for. We've got to let our scientists stare into the telescopes for a couple of days or weeks to see if its orbit is any different. We're just trying to nudge it a little, to see if one day we can, you know, keep another one from hurtling into Earth and causing a mass extinction event. No big deal, just planetary survival. But we won't know whether it worked for a minute.
Likewise, it's going to be hard to tell if the Panthers have actually changed the trajectory of a season by beating the Saints. I mean, maybe, but we can't honestly know that yet. But how cool is it that we saw Derrick Brown flying through space, and he made a one-handed interception? That's what happened here, people.
Thus inspired (and if you're not inspired by space travel I'm not sure if we can be friends), let's look at the mail:
What do you see as the root cause for our offensive woes? Is it QB play, O-line play, WR not getting separation, play calling? The only thing that seems to be consistently working is handing the ball to Christian McCaffrey. I think all of those things are contributing, but which one do you think is the biggest? — Tim, Harrisburg, NC
The answer — like to the question of what lies beyond the surly bonds of Earth — is all of the above.
Listen, Baker Mayfield's not playing great at the moment. He's completing 51.9 percent of his passes (31st in the league) for 183.3 yards per game (the league average is 231.1). His passer rating is a pedestrian 80.8 (which is 25th in the league).
He hasn't turned it over (one interception), but he's not making nearly enough plays.
As head coach Matt Rhule pointed out Monday, it's also not all on him. Receivers have to run routes at the correct depth every time, so he can develop a rhythm with them. The pass protection has to be consistent, so he can learn what the pocket feels like and not run himself into trouble. The play-calling has to put him in a position to succeed.
And all that stuff needs to work more often on third downs, as the Panthers are 31st in the league in conversions there (27.0 percent). If you don't convert third downs, you don't get enough plays, and if you don't run enough plays, eventually, a defense is going to wear out.
But when we start looking for easy answers, we almost always come back to the quarterback and the coach. That's the nature of the business. All the other stuff needs to be more polished, but Baker's got to play better than he has. Is it reasonable for him to be a fully integrated Panthers quarterback after training camp and three regular season games? Probably not. But they're also in it at the moment, and they can't go back and trade for him in April so he can have OTAs.
There are a lot of things they need to be more efficient at. But him completing more passes is a big one.
OK, Darin, it was a good win Sunday, but I'm concerned about the offense. DJ Moore is not involved enough. Baker doesn't look like he's comfortable with the offense yet. Do you think within the next week or two that the offense will look like we expect it to? — Michael, Marion, NC
In three weeks, Moore has seven catches for 88 yards and one touchdown. That's not enough catches. Or yards. Or touchdowns.
Moore's been one of the most consistent players in the league (three straight years of 1,100-plus yards), despite never having what you'd call ideal quarterbacking around him at any point in his career. But he's still put up numbers, which makes me think he ought to begin to at some point.
But this is also the least-productive three-game stretch of his career since the first three games of his rookie season (in which he had two catches for 54 yards).
Getting him more involved is obviously something they want to do and need to do. He and Mayfield made some plays in training camp, so there's no reason to think they can't connect. But having his ability to make plays in traffic and then get to the open field is clearly important to the offense and will help open up so many things.
It was always going to take time. It is taking time. Having Moore more involved will be one of the things that will let us know when Mayfield's feeling more comfortable.
How close are we to fans calling for Sam Darnold to come back? — Josh, Oceanside, CA
First-time submitter (ASU '87). With Darnold set to come off IR in a couple of weeks, what's the chance that Rhule reopens the QB competition and gives Sam a chance at the wheel? — Bradley, Nellysford, VA
Never mind rockets hitting moving targets 7 million miles away. That train is never late.
The backup quarterback is always the most popular quarterback on the roster in the minds of many fans (even when the starter and the backup change roles). So having people ask about Darnold is not surprising.
Sam's moving around well, but he's still a week from being eligible to be activated after his preseason ankle injury that landed him on IR. After Week 4, they'll have a decision to make with PJ Walker, too. Because Walker is so experienced, he's helpful running the scout teams and the various looks they see in practice (6-foot-6 Jacob Eason ain't the guy you want replicating Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray in practice this week).
Sam had a fine preseason, but it's way too soon to start this up already. Although, I guess Josh just did. Thanks, Josh. Bradley gets a pass as a first-timer because when he said ASU '87, that means he's even older than me.
Sorry for the long question, but I need to explain myself with this one: Ever since Luke Kuechly left, we haven't really had a star at the linebacker position, and in my opinion, that affects our defense more than people think. We may be a stout defense, but as of Week 2, we hadn't yet forced a turnover (I think), and we don't really make "big plays" on defense; we just don't give up big plays. I think the coaching staff should consider moving Jeremy Chinn back to linebacker. I understand that if a player is equally adept at two positions, he should play the one where he can play a longer career, but I don't think Chinn is equally good at the positions. He is a good safety, but he was a great linebacker, and in today's league, great linebackers can carry a defense (see Fred Warner, Darius Leonard, and of course, Luke in the past). I especially remember that Vikings game where Chinn was ELECTRIC. My point is our linebackers have been average at best since Luke left. But Chinn was special there because he was great against the run but could also cover like a safety. I know the likelihood that the coaches move him back to LB because of a fan's opinion is essentially zero. But is there any scenario where you see Chinn going back to his best position other than every LB on the roster getting injured? Again, sorry for the long question, I'm just passionate about this team being the best it can be, and I think that's with Chinn at 'backer. — Grant, Gahanna, OH
I've said it before and will say it again (#selfawareness): Panthers fans have become a little spoiled by always having elite inside linebacker talent, from Sam Mills to Micheal Barrow to Dan Morgan to Jon Beason to Luke Kuechly. I can't think of a non-Chicago NFL city with that kind of lineage at the position.
As to Chinn moving back to the line of scrimmage, Grant's not the only one who's been wondering about that (especially because Marquis Haynes Sr.s' fumble recovery touchdown Sunday was the first defensive score since Chinn hit the daily double against Minnesota).
And seeing him flying around blitzing more on Sunday was also a reminder of how impactful Jeremy can be near the line of scrimmage. I don't know that a 215-pound guy really wants the constant banging in the box (and his uncle, Hall of Fame safety Steve Atwater, concurs), but he's good there.
I think the answer falls somewhere in the middle, and keeping him at safety while letting him roam a bit could create more plays. But the backup safeties on the roster at the moment are mostly special teams guys, so they'd likely need to adjust the roster a bit if Jeremy was going to play closer to the line of scrimmage more often.
They love to have him making big plays, but they also want him to continue to be available, so navigating those competing interests will always be a delicate balance.
Hi Darin! After a win, I guess you'll see more questions in line with what Kristen and Augusta asked you on the Happy Half Hour podcast!
Anyway, my question: After the defense kind of correcting some issues after they happened - run defense and lack of turnovers - do you think the offense can follow in becoming more efficient/explosive/any kind of rhythm? The continuity of the OL and the run game being OK/good is a plus for that to happen, but how confident are you in the passing game improving significantly? Thanks! — Fernando, São Paulo, Brazil
First off, thanks for listening to the Happy Half Hour. Last week was a very special episode. We laughed, we cried, and neither was because of the football. That's what happens when you're around cool people — cool stuff and genuine moments happen. Tune in this week and see what we come up with next (in the business, we call that a tease).
As for the offense, that one gets a big ol' "We'll see."
They're going to have to smooth out those rough edges in the passing game for any of it to work coherently, and that's a work in progress.
It was nice to see a win this Sunday. Hopefully, another one shines down this week when I get to come to my first home game! Of course I'll be repping the Mailbag as well as the team.
Anyway, since this is Sam Mills Week, do you have a favorite Sam Mills story or moment? — Jake, Rochester, NY
There are so many to choose from; it's honestly hard. And celebrating Keep Pounding week this weekend is going to bring back a flood of memories. The football stuff is one thing. I mean, Sam Mills created something out of nothing in three places in his career, helping legitimize the USFL and lead a dominant Philadelphia Stars defense to all three of that league's championship games (winning two). He helped the Saints to the first winning records and playoff berths in that franchise's history. Then he led the expansion Panthers to the NFC Championship Game in their second year of existence.
And I mean, you're not supposed to go from being a shop teacher at a New Jersey high school to being a 27-year-old NFL rookie to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's not just one of the best stories in the history football; he's one of the best stories in the history of stories.
So the interception against the Jets for the first Panthers win ever was great, and picking off Troy Aikman in the playoffs to effectively end the Cowboys dynasty was great, but after months of reporting about Mills this spring and summer leading up to the Hall of Fame induction weekend, what kept coming through was the kind of person Sam Mills was.
He grew up in New Jersey with a guy named Eddie Balina. They stayed close over the years.
So in 1995, Balina was hoping to get his son Andrew a jersey of his favorite player. But in New Jersey, they didn't exactly have a lot of stock of Carolina Panthers jerseys on the shelves.
"I made mention of it, and Sam said not to worry about it; he'd take care of it," Balina recalled. "So Sam starts driving around to every sporting goods store in Charlotte, and walking in and saying: 'Hey, do you guys have my jersey?' He said he had to go to six or seven different places, and he called me and laughed and said, 'Ed, I felt like Rodney Dangerfield; I'm getting no respect.'"
He finally found the jersey and shipped it to his friend in time to make Christmas a little more special for a child.
"I think my son wore that jersey every day," Balina said. "I mean, who does that? But that's who Sam Mills was."
Humble. Unassuming. Loyal. Always thinking of others. That was Sam Mills.
There were tons of stories like that. We collected a lot of them this summer. You can still see our full archive of Mills content here, which will get you prepped for the weekend.
After three games, what are your thoughts on the offensive line play? — Mark, Ponca City, OK
It's been what they needed it to be, which is to say, better.
Last year was kind of a mess. So they spent money and draft picks to fix it. First-rounder Ikem Ekwonu still has to get better at pass protection, but that was kind of anticipated.
The run-blocking has been quite good, and they're particularly stout in the middle.
Mostly, it's been the same, which is a good thing. The starting five linemen have played every snap in all three games. After they used 14 different starting lineups in 17 weeks last year, that might be the most amazing stat of the season. That's rare in the NFL, but it's what they need to continue to build on.
I'm wondering about the struggles an "improved" offensive line seems to be having. I love that Baker's willing to take the blame as a leader, but he's constantly dealing with opponents in his backfield. What can be done at this point to help this line solidify? Change in coaching, trade(s), Schemes. Is Ickey the answer, or does he need to sit and learn? What about a possible Brady Christensen at LT, Pat Elflein at LG, Bradley Bozeman at C, Austin Corbett at RG, and Taylor Moton at RT lineup? We can't fully judge Baker's performance unless we say we gave him an honest shot. — Justin, Sunset Beach, NC
Oh, here we go with the lineup changes. Again, one of the early hallmarks of this line, and one of the most needed aspects, is continuity. I like letting Ekwonu and Christensen grow together, and they haven't been so egregious in pass protection as to be worth messing with the long-term plan.
Also, Elflein has been quite good at center this year. We saw last year when he played guard out of necessity that it's not his best spot (though playing next to an undersized Matt Paradis didn't help matters).
Elflein is tough in the middle, but mostly he's smart. His ability to call out protections at the line is critical for them, and he's a steadying influence for Christensen.
I didn't think we'd get to the point where people were calling for Ekwonu's job three games into his rookie year, but life comes at you fast.
Straight and to the point: Do you know why we haven't seen more of D'Onta Foreman at running back? Obviously, we have CMC, and Chuba Hubbard ran well Sunday but it seems to me we could use that big body on short yardage. — Graham, Burgaw, NC
Do you think Foreman will get any substantial playing time? — Kevin, Waller, TX
The backup running back, like the backup quarterback, also gets more popular the less people see of him.
I think this one will sort itself out with time. Foreman showed last year in Tennessee that he could carry the load for a team when Derrick Henry was out. I think he's one of those backs who needs more carries to get into a rhythm, so seeing him a snap or two at a time might not allow him to be his best self.
Since McCaffrey's health will remain a storyline until it isn't, they brought Foreman here for a reason. And I suspect that as the season goes on, they'll try to get him more involved, even when McCaffrey is well. But as with many things on the offense, it's still in the development phase.
As a UNC and Panthers fan, I get a sort of whiplash between Saturday and Sunday, going from a team with a prolific offense and a (I'll put it nicely) poor defense to a team with a very strong defense and a stagnant offense. From this back-and-forth type of viewer experience for many Carolina-based football fans, my buddies and I have argued if we would rather a team that will have to win in a shootout like UNC and depend on maybe three defensive stops a game, or if we'd rather have a stout defense like the Panthers and an offense that we just have to hope can put together three good drives a game and get the defense some rest before they eventually break. Obviously, comparing the college game to the NFL is very different, but I was just wondering what your thoughts might be on this.
I've become a recent reader of the column because I finished my fun days of college and now sneak-read articles at my desk while at my first real job, and it's always a nice break during the day to think of how they will break my heart next. Almost as bad as App may have broken yours this past weekend. Cheers! — Jonny, Chapel Hill, NC
You know this is weird; I've never known UNC fans to gloat. I actually missed the Appalachian loss to James Madison this weekend to go to Farm Aid instead (seeing a still-going-strong Willie Nelson close a show with a good old-fashioned gospel singalong will always lift my spirits). But thanks, Jonny.
I was actually at the UNC-Appalachian game a few weeks ago, and it was agonizing (scoring 40 points in the fourth quarter and losing is not normal). I think I prefer depending on defense, not that either one of us would know anything about it based on the college game.
And in the spirit of grace and friendly competition, I'll go ahead and make Jonny this week's Friend Of The Mailbag and get him a shirt on the way. It's a better shade of blue, at least, so he'll look more stylish. Thanks for reading at work; I'm totally not calling your boss to report you.
Let's go lightning round to close it out this week:
Wondering what happened to the "involvement of tight ends" regarding our new offensive coordinator's plans? Seems as though the number of targets has been minimal up to this date and seems contrary to what he had indicated. — Tim, Fairhope, AL
They are very involved — as blockers. As with most things offense, this is still a work in progress, and the run game is what's working, so they're leaning on that.
Why won't the coaches insert Rashard Higgins into the mix? He had a strong training camp, 600 yards and four touchdowns last year, and presumably some chemistry with Baker. Look what happened when we actually got the ball into Laviska Shenault Jr.'s hands. — Rob, Charlotte
That's just it — Shenault was the other receiver last week, and until they get the ball to DJ and Robbie Anderson more consistently, getting it to a fourth or fifth option isn't as much of a priority.
Great game last Sunday. I am so excited to get a mark in the win column. I only have one question for you. Since it is an afternoon game, we have a little extra time to prepare. Should we go with a low country boil for the tailgate? — Michael, Rock Hill, SC
Fantastic idea, especially if I'm invited.
Will the Panthers start linebacker Brandon Smith? I think he will elevate our defense, do you? — Quincy, Graniteville, SC
Oh, this is getting excessive when we get down to rookies who would have to replace some decent vets. But it's that time of year.
How is Derek Wright doing on the practice squad? He was getting first-team reps and looked like a feel-good surprise of training camp. Might we see him sometime soon? — Steve, Landrum, SC
Yeah, it might be time to call this one, when we're talking about practice-squaders at positions where they can't get the guys on the active roster enough snaps. (Although Wright had a great camp. All he does is get open and catch things. And a dear friend of mine who's a Utah State guy raves about the way Wright overcomes every adversity.)
I know you're a space nerd. You totally watched that rocket hit the asteroid, didn't you? — Will, Mint Hill, NC
I watched it live. I hit rewind. I watched it again. I watched people talk about it. I read about it. I can't get enough of it.
What can I say? I'm inspired by the quest to reach beyond what we can see and explore the farthest reaches of the universe. I've always been fascinated by astronomy, which is why I'm a charter member of the William Herschel Society. You should come to one of our meetings, we probe the mysteries of the universe, and really get to the bottom of the important questions.