CHARLOTTE — In a normal year, the future of a player like Brian Burns would likely be the main topic of the offseason.
This is not a normal year.
Because the Panthers are conducting a simultaneous coaching search and general manager search (don't forget to refresh the trackers for the latest daily), Burns could only shrug as he sat back on a recliner, practically relaxed while being asked about his potential free agency, and the likelihood of the franchise tag, and all the possibilities that swirl beyond that, depending on the priorities of the next coach and the next GM.
He just can't be certain, so he's not bothering worrying about it.
"I just know they got a lot of stuff to do, a lot of stuff to figure out. I don't think I'm number one on that list right now," Burns said Monday. (And my God, Monday feels like a year ago.)
That's the way it is with most of them. Until the players know who's coaching them or deciding on their futures, there's little use in wasting energy worrying about it. Control what you can control, etc. And that makes this a weird time for a Mailbag too, because the base answer to most of these questions is, "depends on what the next coach and GM think."
So relying on football cliches may be the best idea. There's some solid life advice in there. You'd be surprised how often you end up telling kids or co-workers to control what they can control, or to stay in their lane, to get 1 percent better every day, or that a punt is not a bad play.
Hi Darin! First, as the season just ended, I'd like to thank you and all the media team for the content provided during and before the season. I also know that the work will continue with the coaching search. So, speaking of this, I know the team had injuries at guard, and that obviously doesn't help the OL, but a lot of other teams had injuries on the OL, QB, etc (also, the Panthers' own D lost a bunch of players) and those units/teams were able to function. My question is: how confident are you that this time, the coaching staff hired (at least on offense) will be able to correctly diagnose what the players on the team can and can't do and match that to the offense designed? Thanks! — Fernando, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Well, that's the $64,000 question, isn't it? (Dated Pop Culture Reference Alert.)
Given the way last season went, one of the early questions in the interviews could be, "If you have a bag of square pegs and are given a choice of putting them into square holes or bashing them into the round holes with a hammer, which would you prefer?"
Last year's Panthers just never quite fit — player-to-player, coach-to-player, or player-to-scheme. And if nothing else, putting a coach and a GM on the same timeframe ought to help with the coherence of the strategy since they're starting from the same baseline of "fix this."
Also, I hear coaches and fans say things like "injuries are no excuse," but the plague that hit the Panthers this year at guard was Biblical. Seriously, we were a week away from the frogs and locusts playing on either side of Bradley Bozeman.
They used seven left guards, with Cade Mays getting the most snaps of any of them (363, or a good five or six games worth), followed by Chandler Zavala (297), and then Calvin Throckmorton (198). That's a 2022 sixth-rounder, a fourth-round rookie, and a dude who started the year in Saints camp and ended up on another team after he was cut by this one.
On the right, they used eight dudes, led by Throckmorton again (311), Austin Corbett (257), Nash Jensen (222), and Gabe Jackson (194). That's your journeyman, your anticipated starter, an undrafted rookie, and a 32-year-old vet who was on his couch from March until after Thanksgiving.
They got five games combined out of their anticipated starters. Every team has to be ready to adjust to injuries. No team is prepared to dip to the seventh and eighth row of the depth chart and expect things to be normal.
And they were not normal.
I have two questions to ask you:
1.) What should be the Panthers' next steps heading into the off-season after finishing the season with a 2-15 record?
2.) Who, in your opinion, could be a really good candidate to be their next head coach? — Briana, Winston Salem, NC
We get a lot of screeds here at the 'Bag. And the way last year went, many of them were angry to the point of reaching manifesto status. So it's nice when a clean, concise, short one comes in. So much so, that I'm making Briana this week's Friend Of The Mailbag, just for getting to the point.
Thus, in the spirit of her question, I will reply:
1.) Get healthy. Add help at wide receiver. Add some more line help in case it gets Biblical around here again. Figure out what to do with Burns, and reward Derrick Brown for the season he just had, and the way he works. And settle on a plan that makes sense, given your resources.
2.) Any number of people could do it. The list of candidates we know so far includes plenty of intriguing names on both sides of the ball. Most of them are the young OC types, but 57-year-old Todd Monken has the Ravens rolling and has helped Lamar Jackson look like a complete quarterback when a lot of people thought he was just a runner. But Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has a lot of admirers around the league as well, and Baltimore is clearly the kind of organization worth emulating because they've done it the right way, well, and for a long time. But there are a number of guys on that list who could work in the right setting.
Ah, that was nice.
(And, as it pertains to 2, I resisted the temptation to say: "Dan Henning, the best offensive coordinator in franchise history.")
No question this time, just a statement that this season is behind us now, and looking forward to the upcoming season. Since I am a faithful fan living in Germany, I am very, very excited to see that the Panthers will play in Munich this year. I will get my ticket as soon as they are available. I have attended a live game in Charlotte, London, and now an opportunity in Munich, Germany. GO Panthers, Keep on Pounding. — Kenneth, Stuttgart, Germany
Kenneth is one of our German FsOTM (they are very plural), so hopefully, we see him there. It's going to be exciting, and from the looks of things, Munich is excited to see us, too.
I can't wait to get there. I need some help with my German translations, as I haven't found a perfect translation for Keep Pounding yet, and 15 is my limit on schnitzengruben, but the anticipation is real.
Darin, I have noticed a very disturbing trend in both the fanbase and the ownership, a lack of patience. I am retired military, and I know it takes time for a leader to get a diverse group of people on the same page, and now we are looking at a complete revamp AGAIN. Will we, fans and ownership, give the next group the chance to build us a winning franchise? — James, Elizabeth City, NC
You don't need me to interpret David Tepper's intentions; here are the words from his own mouth.
"I would like someone to be here 20, 30 years," he said in November. "I'd like to have someone say the eulogy at my funeral in 30 years. OK, maybe 40 years."
Nobody wanted to blow the operation up in the middle of Year 1 last year, but it was going so poorly that not doing something would have entailed a risk as well. So, the change was made. Again, I think putting a new coach and GM together at the same time offers the chance for stability that everyone wants right now.
But the right now can't be the goal for anyone. Our modern society, particularly modern media, doesn't allow for reflection or nuance. The internet, in general, and Twitter, in particular, has broken our brains. A loud segment of all fanbases seem compelled to respond hysterically to every action, good or bad. When there's a gigantic reaction to every play call within a game, there's no way to accurately diagnose an entire series, much less a whole game.
And at a time when there's so much quality analysis of many topics, including football, the loudest (and often dumbest) voices are the ones getting amplified. Fewer people want to work to learn or understand or convey understanding when dunking on people and saying HURRRRRR LOOKIT THAT LOSER gets a million likes on social.
If the new coach of the Panthers loses next year's opener, all you'll hear is OHMYGODHEREWEGOAGAIN, whether it's a blowout or a one-point loss to the Super Bowl champs in which Bryce Young throws for five touchdowns.
It's all so bad and wrong and sad and tiresome. I've enjoyed using social media for a long time, and it's not like I'm going to make a spectacle of quitting; I'll still use it for work when I have to. But it's worse than it's ever been, and it's making us all dumber (except in the instances of photos of my notebooks, and Johnny Hekker giving weather reports in German). If it went away, we might not suddenly get smarter, but the peace and quiet would be nice.
Darin, I heard a stat today that our left tackle, #79, was directly responsible for 18 sacks, and almost every game, he is beaten very badly (many times without any physical touching of the defensive player rushing). My observation as a fan is that he is slow to react, off balance a lot, and simply slow and not able to maintain a blocking position. Thus, is it realistic to expect new and better coaching to make a difference? At present, our LT appears to be a liability for the long-term health and success of Bryce Young. — Andy, Summerfield, NC
This is kind of what I'm talking about in the above point.
Ikem Ekwonu did not have a great season. But to declare him a bust or a liability is, in a word, silly.
This 18 sacks thing appears to be made up, but nobody cares. I checked PFF, and they have him with 11, and that's clearly too many. But once the avalanche on social media starts, it doesn't pause to consider other factors. It's just HURRRRRR YOU STINK, and that goes viral.
Ikem Ekwonu does not stink at football.
I'm old enough to remember last season when he went 10 games without giving up a sack. I'm also old enough to remember the fundamental brokenness of this year's Panthers offense, which makes pinning anything on one particular factor intellectually lazy at best and dishonest at worst.
Ekwonu is powerful. He is athletic. He's sometimes impatient as a blocker, and when he reaches too soon, he creates the kind of out-of-balance highlight reel for the other guy that gets traction in the world. He also played with a quarterback whose depth of drops was never consistent, and that makes it hard for an offensive lineman to know where to set his landmarks. But that's a detail that takes more analysis and characters than HURRRRRR YOU STINK.
Ekwonu has work to do this offseason. He knows that. But he's also still just 23; he didn't forget how to play football last season, and he's not nearly as bad as the crowd makes it sound. Sometimes, it takes until Year 3 for an offensive lineman to develop, because it's a hard job blocking guys who are smaller and faster than you while working in unison with four other dudes, some of whom you met on Wednesday morning before practice.
Declaring Ekwonu a bust is silly and reductive, but that's what sells these days, I guess.
CAN WE PLEASE GET RON RIVERA BACK? — Kellel, Charlotte
Oh man, how have we gone this long in this Mailbag without this beauty?
Admire its purity, its earnestness.
I could be flip and say sure, why not, as long as he gets to bring Cam Newton's 2011 shoulder back in time with him. But that wouldn't be fair to him.
Ron was a fine coach for a long time and remains a wonderful human being. If Ron Rivera borrowed your lawn mower, he'd bring it back full of gas. After running his course here and new ownership moving on from him, he signed up for one of the hardest jobs in the league, and a new owner moved on from him there, too.
Personally, I'd love to see Rivera with a more comfortable job in the sport, perhaps on television or being some kind of ombudsman of football for the league office, maybe. He's the kind of honest, thoughtful, virtuous man the game needs more of. I hope he stays football-adjacent because I've never left an interaction with Ron feeling worse about life. But coaching more than 200 games in the NFL is a lot (102-103-2), and my hope for him is that he finds peace with whatever comes next because he deserves that.
With Mike Vrabel shockingly being fired, do you think he'd be a good fit for Carolina to interview? I think he matches our historic identity of playing stout defense and running the ball, and those two things have really been the only things that have helped us win recently. I know the team is wary of hiring players/coaches that are "disgruntled veterans" or just been fired like Darnold, Mayfield, Reich, but I don't think Vrabel did a bad job and actually believe he overachieved given his roster and some of his best players being traded for mediocre returns at best. I really think he could make our defense and run game even better. What are your thoughts? — Grant, Gahanna, OH
Mike Vrabel's good at coaching football. And you're probably right about the defense and run game. But that's also not the problem here.
When you invest what the Panthers have invested in a quarterback, it behooves you to maximize that investment.
That doesn't mean that you only look at offensive guys (again, there are some quality defensive coaches in our tracker who would make fine head coaches), and if they show interest in Vrabel, it's easy to justify.
I want to be a part of the front office. We need someone to bring change to the culture of the Carolina Panthers. We traded away CMC and DJ Moore, leaving us with wide receivers who can't play-make for our playmaker QB Bryce Young. We need an offensive-minded head coach because Bryce needs someone to listen to him, such as when Mike McDaniel went to Miami. Ejiro Evero did an amazing job with the defense through injuries. So upgrading him to head coach wouldn't be a mad move. My point is the Panthers are in a bad position this offseason, being without our first-round pick and having to pay Brian Burns and many more. Please take this into consideration, and even if you take this as a joke, please respond back because I'm always repping blue and black, and I want to see Bryce and this team succeed. Thank you for your time Darin. God bless. — Alan, Bayonne , NJ
Do you think we hire another "plug-and-play" like George Seifert or Frank Reich who collectively won 3 games? — Larry, Cornelius, NC
In fairness, George won 8 games in 1999 and 7 in 2000 before bottoming out at 1-15 in 2001. He was also the NFL's winningest coach ever (by percentage) and had two Super Bowl trophies on the shelf when he got here.
There's a time for an established coach. It usually comes right after a younger one is replaced. These things tend to be cyclical and reflexive. Reich was 62. Read into it what you will.
Hi Darin. My friends and family regard me as an eternal optimist. I tend to be a genuinely hopeful person. I like having a positive take on things, even during tough times. It feels good. In other words, I really try to just Keep Pounding. The glass is half full, the weather looks more gloomy than it actually is, and the Panthers will be better next year.
However, as this season rolls into the playoffs, once again without the Panthers, I feel less optimistic than I ever have. I feel the cold, grey winter closing in. I am having a hard time seeing the way forward for our franchise for the first time since we finally got an NFL team in the Carolinas during my senior year in high school. (I'm 48)
There's no way I could tolerate becoming a cynical curmudgeon, but I need a bit of help right now to remain positive about this team. For the first time in years, I was not excited about tuning in on Sundays. Even during our rough seasons, I've stayed positive. I had hope. Hope for tomorrow. Hope for next year. My life feels very solid right now, except for 3 hours each week during the Panthers game.
Please, man. Give me some hope. — Jerry, Swannanoa, NC
I've said it dozens, if not hundreds of times in this Mailbag: I am not in the hope business. That's between you and your maker.
But for a whippersnapper like Jerry, here's what I can tell you. A new coach and GM are walking into a situation with:
— The QB who was the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the league last year (not just here, don't listen to the revisionists).
— An under-contract offensive line that was a strength in 2022 and which can't possibly have worse injury luck than it did last season.
— Either a franchise-tagged Burns, who remains a top pass-rusher, or a valuable asset for a possible trade.
— Cornerstone pieces of what ought to be a good defense, including Brown, the entire secondary, and Shaq Thompson.
— The kind of alignment of front office and coaching the team hasn't known in two decades (and that worked out OK then).
Of all of them, that last part might be the most significant (though there is sufficient talent here to reasonably expect competence).
When John Fox and Marty Hurney rolled in together in 2002, they were able to build off the same platform with the same priorities. And because they agreed on those priorities, it was easier to pull off a quick turnaround from 1-15 to the Super Bowl in two seasons.
Will head coach TBD and GM TBD have the same kind of success together? We'll find out together. But the conditions they're walking into create the opportunity. The rest is on them.
But I will say the world would be a better place with more Jerrys. Approach life the way he does, and not only will your blood pressure be lower, but you'll probably find yourself running into more people with an equally positive outlook. The world may not value optimism much anymore, but I appreciate Jerry's audacious willingness to try. And if nothing else, I'll make him a bonus Friend Of The Mailbag this week and will get the appropriate honorarium on the way to him soon as a reward for looking on the bright side.
Tough season, the worst in franchise history, in fact. I'm not going to try to shove it at you, though, like some of the others may. Hope you can have a productive offseason, and if there is any performance we can count on in this organization, it is the Mailbags. Hopefully, they could maybe even go deeper into next season.
I've lost hope for a while so I won't be dramatic about the outlook of our team. After watching NFL Redzone coverage of our game last week, I figured I owed it to the boys by watching the season finale, which was the most ugly game of the season (more ugly than Atlanta). How is the morale of not just the team but the entire organization after the end? I know I'm sad not getting to watch the Panthers anymore, but maybe it is a needed break for some. Is everyone kind of ready to stop being on the grind, or is there a sense of unfinished business carrying into next season?
Hope you have a great offseason, Darin, and I hope that some of these questions can be more positive for you in the near future. As someone who wants to be a sportswriter or anywhere in the broadcast field, I do take inspiration from these Mailbags. — Sam, Asheville, NC
Thanks Sam, who may not be old enough to remember 2001. I appreciate the thoughts. (Although, sports writer is two words. The job is writer. The subject is sports. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.)
Mostly, the end of the season brings an eerie quiet. Even when things are going poorly, the routine of the year provides a steady hum of activity that at least distracts you from the bigger picture. A football operation is full of dozens of people doing their jobs as part of a larger whole. Then it all just stops: the games, the practices, the ankle-taping, the treatment, the workouts, all of it. It's like that scene in one of the regrettable new Star Wars movies when Laura Dern drives a spaceship into another one at light speed, and everything goes silent all at once. It's disconcerting.
And these are human beings. Former GM Scott Fitterer became a punch line for a lot of cheap jokes, but he's also a good and decent person with a family, and he also brought a lot of people here whose futures are now unsettled.
So, the human element is real. Guys knew walking out on Monday there were people they saw every day all season that they'd never see again. And that's always poignant.
Fresh starts also offer the opportunity for a kind of renewal, and when guys come in and hear a new message from new people, a sense of optimism will percolate up through the building. It's the circle of life. And if the wins follow, it will be a happy place again.
But morale follows results, so how the building feels nine months from now will depend on how they're able to put the team back on the right track.
This is the part of the Mailbag where I take a second to thank all the wonderful people who reached out after I wrote about my father's passing the day after Christmas. The kindnesses that were expressed to a stranger whose words you read on the internet were touching and valuable.
If you learn anything in times like this, it's the value of community. Sometimes, that's the people who come to your house and bring soup or a handmade prayer shawl; sometimes, it's the people who just come to visit, or sometimes, it's just a text or an email. The reaching out is the part that matters.
So, sincerely, thank you to everyone who did so. It matters.
And on that note, 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.
Can Bryce Young be traded before next season? — Dianne, Matthews NC
Long answer: Are any of us really untouchable? I mean, existentially, we're all day-to-day, our fates resting on the whims of a fickle universe, dependent on a million factors beyond our control.
Short answer: I guess, but he's not going to be.
Darin, you've been covering the Panthers since the start, along with Jim Szoke. But there's one other person who has been involved in every game but remains anonymous. I meant the voice of the Panthers broadcast promos in every game, on Panthers Talk, and even on the Panthers Huddle. Who is the deep voice who voices all the radio billboards on Panthers broadcasts? I know he's been there from the beginning. — Omer, Wilkesboro, NC
Omer, that mystery voice has a name, and it's JP Stevenson. He's a Houston-based voice-over specialist. Who are we kidding? He's an artist. Those pipes are a gift, and he has shared his music for a long time.
The Panthers have used other narrators for broadcast promos in the early years, but Stevenson has been doing it for the team since 2005.
Good morning, Darin. It's 30 minutes before the kickoff of the finale. No questions, just some positive influence to all the fans out there. I love the fight the Panthers have played with this season. They never gave up, and as we said in the military, adapt and overcome! We got nowhere to go but up, now and in the future. That said, Keep Pounding. — David, Farmington, MO
What could possibly go wrong?
Speaking for all of the Snap Counts readers out there: You're welcome! :) — Jan, Flat Rock, NC
Man, the people who read to the bottom of the Week 18 Snap Counts after a season like that one are my kind of people. The hard-cores, who are in it until the end. I don't mind working hard for them.
Just what have Dom Capers and Jim Caldwell added to the benefit of the Panthers this year? — C, Mt. Airy, NC
Wisdom and perspective, for two things. And as those are in short supply — and it's growing shorter by the tweet — the more, the better.