CHARLOTTE — What a time to be alive.
It feels safe to say that exactly zero people expected what happened at Bank of America on Sunday, or at least to happen quite the way it did. Feels like the same could be said for the season as a whole since the Panthers have already fired a coach, hired an interim coach who can call back to a past that people loved, traded their best and most recognizable player in Christian McCaffrey because it was the prudent thing to do, and plowed through enough quarterbacks to fill an offseason. They're also simultaneously a game out of first in the division, and in position to pick in the top five of next year's draft. Also, it's Week 8.
This is a lot of stuff happening here all at once, but this is also why you go see the thing, because you never know what's going to happen. Stick with me here, there's a point. My favorite singer is a semi-famous English punk-rocker turned folk singer but really still a punk-rocker at heart named Frank Turner. I've seen him exactly seven times over the last six years, and he's performed my favorite song of his at a concert I was at exactly zero times, though I did get a terrible selfie with him once, and he complimented my T-shirt. But I also saw the Rolling Stones a couple of times more than 25 years apart, and they played one of the Keith Richards-led semi-rarities which I really enjoy both times, and while I did not get a selfie with Keith, Mick and I do share a fondness for the Thirsty Beaver. Go figure.
That's a roundabout way of saying you never know what you're going to get when you walk into a venue because I promise you, there was no reason to expect the Panthers were going to give Tom Brady and the Buccaneers a right and proper thrashing on Sunday.
Not with an interim coach, an interim quarterback, an interim backfield, and an interim secondary by the end of the game. None of this makes any sense. And it's possible that it might not matter, but that's not the point right now. The point right now is the right now, and the right now is kind of fun to watch unfold, honestly.
And speaking of making sense, this week's mail is kind of a hoot. You can divide these things into two categories — the mail that came in After Sunday's game, and the mail Before Sunday which was mostly about that one thing and had a drastically different tone. The BS letters this week might actually be my favorite since they represent a pretty histrionic mood swing, so let's start there:
Why on Earth, when this has been the best weapon we have had in years, would we get rid of CMac?I have friends telling me that they are jumping ship. I stand firm but WHHHHHYYYYY? — Sean, Fayetteville, NC
So the team is going for the first pick in the draft next year now? Since they are giving away our best players. — Raymond, Fayetteville, NC
What's going on with the Panthers? Are we cleaning houses? I have never seen them in this situation before. Keep Pounding. — Wayne, Cornelius, NC
Look upon these BS (Before Sunday) questions and despair, and these are only some of the BS-iest. (There's a lot of BS in this here Mailbag, trust me.)
The thing about it is, I totally get the emotional reaction to trading McCaffrey to the 49ers for four draft picks. Because draft picks are in the future, and nobody has a jersey with a question mark on the front and FUTURE PICK on the back (though that would be cool).
Christian was, and remains, amazing at football. He makes plays that defy the laws of gravity and physics. He was a little guy excelling at a big man's sport, and he was the one guy here they could consistently count on to make plays.
But he's also a premium running back on a premium contract, and running backs are more like sports cars than Toyota Camrys in that you don't buy them anticipating them to age well or be maintenance-free. You're buying them for the thrills, and he provided plenty.
But the combination of the Panthers' situation and his deal (this offseason's restructure which moved his base salary to the league minimum [while still paying him]) made him a portable asset. And a valuable one. Many teams were interested. At least three were somewhat serious, and two were very serious. By leveraging those two against each other, the Panthers got a collection of picks roughly worth a late first-rounder.
Does it hurt fans at an emotional level? Of course it does. Fans have invested energy and resources in coming to see him for years, and that's not nothing. But if you let Sentimental Heart make all your football decisions, you inevitably make some bad ones. If you ask Logical Brain what you should do, you're more often than not going to reach a different conclusion.
A million years ago, the Colts got a second and a fifth for an in-his-prime Marshall Faulk, who is as close a parallel to a healthy McCaffrey as there is.
The return for Christian McCaffrey was a good one. It won't matter if they don't use the picks effectively, but the deal gives them options they didn't have going into last week. Logical Brain declares it the right thing to do.
Good morning Darin! Would you kindly put in a word to DJ Moore on behalf of the fans? He certainly has a habit of taking his time getting up after he makes a play. As a man of advanced age yourself, you must know the kind of stress that can put on a fan's heart. (I kid, I kid)
We don't even ask that he pop back up immediately, as we all know he is a man of high effort and needs the extra couple of seconds rest. Instead, maybe ask him to give us a quick thumbs up or something while he is hanging out, just so we know he is OK. Thank you in advance for passing on our concerns! — Eric, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Yeah, DJ does have a bothersome habit of staying on the ground longer than maybe he should, and I get that it makes people nervous, including a number of his co-workers. To get to the bottom of this, I committed a journalism and asked Moore on Monday why he had to be so extra all the time.
"Bring the dramatics. Got to be dramatic about it," Moore said with a laugh. "I have to catch my breath sometimes."
Asked if he's been doing this since college, Moore replied: "That's a going-back-to-little-league kind of thing, just being dramatic, having a little fun with it."
Moore hit the deck near the end of a training camp practice this summer and hammed it up more than normal that day. And even though he understands it probably scares coaches as well as the athletic training staff, he kind of gets a kick out of it.
"But I think they're getting used to it," Moore said of head athletic trainer Kevin King and his staff. "Because they don't run out there as fast as they used to."
There you have it. DJ Moore is here for the drama. Confirmed.
First time "Asking The Old Guy," so please be nice. I am so happy for our team! I will admit I started believing all the noise about us tanking our season for the draft picks next year but I am so thrilled that the guys are not doing that! We have way too much talent on defense and offense to let that happen. I am also so relieved to hear that we are not planning on letting DJ, Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, or Jaycee Horn go. I know we need some QB help, but we have so many pieces in place. I will miss CMC terribly as a person and player but I feel like what happened on Sunday is very eye-opening and that we still have some good days ahead this season.
I guess my question is, does the team really believe in themselves now? I was at the 49ers game and it was pretty terrible. The atmosphere was just stagnant, and it felt like that from the fans to the players. We'll be back on the 11th, and I hope the stands are filled with our fans and a sense of hope. There is so much season left, and I just want everyone to believe we can make something of this season. I know it was one game on Sunday, but there was so much that was so exciting, and I hope the team can build off the momentum. Do you feel a new energy in the building now? — Alyson, Wake Forest, NC
What a breath of fresh air Alyson is, with all her hope and exclamation marks (and there was a smiley face emoji thingee in there too). Just for that, I'm making her this week's Friend Of The Mailbag, and will be getting the appropriate honorarium on the way to her soon in hopes she'll come back.
The short answer to your question, Alyson, is yeah. Pretty much.
The enthusiasm for that first win under interim coach Steve Wilks was tangible, but it wasn't just for him. These guys who had been getting kicked around a bit lately wanted it for themselves too. That's why they were dancing in the locker room long after Wilks had left it to them, that's why they were shouting, that's why they were encouraging each other at a pace and volume which we haven't seen around here in some time. When they beat New Orleans here earlier this season, it was more of a sense of relief. Sunday was more unfiltered and unrestrained joy.
That's why I asked Burns when he had ever seen it quite like that in the locker room (he got here in 2019, so they're now 17-39 since he arrived).
"Like this? I don't know, I don't think it's ever quite been like this," Burns said with a laugh. "You'd have thought we won the damn Super Bowl. We've been through a lot the last two weeks and this whole year, actually. We deserved it."
It was not, in fact, the Super Bowl. And at a certain point, you can't treat every win like that. But they're not at an "act like you've been there before" stage in this team's development because most of them haven't been. So let them enjoy it while it lasts.
Good morning Darin; I have two questions for you today. 1) What was the difference between this week against the Bucs and the previous six weeks? Are players finally buying into Ben McAdoo's offensive system? Is not having CMC actually benefiting us? (Not a slight towards CMC) Is Wilks doing things differently? 2) I listened to last Monday's Panther Talk on the radio, and the guys brought you in for an interview. You/they mentioned giveaways for participating in "Ask the Old Guy." My question is, are there gifts?! What the heck Darin, are you holding out on us? I'm not mad; I'm just disappointed. Keep Pounding — Cody, Four Oaks, NC
Oh yes, Cody, there are fabulous gifts. Each week, the Friend Of The Mailbag gets a fine item that many aspire to but few attain. Look at how excellent Every Day Susan looks in hers.
And now Alyson, because she's so nice, gets to join a club more select than the Pro Football Hall of Fame (seriously, there are more than 350 gold jackets, they'll let anybody in there). We're going to get another shipment out soon so all the cool kids like Alyson and the rest of the recent FsOTM can be stylish. So try doing something other than begging next time, Cody.
To your first question, everything worked a little better — last week.
It's unreasonable to think that an offense is better without McCaffrey, and sometimes when guys get their backs up against the wall; they fight harder. I do think they simplified some things for both PJ Walker and the guys in the backfield, and if D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard keep running the way they did last week (a season-high 173 yards on the ground), then maybe we look deeper into the phenomenon. But for now, I'm going to ask everyone to pause and consider the small sample size and maintain perspective for a moment.
Except for Alyson. I want everyone to be as happy as Alyson.
Hey Darin. I've been ringing the Bradley Bozeman bell as loudly as anyone since the preseason. I don't think it's a coincidence that the O-Line did so well upon his first start. His performance, combined with his community impact, should keep him in Carolina beyond this season. So, like, do we finally have our line in place? — John, Matthews, NC
Maybe, but part of this is up to Bozeman himself. He's the one member of this (actually quite good) starting offensive line that isn't under contract for next season. But he and his family did move here this offseason because they wanted to be here (and he had options), so you never know how that's going to play out.
But it's easy to recognize when someone is genuinely working to become part of a community and actually dig in here and become one of us. You can't fake that. And Bradley and his wife Nikki are absolutely becoming Charlotteans as quickly as they're becoming part of the Panthers family.
On the field, he's got an opportunity with Pat Elflein on IR to establish himself in the middle. He might have been the starter anyway, but a preseason ankle injury helped tilt a reasonably even competition, which might have gone his way otherwise.
Bozeman's bigger than Elflein, and stronger. Taylor Moton calls him "Big Bear" for a reason. (Nothing against Elflein, who played better than people wanted to give him credit for this year, but he's a more athletic guy, better able to get to the second level. Bozeman is more of a mauler.)
The business side will always be a factor for free agents, but one does get the sense that he likes it here (and if you stay tuned here to Panthers.com, there's a good chance you'll find out more about Bozeman in the coming days).
Ignoring all the rumors of other teams trying to trade for him, because why wouldn't you want to since he's already a star that just keeps getting brighter, have there been any discussions about a new contract for Brian Burns yet? Or is that something that would become more likely to happen after the end of the season? — Eric, Brick, NJ
Eric's out here trying to be Brian's agent. This offseason would be more likely, for a number of reasons, some of them salary-cap-related.
As we mentioned last week, they can actually make Burns' cap number go down in 2023 with an extension (he's currently on the books for around $16 million). It's still going to cost a lot of money — a lot of actual money — but the Panthers do have some degree of time on their side. Between the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, and the chance to franchise tag him a few times, they don't have to be in a rush to do it.
All the trade rumor headlines make for fun content for the internet, but the reality is the Panthers want to keep Burns, and there's no indication he doesn't want to stay. And when you start there with a young and ascending player (he won't turn 25 until next April), it's reasonable to feel OK about the chances of something getting done.
Victory Monday! Let's just say I did not see that coming. The Panthers played well despite missing key starters. Maybe it was just a fluke, but this team and the fan base needed it. My question is about the trade deadline. I know the young core isn't going anywhere, but what about guys like Shaq Thompson, Donte Jackson, Cameron Erving, etc.? Could the Panthers get decent value for those guys while getting rid of those contracts? And lastly, could you see Carolina buying at the deadline? If yes, what position/type of player? — Jeff, Henderson, NV
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, Jeff. (A reference for the fellow olds.)
I've learned never to say never in this business, but I'd be surprised if the Panthers did much more trade deadline business.
Right now, the Panthers are swimming near the confluence of the rivers Hope and Expectation (but not the Monongahela, which is a fun word to say and something I always think about whenever anyone uses the word confluence). And that can create a bit of a tricky current to navigate.
As weird as it sounds when you're 2-5 and pretty flawed in a pretty important area (quarterback), the Panthers are very much in the division title chase. At some point, people are going to get tired of hearing about 2014, but that time is not now.
So if you're going to make a run or want to try, you kind of want Thompson and Jackson on the field. Erving's a little different case, since he's a backup, but as we explored in depth last week (about 2,600 words worth of depth that not enough of you read), Erving's also important in his own way. He's the Ickey Whisperer, and the success of rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu has something to do with the veteran counsel he gets. But he's also a free agent at the end of the year, and if someone needed an experienced tackle and wanted to give up something for one, I'm sure they'd listen.
Not saying it's impossible that they wouldn't make another move between now and Nov. 1, but as Slim Pickens' Mr. Taggart said around a pot of beans in Blazing Saddles, "I'd say you've had enough." (Another reference for the fellow olds.)
Greetings from Central Europe. Why is Scott Fitterer still in charge? "In on every deal" seems to be a fast lane to ruin the franchise. He spent a second, fourth, and sixth-round pick for Sam Darnold, a fifth (or fourth) for Baker Mayfield, a third-round pick in exchange for a fifth and CJ Henderson, and a sixth-rounder for Stephon Gilmore. None of these players hit expectations, in my opinion. Now our best offensive player CMC got traded to get all these wasted picks back. Selling the face of the franchise can't be the answer; it opens just more problems, especially for a potential new young QB, that can't rely on a good run game and a solid receiver target. In my opinion, Fitterer should be fired ASAP to prevent him from doing more damage to the franchise. — Jonas, Fahrweid, Switzerland
Dang, Jonas coming in hot, all the way from Switzerland. I thought you people were supposed to be nice, like Minnesota, but with better army knives (the Minnesota Army Knife includes a bottle opener and a walleye, only one of which is actually useful at the moment).
Fitterer's been here for two years; when all of those deals went down, that's true. He was also part of a power dynamic that has changed. Owner David Tepper admitted as much when he said he wanted more "balance" between his coach and GM in decision-making. That's not to absolve Fitterer from anything that didn't go according to the larger organizational plan (and he had input too).
There are a number of reasons the quarterback moves didn't work out, some of them systemic and some of them dumb luck. Henderson for a three still counts as a TBD to me. I'd disagree that even a half-season rental of Stephon Gilmore for a future sixth was a bad deal, even if it didn't change the trajectory of last season. (I don't place a super-high value on sixths and sevenths, and I would generally trade them for actual things when I could.) Having a former NFL defensive player of the year around young guys like Horn and Henderson and Keith Taylor Jr., and even Jackson was huge for their development, and they'll always remember those days they spent with him on the field and in meeting rooms.
It's probably unfair to assume all draft picks are going to bust, because there is a decent base of young talent around here with Fitterer and the scouting department's thumbprints on. His future's also tied to whatever they do about the head coach this offseason, so nothing around here is ever truly certain. But I'd suggest it reasonable to consider that fine Swiss watch of yours and give him a minute.
GM Fitterer used the following draft capital to bring in Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, and Matt Corral: (2nd, 4th, 6th), (4th/5th), and (4th, 3rd). Should the Panthers feel comfortable in his ability to evaluate QB talent, especially if we get a top pick in the 2023 NFL Draft? — Russell, Sudbury MA
It's open season on Fitterer all of a sudden. (This was also a BS question, though fair in its own right). And again, he didn't get to make those calls unilaterally.
But the only honest answer is, we'll see. I know he's in the process of looking.
Generally, the screens in the GM's office would be locked into game tape of the current season, and other NFL action.
It's reasonable to believe that Fitterer has had some screen time lately looking at Bryce Young and Will Levis and CJ Stroud and the rest of the college quarterbacks, and he will likely get some face time watching them at some point in the future. Until someone tells him he's no longer the general manager, he's going to generally manage, and right now, that means studying college quarterbacks. As an old road scout, he doesn't mind that, either.
Hi Darin! I found really interesting your article last week on the Panthers' cap situation. It was much needed, because I've heard a lot in the media about the supposedly bad situation that the team was in next year. Your article certainly reflects a lot better on the thinking and the actual situation of the team/cap. And that's a better one than what is portrayed in the national media in general. How much cap space do we currently have this year? I guess we can take whatever is left from this season onto the next one, right? Thanks! — Fernando, São Paulo, Brazil.
Thanks. It's not a grease fire, but I know grease fires make for better headlines (whether they're accurate or not).
Mostly, their position isn't bad because the shopping list isn't as long since they have so many starters under contract for next year. They still have 18 of 22, since, at the time of publication of that one, Elflein and McCaffrey were starting, leaving the quarterbacks and Matt Ioannidis as the only free agents heading into next offseason.
The Panthers still have a comfortable cushion for the rest of this year, around $11 million saved back for moves they might want to make (like the Gilmore trade last year) or cushion to account for injuries. The good news is, they get to carry it over.
Without getting too into the weeds of the cap in general and dead money in particular, they're in decent shape next year, considering what they're going to be in the market for — since young quarterbacks are cheap now.
In your opinion, what has been the main factor in helping Derrick Brown become the absolutely dominating player he is at the moment? We always knew he was good, but he seems to really have taken a giant leap this year. — Juan, Buenos Aires, Argentina
From a football standpoint, it's a couple of things. When Brown plays laterally, or too upright, he can get pushed out of plays. But when he's asked to penetrate at the line of scrimmage instead of holding up gaps, or when he keeps his pad level low, he can be dominant.
That's mostly what we've seen this year.
And this is me playing shade-tree psychologist, but Derrick also just seems more settled as a human being.
He got benched last season, and that got his attention, but he just seems in a better place in general now. He also talked recently about the importance of putting his phone down on the counter and being a dad when he gets home to his kids, and having that kind of balance in life can't hurt the work.
Let's go lightning round to close it out this week:
All right Darin, I'm stumped. I need a wisdom, and maybe even a journalism, to explain how that is the most electric and exciting our team has looked all season, two days after trading away one of the most electric and exciting players in franchise history. It seems counter-intuitive and backward, but I am absaluki (ask Jeremy Chinn or Madre Harper about that word) here for it. Assuming that we stay on this path, do you see them making any changes to the return teams? Shi Smith has me flinching as I watch the replay, even though I know how it all turns out. — Nate, Grand Prairie, TX
Southern Illinois represent. And I have no idea. Again, you never know what you're going to get when you go see the show.
Wilks said, "I'm OK with Shi," when asked this very question Monday, and good for him to have a young player's back, I guess. But Smith has to be more careful back there, and soon, because I don't think Wilks' patience is infinite.
What a performance by our guys vs. Tom Brady and the Bucs. It was so nice to see a team win like that at a time when we (all of us) needed it most. The team looked focused on winning the line of scrimmage and playing the game that they wanted to play, FINALLY! Isn't it kinda like PJ's job to lose now? Or will we see another "QB Competition" this week? Will Baker be ghosted during Halloween? Sorry, had to. Keep Pounding! — Paul, Wilmington, NC
I see what you did there, Paul. You remind me of that kid who came to my doorstep dressed as a goblin one year, and I told him there was no candy because I didn't celebrate Halloween. What a sucker. I can't believe anyone's that ghoul-lible.
Like Shi Smith returning punts, it appears to be PJ's job until it's not. I don't know how sustainable it is, but Wilks appears willing to roll with the hot hand. There are other hands (and ankles) that'll be ready soon, so it's hardly a lifetime appointment.
Hello, oh cheerful voice of sober expectations. How much did the Bozeman start have to do with this offensive breakout? Also, it seems like Myles Hartsfield is everywhere, no matter which studs are injured. Are we seeing another Frankie Luvu-style journeyman to difference-maker development? Lastly, though I was a lonely voice crying in the wilderness, "we're still only two games out in the division, without any of our QBs having shown up yet," do you hear the majority tone now changing to "we're only one game out in the division, we've shown what this team does with average QB play, and we have multiple guys capable of average QB play going forward?" — Dean, Zionville, NC
I'm stealing "cheerful voice of sober expectations" to put on my business card. It speaks to who I am at my core.
Bozeman, check. Hartsfield is more versatile than a Minnesota Army Knife, if not quite up to Luvu's level. Few are, but Myles has done a hard job well. As to your last point, those quarterbacks haven't been playing to a degree you'd describe as average, at least until Walker raised the bar last week.
Who will be the starting running back now that Christian has been traded? — John, Jackson, MI
The official depth chart says Hubbard, and he got the first snap (along with Raheem Blackshear in a set that featured some actual pre-snap motion), but it was mostly Foreman last week. I imagine they'll both get plenty of work. Foreman looks like one of those backs who is better when he gets a few carries in a row rather than one or two at a time.
How many roads must a man walk down before he is called a man? How many wins must a Steve Wilks have, before he is called "The Man?" — Michael, Durham, NC
The answer is either "blowing in the wind" (which that old fart Robert Zimmerman refused to sing when I saw him in March) or "a lot more than one."
Although, another famous Charlottean once said, "to be the man, you've got to beat the man," and Steve Wilks is 1-0 as a head coach against Tom Brady. Just saying.
I'd imagine you'll be getting plenty of theoretical questions this week about the quarterback(s), tanking, and going to the playoffs all in the same breath. Knowing you, you'll likely be pulling out Occam's Razor at some point as a way to answer it all. So my question/suggestion is, what do you think about Hickam's Dictum? The opposite of Occam's Razor. Essentially that there could be as many explanations for a simple question as possible. I want to hear all of them. — Micah, Meat Camp, NC
No. You just made that up. I don't know what's in the water in Meat Camp these days (actually, I have a pretty good idea).
(Even though this was an AS question, it's still a BS question. The simplest answer is always the best. Or, as someone once said, "it doesn't have to be that hard.")
See y'all next week, because there ain't no telling what's about to happen next.