CHARLOTTE — These are the times that try men's souls. Or something.
When it comes to the Panthers at the moment, it's more pain than Paine, but there's plenty of both to go around. Actually, there's probably way less Paine because Common Sense seems to go out the window when people get emotional about the way their ball team of preference is playing.
To put it mildly, this has not gone according to plan. While it was probably unfair to expect a playoff run this year, it was also reasonable to expect more than a single win in November.
Honestly, if you asked around in July, most people thought this was a seven-to-nine-win team, and I guess it still could be, but they better hurry. And it doesn't get any easier this week when a team that just scored 49 in front of a nationally televised audience rolls into town.
Obviously, the offensive revolution is a little late-arriving. They're still in games thanks to a defense that has no right to be playing like this considering who's on the field, but that was not the recipe people were expecting.
And those expectations (and the lack of offensive continuity) have created a lot of angst. Until they play better, that will continue. And if you're following along at this point, my guess is you're in this for the long haul. It's the only real way to think at this point if you want to stay sane because the day-to-day is not offering much in the way of relief.
But, it's like that one English guy who decided there was a better way said: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it." (I'd also suggest that most of the women I know tend to support fatigue better or at least remember to unload the dishwasher after work, but let's keep our eye on the ball here.)
If you're looking for a quick fix, this probably ain't the Mailbag for you. But if you're willing to consider something beyond the right now, we can talk. And man, are some of you in the mood.
I've been a fan of the team since its inception. I've belonged to fan groups and have owned season tickets. I get to my seat early, get loud on defense, and stay quiet on offense. I've never sold my tickets to an opposing fan base. This season, I was excited for the start of a new era of Panther football, but I also knew there were going to be growing pains. I didn't panic after the bad start and still thought we picked the right QB. I even bought new gear to wear on game days to switch up the mojo.
All this to say, I've been about as diehard and, I believe, understanding a fan as possible. But now I'm worn out. I just don't see anything to be excited about or to have hope for.
Going into the year, I thought we had this awesome All-Star coaching staff, pass catchers who weren't flashy or big-time names but could do the job and provide different skill sets, and, most importantly, a stout and intact OL to protect our new franchise QB. None of those things have panned out.
We have one consistent WR who is 33 years old, our coaching staff can't scheme anyone open and doesn't appear to have any trust in letting the first overall pick throw downfield, and, most disappointingly, our OL has been a sieve in pass protection and can't get any push for running the ball. Our first-round pick from the year before has completely regressed and looks just like the LTs we've had since Jordan Gross retired.
On defense, I can respect the job they've done with all the injuries, but we're still just uninspiring. Our best two players on that side of the ball and on the team are out of contract following the conclusion of the year. Why would either want to come back? We don't scare anyone off the edges outside of Brian Burns, and watching the game on Thursday, I kept asking, "Who is that guy?!" whenever I saw our defensive backs. Our other first-rounder on that side of the ball can't play two games in a row.
To have any hope of competing, we need to re-sign Burns and Frankie Luvu, upgrade the other edge, get new CBs, get better pass catchers, and upgrade the OL. All premium positions every other team wants to get better at too. We also don't have draft capital and have shown no ability to get talent in the later rounds, and our free-agent pickups have been largely terrible.
Sorry for the diatribe, but it's how I feel and probably how a lot of other long-time fans feel. I don't want to listen to sports radio/podcasts; I don't want to read articles, and I don't even have the draft to look forward to for top prospects we could pick.
So all this to get to my question. Help? How do I and others not just become apathetic and stop caring altogether? — Tyler, Matthews, NC
As Mailbag questions go, that's some Patrick Henry stuff right there, except he got tired of waiting for liberty, and just accepted death. Or something. And every now and then, people need to vent.
I get it. I do. No matter what you thought they were going to do this year, this ain't it. In any way.
But one thing I learned a long time ago from a wise football man was that when everything's going wrong all at once, you have to be careful evaluating individual parts. As irresponsible as it would be to suggest a way they could still make the playoffs, it's as irresponsible to suggest there's no hope ever. (Although I say it here all the time, I'm not in the hope business; that's between you and your maker.)
There are some good players here. There are some that will get better when you put more around them. There are some that might develop into something more. We could make a list, but that's not the point. The point is, this year is about getting better on offense, helping the quarterback progress, and laying the foundation for what's to come in the future.
Also, for a guy who doesn't want to read the articles, my guy Tyler just sent me a 500-word email that practically is one. So, since he's not reading this one, he missed the fact he'd have been this week's Friend Of The Mailbag. Shame. He'd have looked good in the merch, I bet.
With this crappy start that this team has had, what is there to make of the futures of the people up top? I would imagine that this team is going to be aggressive in 2024 in acquiring WRs, especially considering rumors at the deadline about them poking around at other teams' WRs. Also, one final thing: since the team plans on keeping Brian Burns long-term, are there any updates on contract extension negotiations? — Nengeh, Kissimee, FL
Same question, sort of. But we all needed a shorter one. (Not really; I get paid by the word.)
When things go wrong in a dramatic way, the tendency among fans is to want big change fast. But big change fast is no way to build a stable winner in the NFL.
The Steelers have had three coaches in the last 55 years. The first one went 1-13, 5-9, and 6-8 his first three seasons before he had a winning record or went to the playoffs. Sometimes, you have to let it breathe.
But yes, I imagine receivers will be near the top of the offseason shopping list. GM Scott Fitterer didn't stop being "in on every deal" all of a sudden, and he made sure to ask about a lot of guys (beyond the ones that have been reported). He knows, as we all do (Source: My two eyes), that the Panthers need help there.
That would have been true if they were 6-3 or 4-5 or 2-7 right now. DJ Chark Jr. was signed to a one-year deal. They knew the position was in flux.
As for Burns, there's not a lot to say. He's under contract. The franchise tag is there for them to use if they can't reach a long-term deal. It's part of a long list of to-do items this offseason.
A 79-year-old female here (and yes, I probably can block better than Ikem Ekwonu), and I don't understand why the Panthers don't try to save their top asset from total destruction, be it physical or mental. Playing Bryce Young constantly is like wearing a Chanel gown to a paintball party — you know there is going to be some major damage. I understand that he needs to learn, but the main thing he is learning right now is what color the sky is. Why not save him for next year when, hopefully, there will be new and improved personnel in many areas, and Young won't be the sacrificial lamb? — Harriett, Charlotte
It's a good thing Tyler quit reading and forfeited his Friend Of The Mailbag merch, because Harriett here is just in time to collect. And I may drive it out to her house to stay on her good side.
I like the cut of your jib, Harriett. You know how to paint a real word picture. And you clearly know something about undergoing the fatigues of supporting your team. I respect it; I truly do.
Harriett's drive-by on Ickey aside (he's actually played better lately, though that's not an opinion likely to get much traction), I think she might be selling Bryce a little short.
Maybe it's his size. Maybe it's his age. Maybe it's his general adorableness. But he's not some helpless baby animal orphaned in the forest.
The benefit of getting a glimpse of him when the cameras are off is understanding he might be a little more of a dog than the puppy he appeared to be in camp when he was getting left hanging by children when he went in for a fist bump.
Bryce may contain multitudes, including a guy who says bad words and is tougher than his size might suggest. He may not know how to slide, but he's not shying away from scrambling up the middle to try to convert a first down. There's a little something in there.
Is this situation ideal for Bryce? It is not. Is he shrinking from it? Also no. Give him time. (I mean, you've already traded all the things for him; might as well see how this project turns out.)
Also, don't mess with Harriett. She's probably been in a scrap or two in her life. You can tell. That's why I'm sending her a T-shirt. I don't want her to shiv me.
Well, I try once again to get an answer from you to my query. Another loss and another Bill Belichick-like response from our QB. I'm thinking we should ask for a blood test. Anyway, where do we go from here, and does our QB care enough to get us there? Someone, please check him for a pulse! — Thomas, Newport News, VA
We have reached the point in this season where the body language police are out in full force. We lived this once with Cam Newton, when every gesture, every slouch, every facial expression became a sign of something. No one really knew what, but they knew it meant something.
This just in: Bryce Young is not a yeller or a screamer. He's not going to give dramatic press conference soundbites.
But to suggest he doesn't care is about 180 degrees from accurate if you saw him in the aftermath of the Chicago game.
His teammates described the animated version of Bryce, the one most people don't ever see. Those guys have seen after other games the one people equate with a "fiery leader." I'm not sure when we began to think freaking out or foaming at the mouth was a sign of leadership, but here we are.
Who on the new Panthers staff has made the biggest impression on you? Perhaps a surprise, in a good way. Maybe they are, in all, as advertised. I'd appreciate your take. — Dale, Wrightsville Beach, NC
I knew that defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero was pretty good at his job when he came here.
But what he's done lately is just short of alchemy.
The personnel the Panthers had on the field last week was vaguely reminiscent of the third quarter of a preseason game. But whether it's starting an undrafted rookie such as Alex Cook at safety, or bringing Dicaprio Bootle off the bench to start at corner, or all the other injury replacements, they keep chugging along.
Evero and his staff have done a significant job, and so have the replacement players.
The Panthers are on a ridiculous run of bad luck when it comes to injuries, but they've been able to survive it on that side of the ball.
Hey Darin! How is it possible that this O-line played so well last year, especially creating holes for the running backs and in the run game, but this year, we have the worst O-line in the league - all with just about the same players? Ickey is back. Taylor Moton is back, as well as Bradley Bozeman and (now) Austin Corbett. And Throckmorton was supposed to be pretty similar to Brady Christensen, right?
Is it coaching? Did James Campen switch things up in the off-season? Or was Steve Wilks an offensive line genius? Or is it due to the players involved regressing or not playing up to last year's standards? Or was D'onta Foreman just a complete beast last year and played his butt off with this bottom three in the league O-line? Would love to know the answer to this question that's been in my head ever since I listened to "Must Have Got Lost"- because I just can't understand it, I just don't understand it, I must have got lost somewhere down the line in my Panthers knowledge this season. — Zach, Charlotte
Zach's still on his classic rock kick, I see. Perhaps he should try Def Leppard's "Hysteria" next.
Calling this group the worst in the league is hyperbolic, but that's what happens when you're 1-8.
A non-zero part of the equation is the season-ending injury to Christensen in the opener, which has a trickle-down effect. Not only is it one spot to fill when they were already compensating for the absence of Corbett for six games, but it also impacts the guy next to him since so much of their jobs depend on communication.
Are they being asked to do some different things? Yes. But Corbett downplayed that the other day, saying, in essence, "football is football."
They're shuffling the deck a bit, trying to freshen things up in there. They've considered a lot of options, but it's possible that with Throckmorton gone and Chandler Zavala likely in his place, they may not be finished. We'll see.
Campen is still among the best in the league. The combination of a stripped-down running style last year (since they couldn't pass), coupled with perfect health and continuity (which they don't enjoy this year), and a team desperate to prove a point equaled a good group last year.
With different responsibilities and less good fortune, they haven't replicated it so far. But Ekwonu has played better of late, Corbett has added the expected amount of aggressiveness and competence, and Moton continues to be the same steady guy they've known and loved for years.
They could still be working on some options, but I'm chalking the regression up to the change of styles more than players or coaches suddenly becoming bad at their jobs. I'm also sticking with my old game plan of telling Zach to GET BACK TO CLASS.
Would moving Bradley Bozeman from center to guard help out our OL? — Gary, Summerville SC
Bozeman's played guard before in Baltimore, so it's something he could certainly do.
Usually, centers come in two distinct sizes. The smaller, more athletic ones (think Ryan Kalil) or massive road graders. Bozeman is absolutely the latter, and they've asked him to do some former things this year. It's not that he's bad at it, it's just not as perfect a fit for his skill-set.
But if you do that, it creates a question of who plays center.
I could see it being the thing they consider in case of an injury, but it feels a little disruptive to multiple spots to uncork in the middle of the year. Ask me again during OTAs next spring.
Greetings from Thailand again, Darin, I actually got to invite a friend who hails from Chicago over for breakfast burritos and watch the game at 8:15 on Friday morning. He left happy to get out with a win and a free breakfast. The Thursday night game gave me an opportunity to really observe the other games with the intent of discerning the obvious differences between our Panthers and other teams. I'd have to say No. 1 is speed. We just don't seem to have the overall team speed across the roster that other teams do. It seems to me that is the most obvious glaring factor. On the subject of speed, Bryce doesn't seem to get the ball out as fast as other QBs. I was counting the seconds as much as I could, and other QBs seem to be throwing it somewhere in about 2.5-3.0 seconds. Bryce generally was taking longer. I don't know if that is by design for patterns to develop or if the aforementioned lack of team speed is causing him to wait longer for players to get open. In any event, I'm still hoping for a 4-2 NFC South record. OK, so I am the eternal optimist, but so be it.
You may find it interesting that I teach English and American culture to underprivileged Thai kids. We just finished studying baseball, the teams, and the cities where they are. We actually managed to play a little baseball. So, this week, we will start with football and hopefully get a chance to play some flag football. The hardest part will be trying to explain why it's called football when we don't do a lot of foot-to-ball contact. It's an ongoing argument with my European and Asian friends. Any pointers on what to teach them first? — Tony, Chiang Rai, Thailand
The very first thing you have to teach them is their football cliches. I'll send you a copy of my book "The Wit and Wisdom of John Fox" as soon as I write it. I don't know Thai for "it is what it is," or "the other team practices too," or "a punt is not a bad play," but these are immutable truths of nature and something every person needs to learn no matter their country of origin.
Seriously, what a cool way to teach geography and keep kids moving around. I love it.
As for the first part, mmmmm, breakfast burritos. Where were we? I think Bryce has shown a willingness to hang in the pocket and wait for guys to get open. They don't always. I'm not sure they're at a complete speed deficit, but Adam Thielen wasn't fast when he was young, so for him it's not that much of a difference.
Could they be faster, especially on the perimeter? Of course. Stay tuned this offseason as they continue to look for upgrades.
Hi Darin, a quick thanks for taking time on Tuesday to help out at your local polling station and encourage civic engagement on social media. Voter turnout in local elections is always so pathetic, so it's nice for kids like Zach to be reminded by someone other than their teachers about the importance of voting. We took our 1-year-old with us to vote, and he was impressed by the bright light from the voting machine and definitely liked his "future voter" sticker, so hopefully, he is well on his way to learning this lesson as well!
Speaking of hope, what are you feeling optimistic about with our current offense? I know that Young ended up with a few more yards than Tyson Bagent, but at the end of the night it felt like our No. 1 overall draft pick was outplayed by an undrafted rookie. It's obviously not all Young's fault, and I'll acknowledge that our injury-riddled defense played well but is still depleted, which helped Bagent, but it's pretty clear at this point in the season that this version of our offense is just not working for us. What do you think can be fixed this year, and what do you think fans will just have to wait until next year to see improvement with when hopefully, the team can bring in some new talent to help? — John, Charlotte
Thanks, John. I truly love working the polls. It helps me feel more connected to my neighbors, my neighborhood, my city, and the country in general. It's a long day on your feet, but I've never left there feeling worse than I did walking in. (Also, thanks to Phil Orban and WSOC for coming out to check on me during the day and sully their pregame show with my face and voice.) Election Day turns me into a weird mix of Frank Capra and Aaron Sorkin. I'm a total nerd for democracy.
Also, it's more fun to talk about low turnout in local elections than low turnout on the scoreboard.
There are certainly things they can do to improve offensively, schematically and otherwise. We've got a story coming this week that will hopefully put some of that into context. Stay tuned.
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.
I have been waiting all day for the Mailbag. Where is the Mailbag? There was no Mailbag last week, and now it is late this week! When are you going to get it done and publish it?— Katie, Charlotte
As a wise man (but not John Fox) once said, I will publish no Mailbag before its time. Also, not to make too many assumptions, but can you imagine what it's like being this woman's partner? Sheesh, you can't take a day off to commit democracy or conduct a job interview without somebody squawking.
Darin, I know you're an egg nog guy. Is it cold enough for a thick glass of nog? — Will, Rock Hill, SC
It's always the right temperature for a hearty glass of nog. In fact, I was alerted this week by a friend I'll call Tom that my local ABC store is selling the pre-mixed kind now. If that's not a sign of the season, I don't know what is.
Hey Darin! Love your coverage of the Panthers! I'm a Day 1 Panthers fan and this year hasn't been great for my health. Just curious for your thoughts on this; with the offensive woes we have this year, why does our offense just sit on the bench with no interaction during games? QBs don't discuss plays, coaches don't talk to the players, no iPad reviews, I would think we could use the communication. — Jen, Harrisburg, NC
This might be a function of your perspective. If you're watching on television, you might not see it, but there's constant contact on the sidelines with all of the things you mentioned.
Why haven't the coaching staff shaken up the O-line? Most of the offense's problems can be solved with giving Bryce more time or our running backs more holes. Getting Corbett backed helped, but sometimes a Gibbs slap is needed. — Mike, Glen Alpine, NC
I had to look up a Gibbs slap, and it feels like an effective method of getting people's attention. I'm going to try it on my boss and see what happens.
Darin, need a little help here. With this Thursday night game thing going on, I'm confused about my submissions to this column. Have I already sent one already or not? May I send more than one? If I send too many, am I automatically disqualified, and none of them are eligible for posting here? Of course, that's recognizing the fact that you - the World's Greatest and Wisest Old Guy - may find none of my submissions worthy of printing this week, uh, er, 10 days, no, wait - 2 weeks. Or does my incessant use of the hyphen get me flagged for "Improper Grammar and/or Punctuation"? For Pete's sake, bail me out here, Darin! I'm so confused! I'm scared that I'm having an Old Guy (I'm 66) infarction! Is that even a thing? Looking back at it, I've asked a boatload of questions here but I don't think a single one has anything to do with football! HELP, Darin! — Jeff, Concord, NC
See, this is one of those times when a Gibbs slap seems appropriate.
First time writing, long time reader. In the spirit of the only dumb question is the one you don't ask, what do you think is the risk of losing any of our coaches in the offseason? I've seen a lot of progress in a number of areas even though the bottom line results don't reflect this yet, and I know the benefits that teams receive when the coaching staff stays intact for more than one year. — Peter, Summerville, SC
The rest of the league seldom lines up around the block to poach from 1-8 teams, but there are also plenty of quality coaches here. Evero has made the interview circuit in the past, and I expect he'll continue. And yes, continuity always helps.
When are open tryouts for anyone in the Charlotte region with an able body to play defense for the Panthers the rest of the season? Soon, we're going to have to convert Ejiro Evero and Duce Staley to actual players just to fill out the 53-man roster. — Kevin, Mint Hill, NC
You're hired. But don't be surprised if they ask you to play special teams at first. But it's like George Washington said, "every post is honorable in which a man can serve his country." Which is true of football, local elections, and egg nog too.