CHARLOTTE – Their playing styles couldn’t be more different.
Their stats – and as a result their situations – couldn’t be more similar.
Garrett Gilbert, the incumbent in the competition to back up starting quarterback Cam Newton, plays with an in-the-pocket style reminiscent of Derek Anderson – who backed up Newton the past seven years.
Taylor Heinicke, the relative newcomer but the quarterback with significant experience in first-year offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system, can make plays that mimic Newton’s noted mobility, a skill he spotlighted with a 1-yard scamper to the right pylon on fourth-and-goal in the Panthers’ previous preseason game.
“A lot of people said, ‘If you really wanted to be like Cam, you would have done it with one hand,’” Heinicke said. “But I might have gotten yelled at for that.”
Both Heinicke and Gilbert technically have done something better than Newton this preseason – statistically speaking at least. Newton has been impressive while posting a quarterback rating of 91.4, but his backup candidates have topped that – though they can’t seem to top themselves. Gilbert checks in at 101.8. Heinicke has done him one better – actually one-tenth better – at 101.9.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Heinicke will get the start in the potentially pivotal preseason finale Thursday night at the Steelers, but Rivera isn’t ready to say what that means in terms of roster plans behind Newton.
“Taylor will take the first quarter, then Garrett will come in and take the second quarter. (Undrafted rookie) Kyle (Allen) will play the rest,” Rivera said. “We’ve got three guys who are really competing and doing a great job. They’ve all been impressive when they’ve had their opportunities, whether it be in practice or in the game.
“I think both guys have really shined a lot, and I like Allen. I think Kyle is a good young football player. All he needs is a chance.”
The question at hand though is whether the Panthers will take the chance of making just Gilbert or just Heinicke the backup to Newton when the regular season roster is set this weekend. Or whether they’ll find room for both. Or whether they’ll eventually go with neither and bring in a veteran currently out of work or that finds himself out of work come cut day.
At this moment, though, it’s all about Gilbert and Heinicke, who have one final chance to impress against the Steelers. They’ve each had eight drives so far (not including one virtual kneel-down situation for each). Gilbert has three touchdown drives and a drive that resulted in a missed field goal; Heinicke has four touchdown drives, a drive that resulted in a field goal and an interception.
“We’ve got a lot of playmakers. It’s fun,” Heinicke said. “We have a lot of guys out there that when they have the ball in their hands, they can make more plays than I can.
“I love this offense. Christian (McCaffrey) might run for 250 one game, and then the next week Cam might throw for 500 yards. You just never know; it’s cool from that perspective.”
Heinicke’s perspective on this offense comes in large part from his previous time with the Turners. The Panthers claimed Heinicke off waivers from the Texans four months ago, but in Minnesota he spent more than a year with Norv Turner as offensive coordinator and two years with Scott Turner at quarterbacks coach.
Gilbert, on the other hand, has more familiarity with his targets. Gilbert came to Carolina in March of 2017 and joined the 53-man roster a handful of games into the regular season as a third quarterback the Panthers didn’t want to take the chance of being snatched from their practice squad.
And the offense, before the arrival of the Turners this offseason, already featured a lot of tenets taught by its current architect.
“There have been some tweaks,” Gilbert said. “The thing I’ve enjoyed the most from Norv is that he’s been coaching the game at this level for 35-some-odd years now, so he’s seen it all. Getting to learn from someone who has seen everything and has coached some of the best quarterbacks to ever play this game and some of the best offenses ever to play this game - that’s something I’ve really appreciated, that I can learn from on a daily basis.”
Gilbert and Heinicke said all the right things about their level of play in the offense so far (good but could always be better) and the competition between them (a friendly one designed to push each other toward continuous improvement).
Both also insist that the Steelers game is just another game for them. Maybe they know it’s the right thing to say, but maybe it’s because they’ve been here before. They’re far from household names given that they’ve combined to take nine regular season snaps (all for Heinicke late last season with Houston), but they’ve both been around awhile. Gilbert was selected in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft; Heinicke joined the league as an undrafted rookie in 2015.
“We’ve been in this league four or five years now, and we’ve been in this situation every year,” Heinicke said. “You just go out there, and it’s a game. You do what the coaches tell you to do in practice and try to move the chains and score some points.
“For the most part, nerves aren’t really a part of the game anymore for me in the preseason. Now if it were regular season, that might change.”