Carolina Panthers Season Report Card
This is a tricky grade to assess because of the carousel of coaching this year. Matt Rhule was a questionable hire from the start. With no professional experience, he was in over his head with team morale, chemistry and ability to assimilate to the NFL culture. With his indecisiveness on the offensive side of the ball (especially at all skill positions), the unit was almost stagnate and without identity. “Sacking” him was the inevitable choice. However, the second grade is for interim coach Steve Wilkes, whom off an unfair stint in Arizona got another chance to prove his worth. The deck was stacked against him, and after the trade of the most skilled player Christian McCaffery, who could blame any skepticism? That wasn’t going to stop Wilkes though; a purebred Charlotte resident from birth, who would create a new identity. This undertaking would begin with establishing a culture. Enter D’Onta Foreman. With this former 2,000 yard rusher from University of Texas, he rejuvenated his career and the Panthers’ morale on offense. In the time he was starter, the team was in the top 5 in rushing yards per game. The defense was already a juggernaut which will carry over into next season, with the contracts for the most part solidified. Wilkes also, and just as critical was getting DJ Moore back in the playmaking role he has been shown to shine in. Wilkes deserves very strong consideration for the official Head Coaching position.
Running Backs: B
Again, keeping into consideration the extreme changes this season with the coaches/schemes, the team rallied behind the running game. With aforementioned D’Onta Foreman along with second year Chuba Hubbard, the team was the foundation that kept the Panthers offense afloat. The power style they displayed was Top-5 in the league in the span of trading McCaffery. Without that, the quarterback play wouldn’t have been able to avoid turnovers the way it’d been going under the early-season blunders.
Wide Receivers: B-
Keeping with the motif, this roster is challenging to evaluate. This was a metaphorical ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ However, in this case it was started as, “It was the worst of times, It was the best of times.” It would be more accurate to say it was the steady improvement of times. The same was true of the receiving core of Carolina. DJ Moore has had three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons until this year. When Rhule was coaching, Mayfield was starting, and the lack of offensive identity was glaring, he was visibly absent. To be fair, that wasn’t his fault for the most part. Enter Steve Wilkes. Not only was Moore a primary force to the previously anemic offense, but he also thrived. With a potentially game-winning touchdown against the first meeting of the Falcons, he went on to be a top receiver in yards the abrupt switch in coaching. Getting rid of the emotional distraction in Robbie Anderson, combined with the emergence of Terrance Marshall fueled a late-season charge in a lees-than-par NFC South. I would be remiss if I wasn’t to acknowledge the Tight Ends on the team. They would get their own section; however they were not a distinctive piece in the passing game. However Ian Thomas continues to improve his catching ability, Tommy Tremble found himself a clutch role as the primary 3rd and short option (and Sam Darnold’s lifeline), and Giovanni Ricci was used as a part-time blocker on the edge along with the underutilized position of fullback.
This was one of the biggest surprises of this unit. After last season performing at the literal bottom rank of the league, the line, after a MAJOR revamp became one of the most efficient ones in the entire NFL. Led by their center Bradley Bozeman, an acquisition from the Ravens a year ago, and rookie Ikem Ekwanu, a highly regarded run-blocker out of NC State, these oxen-like men were incrementally improved game after game. Ekwanu’s only criticism was his pass block ability at draft time. He however made that a point of emphasis which led to a proven result, which helped Sam Darnold stay upright during the late season run.
Alas, the weakest part of this team that has been a blemish ever since Cam Newton’s MVP year in 2015. What is there to be stated that our own eyes couldn’t tell us? Well putting in plainly, Matt Rhule hoped to play a game of ‘duck-duck-goose’ when it came to his commitment to a player in Baker Mayfield or PJ Walker. In all defense to Walker, he was never expected to make a splash in the league or this team. But the poor guy gave everything he had. His Hail Mary to DJ Moore in Atlanta was immaculate, along with his protecting the football for the most part. His issue other than that was explosive plays. He was hindered by the unimaginative play-calling under the leadership of Coach Rhule. Then Baker Mayfield…well there is only one way to describe that experiment. The word “CALAMITY” comes to mind. When saying this stat you will think it’s not true, but I promise it is. Before getting sat down for PJ Walker, Mayfield was averaging less than 5 yards a pass. That is not just porous, it is historically/statistically abysmal. I know a a reader what you may be thinking. “You are too close to home or too critical on this team.” The thought crossed my mind I assure you. But the stats speak for themselves, and this fan was as enthusiastic as the next. Sam Darnold is the only reason they received a passing grade. He wasn’t a ‘Joe Montana’ in his own right; however, he had a low turnover to touchdown differential. Also, he had the confidence of the team which fueled a potential postseason run.
OVERALL TEAM GRADE: C
Putting it simply, this team was handicapped by an incompetent coach at the first part of the year. Once a replacement in Steve Wilkes was in place and gave unity in the locker room/gave the team an identity, there was a legitimate chance the team could’ve overtaken a struggling Tampa team. If the right coaching situation and someone who can develop a rookie talent, this team should be the favorite in the division next season.
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