Normally, an NFL team coming off of a 5-11 season does not come to training camp the next year brimming with optimism. Even less so following consecutive 5-11 seasons and three straight losing seasons. Prolonged losing tends to take the shine off a franchise, and with most NFL careers being short and opportunities to win few and far between, it is often hard for perennial losers to convince veteran players to stick around.
Despite this, when he reported to training camp at Wofford College, Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Taylor Moton articulated the energy that is currently surrounding his team anticipates their budding new era to turn into bloom.
“I think we have something special because of the tremendous players we have, the chemistry we’re building, the coaching staff, the culture that we’re building here,” said Moton. “I think it’s something truly special.”
Yes, Moton has 71 million reasons to put on a brave face and tout the company line, but his optimism appears to genuinely extend beyond the financial incentives, and the overall atmosphere around the Panthers’ 2021 training camp is one of notable optimism and excited. An important sign for a young coaching staff leading the franchise into the second season of the Matt Rhule regime.
We talked to JJ Jansen, the Panthers’ longest-serving player, to find out more.
While last year’s 5-11 outing was nothing to plant a flag over, the 2020 Panthers showed plenty to inspire belief that there are good days ahead. Fielding an extremely young team, a group of next generation stars emerged that included defensive end Brian Burns, defensive tackle Derrick Brown, and safety Jeremy Chinn. These raw and talented youngsters complemented the continued development of proven talent like wide receiver D.J. Moore, cornerback Donte Jackson, and All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey.
Perhaps more importantly, last year’s Panthers were a reflection of the team culture that Matt Rhule is seeking to foster. One which remains true to the tradition of Carolina’s great teams of the past, but also builds and expands on it as Rhule seeks to morph the Panthers into a “serious football place.” Having been a new face, with new messaging and a significantly curtailed offseason in 2020, year two marks an important step forward for the regime.
“I think Year Two’s always kind of a special year for a program, mostly because the number of players that understand what the expectations are, what the culture that the head coach is trying to set for the team (is) – everyone’s far more familiar with it,” Jansen told The Riot Report. “You’ve sort of gone through the growing pains of learning each other. And so obviously every year there’s gonna be new players and new personalities, but the habits and the routines – the practice habits, the meeting habits, all of those things – have sort have been worked through in Year One.
“We’ve really kind of ironed down what our brand is, how we go through our work, what’s expected of the players, what’s expected of the coaches. And so Year Two, you can start to really get deeper into the why we do things. It’s not just ‘Do it because we say to do it,’ but players are able to take a lot more ownership because they understand what’s going on. Year One is always choppy and with growing pains, and then Year Two is really where it begins to solidify in my opinion and in my experience.”
Year One of the Matt Rhule era was, indeed, a choppy one. As encouraging as certain games and certain individual performances were, there were plenty of other instances where the team showed they still had a long way to go, highlighted by near-complete failure to convert when they had the ball with a chance to take the lead late in games.
The Panthers put up a fight in almost all of their games, becoming a “tough-ass football team” in the eyes of their coach. But while toughness is one of the most desirable characteristics a team can have, being smart, disciplined, and not making mistakes is just as if not even more important.
All of that ties back into Rhule’s overarching theme of “Process” – that a team’s habits and routines form the foundations and structures of success. Rhule also has his own twist on team culture, something that was a foundational aspect for both of his predecessors in head coaches John Fox and Ron Rivera. Both coaches built teams that featured a strong culture of talented players, and culture was a large part of both coaches fielding teams that went on to play in Super Bowls XXXVIII and 50.
But compared to the Fox and Rivera eras, the Rhule Panthers have a certain freedom entering Year Two. Instead of trying to re-create some past glory – like what Carolina tried to do unsuccessfully in 2016 – the 2021 edition of the Panthers can simply take on a personality all their own.
“What I think you’re gonna see this year versus last year is because we had varying successes last year, I don’t think there’s a pressure to try to make us be someone we’re not. We can just take on the culture that this year’s team has,” said Jansen. “And so what does that look like? (Quarterback Sam Darnold) leading us on offense and (linebacker Shaq Thompson) and Chinn and Brian and (Derrick Brown) on defense leading that group, it’s different leadership. It’s different roles each year.
“And so I think the beauty is to be able to pull together as a team and say ‘This is the 2021 Panthers’ and not worry about the 2020 Panthers or the 2022 Panthers and just get to form a bond together. I don’t think there’s any pressure to be someone we’re not. We’ve just got to be ourselves. I think that will be the best way forward for our organization.”
While there’s a long way to go to determine exactly who the 2021 Panthers will be, there is an idea that the team is a young and ascending one that can be a player in both the NFC South and the conference as a whole. Although the entire division is looking up at the Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers seem in prime position to supplant a cap-strapped, Drew Brees-less New Orleans Saints team as well as a rebuilding Atlanta Falcons team.
Whether or not they assume that position relies on a number of variables that may or may not go the Panthers’ way.
Quarterback Sam Darnold could break out and prove he was an NFL-caliber quarterback whose issues were the result of a dysfunctional New York Jets team, or he could prove to be fatally flawed as a pro signal caller. Second and third-year players could ascend in their development and become better versions of themselves, or they could stagnate and/or regress. Christian McCaffrey could return to form and become one of the NFL’s best dual-threat running backs again, or the injury bug could bite him again and leave Carolina without its best player.
Optimism in football is a tricky thing. Sometimes, it leads to a team writing checks that it can’t cash when the pads come on and the bullets start flying – Ask Ryan Kalil how taking out a full page ad in the Charlotte Observer to guarantee the Panthers would win the Super Bowl worked out in 2012. Other times, optimism can be completely dashed by injuries and other forces that can’t be foreseen or controlled.
What’s unique about this Carolina Panthers team, though, is that they have established they have proven young NFL talent that seemingly have their best football ahead of them.
“I think there’s always optimism around a young team, because last year most of those guys were playing off of pure athleticism and they don’t really know what’s going on. They’re just reacting, they’re kind of playing streetball, they’re reacting to what they’ve seen their entire lives,” said Jansen. “You get a second year, a third year, and now all of the mental side starts catching up to what they’re seeing with their eyes. And now all the anticipation starts going up and all of the route identification and all the blitz pickups, and all of that stuff starts picking up.
“So now you get to add all that athleticism with improved football intelligence, and it can be a very positive combo dangerous for an opponent.”
It’s too early to crown the new generation Panthers and declare that happy days are here again in Carolina. Both the players and the coaching start still have things they need to prove before they can be considered genuine contenders. While past precedent suggests that Matt Rhule’s program is set for the sort of year-over-year growth that it produced at Temple and Baylor, the bar for improvement from Rhule’s first seasons in college (2-10 at Temple, 1-11 at Baylor) was far lower than it is now in the NFL.
That being said, it’s hardly wrong to be optimistic or excited about what is occurring on the Carolina Panthers: A young team, entering its second season under the guidance of a forward-thinking and driven coach, is seemingly primed to jell and contend. And in doing so, they’re also on the verge of writing a new era in their franchise’s young history, taking the standard of the great Carolina teams of the past and improving upon it.
If that indeed comes to fruition, chalk it up as one of the 71 million reasons why Taylor Moton said the Carolina Panthers have something special.
(Top photo via Brandon Todd/Carolina Panthers)