To this day, one of my favorite pieces of television is Only Fools and Horses, a British sitcom that ran from 1981 until 1991. It followed the adventures of Derrick ‘Del Boy’ Trotter and his brother Rodney who work as market traders, small-time fences and occasional diamond smugglers, with the typical episode involving some ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful get-rich-quick scheme.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with the Panthers, I’m getting there.
As well as being exceedingly funny and, at times, hugely touching, one of the things that Only Fools and Horses did so well was to create a central character who, while being quite sympathetic, was so consistently undermined by his own lack of self awareness. A self-described ‘yuppy’ adorned with several pounds of gold-adjacent jewellery and fond of claiming that “this time next year, we’ll be millionaires”, Del Boy was in reality a perpetually broke small-time criminal living in social housing a driving a three-wheel van.
This brings us back to the Panthers for, as likeable as the Panthers have been under Matt Rhule, the disparity between what the Panthers have said and done off the field, and what has happened on the field is starting to cause panic buttons to be taken out of storage, even if they aren’t being pushed just yet.
It’s easy to forget, as the Panthers sit here at 3-2 with wins against teams that are a combined 5-10 and a road loss to a Cowboys team that is viewed as a contender, just how far they have come in the past twelve months. Through five games in 2020, the Panthers were just 3-2, with their wins coming against teams that had struggled to a combined 4-11 record with a road loss to a Bucs team that would go on to win the Super Bowl.
After swapping out quarterbacks with a major offseason trade for future draft picks, adding talent at tight end, running back and receiver, signing two offensive linemen to multi-year deals, drafting another two, adding premier players along the defensive line and across the secondary and even changing the kicker the Panthers sit with the same record they did a year ago. Much like Del Boy, they have gone on yet another adventure only to end up at the same place they were before.
It should be noted that this isn’t just a Matt Rhule issue, as if you back to the ultimately era-ending 2019 season the Panthers again started 3-2 with wins against three teams with a combined record of 6-8-1 and a road loss to a Rams team coming off a Super Bowl appearance. Both 2019 and 2020 groups followed winning starts with 2-9 slumps to finish with 5-11 records and top-ten picks and, while the Panthers should have some optimism about the impact that players returning from injury might make this season, it’s hard not to see mirrors of that in both 2019 and 2020 seasons.
The point here isn’t that the Panthers are some cursed franchised doomed to unfulfilled potential (though this cannot entirely be discounted), but rather that looking good for a few weeks early in the season with the talent to view yourself as a potential contender ultimately doesn’t count for anything if you don’t do anything with it.
What is most frustrating is that the Panthers have created an unnecessary sense of urgency when it comes to improving on their performance year to year. As painful as it was to see a number of Panthers greats walk out the door early in the 2020 offseason, following years of injury-plagued disappointment the fact that the Panthers were going to hit reset with a new coaching staff (and now a new General Manager) didn’t seem beyond reason, even if it was likely to come with some hard times in the short term.
However, the Panthers didn’t look to rebuild but rather retool, brining in a veteran QB in Teddy Bridgewater, a high-price receiver in Robby Anderson, trading for a veteran left tackle in Russell Okung, using their first round pick on Derrick Brown to plug an immediate need on the defensive interior and filling out potential needs with veterans such as John Miller and Tahir Whitehead.
When that didn’t work, they traded their upcoming second- and fourth-round picks to swap Teddy Bridgewater for Sam Darnold, signed two offensive linemen on the first day of free agency, added proven defensive starters in Haason Reddick and DaQuan Jones on one-year deals as well as promising pieces on both sides of the ball in Morgan Fox and Dan Arnold while bolstering almost every area of the roster through the draft.
40 of the Panthers’ 53-man roster have arrived in Carolina during this eighteen-month period plus seven more currently on IR/PUP, with 21 further players who made the roster at some point during the 2020 season already having moved on.
But why all the negativity?
This is what brings us back to our old friend Del Boy and his lack of self-awareness. What has been most frustrating about the Panthers during this time is how they have continued to make aggressive moves to try and find quick solutions to major issues.
Did Greg Little look a little inconsistent in the three games he started as a rookie? Trade for Russell Okung. Did he fail to answer the long-standing left tackle issue? Sign Cam Erving to a two-year deal with 80% guarantees on the first day of free agency. Did Teddy Bridgewater fail to drag the team to the postseason with some late-game falters? Trade future draft capital for a quarterback with a 12-25 record.
“I don’t want to sit around and wait to win”, admitted Rhule. “I also don’t want to do things to jeopardize the future; I don’t want to take shortcuts … We have a good team right now. We’re trying to become a really good team, trying to become a great team. That’s in the way you practice and prepare, and get as many good players as possible.”
After years of passive mediocrity, it is certainly refreshing to see a front office be aggressive in trying to get better, but things usually take a while – especially in the NFL – for a reason. Rather than trying to be millionaires a year from now, the Panthers might do better trying to make sure they have a little more money in their pocket a week from now.
And, by money in their pocket, I mean a win against a 2-3 Vikings team that needed a last-second field goal to beat the 0-5 Lions.
This is the thing, as easy as it is to be frustrated by the Panthers’ most recent performance, they have a real chance to completely change that narrative over the next month. They face the 2-3 Vikings (whose two wins come against teams that are a combined 2-8), the 1-4 Giants, the 2-3 Falcons (whose two wins also come against teams that are a combined 2-8) and the 2-3 Patriots (who, once again, got those wins against 2-8 teams).
Overall, their next four opponents are 1-8 against teams that currently have winning records.
If the Panthers, aided by the potential return of some of their key players from injury, are able to win three or even four of these games then their aggressive moves not only start to look better in retrospect, but also have a chance of paying dividends in the latter stages of the season. The Panthers’ final eight opponents have a combined 25-15 record with four of those games being within the division.
As good as the likes of Stephon Gilmore and Haason Reddick might be, if the Panthers aren’t able to get to 6-3 let alone 7-2 against teams with a combined 18-27 record then it’s hard to see how they are able to get to .500 for the season, let alone make a case for a playoff spot. That might have seemed like an odd standard to hold this team to when they entered the season, but when you’re trading for a 31-year-old former All-Pro cornerback on an expiring deal worth north of $5m then it’s hard to see a 8-9 record as success.
If the Panthers don’t pick up their play over the next month then maybe Matt Rhule can find a late-season ace up his sleeve to justify the win-now moves but, as Del Boy proves, one ace isn’t always enough.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)