As Panthers fans try their best to parse through the departure of the face of the Carolina franchise and the transition into the next era of Panthers football, it’s fair to question whether or not there is a cohesive plan in place at Bank of America Stadium and the moves made over the past few weeks have all been headed towards an ultimate goal – with David Tepper urging patience, Matt Rhule on a seven-year deal and GM Marty Hurney entering the final year of his deal, it appears that the triumvirate of decision makers at Mint & Morehead are on different schedules.
If the Panthers are truly trying to ‘tear things down’ as the owner has said in the past, some – including myself – speculated that it may have made more sense to cut ties with Cam Newton while stockpiling assets for the future, throwing 2020 away in favor of a brighter future filled with comp picks and cap room.
The Panthers could live through a year of growing pains – the first years of Rhule’s residency at Temple and Baylor had win totals of two and one, respectively – with Will Grier under center and strike for one of the quarterbacks at the top of the class in 2021 once Rhule has had a full year to lay the foundation for the program he wanted to build.
But a three-year, $63m deal for 27-year old QB Teddy Bridgewater, the biggest free agent wide receiver signing in franchise history and a couple of other signings that rendered their free agency losses moot in the NFL’s complicated compensatory pick formula threw that particular plan into question – the idea of starting from scratch doesn’t seem to jive with the moves they’re making – rather, it seems as if they’re starting from the middle, at least from the outside.
But the signings they’ve done thus far – all of whom are under 27 on deals that are essentially two years or less – have set them up with two very intriguing timelines moving forward. And both paths lead to success.
Well, there’s technically three paths – but I’ll let you get to the third one on your own.
Timeline 1: It’s Teddy Time
ALSO KNOWN AS: I TOLD YOU IT WASN’T A REBUILD!!!
The 2020 Scenario: Teddy Bridgewater continues the road that he started walking down in 2015 when he went to the Pro Bowl in his second season as he carves up the NFL in the quick strikes and deep balls out of the spread-em-out Joe Brady offense. Robby Anderson is the missing piece and has a career season, DJ Moore catches 125 slants, Curtis Samuel finally gets the ball delivered to him when he’s wide open downfield and Ian Thomas makes the jump from raw, talented young tight end to genuine weapon. Christian McCaffrey doesn’t hold out and makes another run at 1,000/1,000 and the Panthers’ offense gets the instantaneous turnaround that LSU’s did with Brady at the helm. While their defense is young, Burns and Weatherly combine for 20 sacks and KK Short comes back stronger than ever, with a stout pass rush buoying a young secondary – and who needs defense anyway when your offense is averaging 36 points a game?
How It Ends: After Bridgewater throws for almost 5,000 yards at 28 years old, the Panthers find their next franchise QB sooner rather than later, use the cap space created by the roster gut in 2020 to give McCaffrey his huge deal and the young defense, led by shutdown corner Jeff Okudah and a recently-made-the-leap Brian Burns, is full of players on their rookie deals as the Panthers continue to load up for sustained excellence behind Bridgewater and McCaffrey. Hurney wins GM of the Year and David Tepper is seen smoking a cigar in the locker room after the team clinches an unexpected playoff spot in their final game of the season by beating Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. The upstart Panthers finish 9-7 and lose at Lambeau in the opening rounds of the playoffs, but the future is bright.
Timeline 2: Trust The Process
ALSO KNOWN AS: Sometimes You Have To Tear Things Down A Little To Build Them Back Up.
The 2020 Scenario: In a season marred by a late start to the offseason programming – training camps fail to start on time and the start of the season is in real jeopardy, but the NFL moves forward on schedule even though teams have had only three weeks and two preseason games to prepare – the changes Matt Rhule and his staff tried to instill in their team don’t stick immediately and the Panthers stumble out of the gate to a 1-6 start. Bridgewater does his job as a locker room leader as the louder voices at Bank of America Stadium are all talking about how the culture is changing instead of the product on the field; even as the team struggles to stop anyone with their young defensive core that didn’t have a chance to fully learn Phil Snow’s defense, the scene in Carolina remains positive due to the open lines of communication between Rhule, his staff and the locker room.
How It Ends: The Panthers finish 3-13 in 2020, but win their final two games, including a road game in New Orleans that features Bridgewater outdueling former teammate Drew Brees to keep the Saints out of the playoffs. Marty Hurney heads upstairs at BoA Stadium and passes the torch to assistant GM Dave Ziegler, whom the team signed a deal with after the 2020 draft – Ziegler’s first big move is to parlay their #4 pick and McCaffrey into the #1 overall pick, selecting their quarterback of the future, who sits for the first four games of the season before taking the reins from Bridgewater and in Panthers parlance, it’s 2011 all over again, only the QB doesn’t hurt their shoulder, there’s no Von Miller lurking in the Super Bowl and the Matt Rhule Era is everything David Tepper, whose annual ‘victory cigar’ comes year after year in the locker room immediately following the game after his team clinches yet another playoff spot, promised it would be for the next two decades.
Timeline 3: The Darkest Timeline
ALSO KNOWN AS: DO NOT READ THIS, PANTHERS FANS.
The 2020 Scenario: After releasing Cam Newton, the Panthers former franchise QB signs with the LA Chargers and is immediately declared 100% healthy by team doctors – the admittedly angry QB leads the Chargers to a 14-2 record while just barely missing out on his second MVP, but opens a chain of vegan smoothie/bucket hat shops that do very well in the greater SoCal area. Meanwhile, in Carolina, Christian McCaffrey announces that he wants a contract extension or he isn’t playing a down for a rebuilding Panthers, leading to a Draft Night trade to the LA Raiders for the 19th pick in the draft and a 2021 second-round pick. After a 4-7 start, Bridgewater tears his hamstring and is replaced by rookie QB Jordan Love, who was drafted with said 19th pick – Love looks less ready for the NFL than Will Grier did in his truncated season in 2019. Rumors begin to swirl in Carolina that the locker room doesn’t respect Rhule and David Tepper is growing ‘uneasy’ with his first coaching hire only 12 months after bringing him to Carolina.
How It Ends: Not great, Bob. Tepper loses his patience after three consecutive losing seasons with seven combined wins and fires Rhule but retains Hurney, who he maintains is the best man for the job as Rhule takes the brunt of the blame for the past three years. The Panthers begin a decades-long stretch in which they are consistently searching for a head coach and quarterback combination as they become known not for long-term mediocrity, but long-term losing. Cam Newton has his jersey retired in LA after a decade of sustained excellence and Steve Smith enters the NFL Hall of Fame as a Raven. The victory cigar remains unlit on a podium next to the empty Super Bowl Trophy case at the newly constructed Truist Stadium.