A lot of things are up in the air right now – the nature of the 2020 NFL season is still very much unclear even as we head into training camps this week – and with college athletics facing even greater challenges, there is a very real chance that the 2021 offseason could be even more disrupted than the 2020 offseason on a national level. Things are unclear locally as well, with the Carolina Panthers expected to treat 2020 as the beginning of a more long-term turnaround but making moves this spring that had the whiff of trying to compete this season.

What this means in practice is that the Panthers are unlikely to compete for a Super Bowl this season, but also that a major focus for the Panthers in 2020 will likely be the the self-scouting of both the coaching staff and personnel in order to put them in the best shape possible moving forward – and that likely means asking some potentially uncomfortable questions.

For bookkeeping purposes, we’ll split our questions into three parts over the next couple of days as veterans report to the team facility: The defense is full of question marks. The offense will be completely different than it was last year. 

And these are the questions that Matt Rhule and his staff must answer.

Are They Competent?

Photo Credit: @Panthers

A lot has already been written about Matt Rhule’s history of turning around an organization – but doing so after an ugly first season. While this is certainly true about Rhule’s history, what is important is whether that ugliness extends beyond the surface impression of wins and losses.

In other words, whether the Panthers have made a good hire in Rhule will not depend on whether they go 3-13 or 9-7, but rather the way they go about getting those results. A good comparison for this kind of thinking is the 49ers in their first season under Kyle Shanahan, where it was clear that they didn’t have the talent to be successful – or at least the correct talent – but that there was a clear and coherent process to what they were doing that was being let down by a lack of talent and a lack of polish. 

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The 49ers went 10-22 over Shanahan’s first two seasons before last year’s 13-3 season that came with a Super Bowl berth.

This is really the question then that will override all the other questions on this list. When the Panthers win and lose, is it because of the coaching or despite the coaching? This might not be the easiest question to answer, but the answer will go a long way to dictating how successful the Panthers can be under Rhule. 

Does A McCaffrey Rotation Actually Exist?

For at least the last two years, the Panthers have spoken a lot about wanting to take care of McCaffrey and allow other players to take on some of the snaps where McCaffrey isn’t adding as much value as he might in some other situations.

However, so far at least, this really hasn’t translated to meaningful snaps for anybody other than their 2017 first-round pick, with CJ Anderson and Reggie Bonnafon both playing well when on the field but not being rewarded for this with extended playing time. Having now signed McCaffrey to a bumper extension, the Panthers now need to make a longer-term statement about whether they plan to ride McCaffrey’s coattails for as long as they can – or whether they have a plan for how to make McCaffrey the center of a lot of what they do offensively without him having to be on the field every snap of the game. 

McCaffrey had 403 touches last season – most in the NFL – and is the only running back in the NFL to take over regular-season 2,000 snaps over the past two years.

That’s going to have to change.

Some of this is going to come down to how well other players are able to perform. While Reggie Bonnafon did look good in limited snaps, there is a big difference between that and being able to be consistently productive if you are given 100 carries in a season. Similarly, the likes of Mike Davis, Jordan Scarlett and possibly even rookie Rodney Smith will all be given a chance to earn some playing time on offense – there are genuinely roster spots up for grabs at the running back position in training camp – but none of this will matter if the Panthers aren’t willing to take McCaffrey off the field for more than a snap or two.

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This question is less about what players can do and more about what coaches will do. Getting a better backup running back, if that is what is required, is not likely to be hugely expensive – but if the Panthers aren’t willing to use a backup running back unless forced to, then that is much harder to get past as an organization. 

Can College Schemes Lead To NFL Success?

Photo Credit: Getty Images

It would be unfair to say that Phil Snow and Joe Brady are inexperienced in terms of NFL coaching – both have coached in the NFL before, albeit in more junior roles – but what is certainly true is that both of them got their current jobs because of what they did in college, not what they’ve done in the NFL.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and NFL teams should probably be more willing to take chances on college coaches, but it does mean that as playcallers and playbook engineers, they are both largely inexperienced and unproven at the NFL level. How they are able to take the schemes they ran so effectively and tweak them to adjust for the differences between the NFL and college games will go a long way to determining not just how well the Panthers do in 2020 but well into the Matt Rhule tenure. 

“I don’t believe that your age determines how good of a coach that you are,” Joe Brady said at his opening press conference. “I feel like the players that I’m going to work for and work with, the coaching staff, they’re going to see my approach, they’re going to see my work ethic, they’re going to see how I’m willing to do whatever [I] can to win…..regardless of my age, regardless of my experience, if they understand that, they’re going to want to play for me and they’re going to respect me and we’re going to be able to have success.”

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Probably the biggest things to look for in this regard is that their plan A works – and that they have a plan B. Things will probably not be going well if they are consistently struggling to create advantages for their players on their respective sides of the ball with what they do best – and then when teams learn to stop what they do best, can the coaches themselves adjust?

Joe Brady was extremely effective working the quick passing game and RPO game at LSU – if these areas aren’t able to be successful, that would be a pretty poor indication of his chances of NFL success. However, the second part of this is that NFL teams will have more talent, more time to review tape and will be far more active in trying to counter what his offense does well. Brady will need to show an ability to counter such approaches.

It might sound obvious, but it is this second point that has really let some coaches who’ve transitioned from the college game down in recent years. Chip Kelly was initially able to have success with a very similar offense to what he had run at Oregon – but when NFL defenses were able to work out the core of what he was doing, he was then unable to adjust to it.

How Brady and Snow are able to press their strengths — and then counter reactions to them — will be key in determining the Panthers’ chances of long-term success. 

Not just in 2020, but into the future.

For more questions about the Panthers’ 2020 Season, Check Out The Following:

  • Three Questions The Panthers’ Offense Must Answer 
  • Four Questions The Panthers’ Defense Must Answer – COMING TUESDAY!

(Top Photo Via Josh Auzenne/WAFB-TV)

Vincent Richardson on Twitter
Vincent Richardson
Analyst at Riot Report
Astrochemist, bartender and jazz drummer; I also watch a lot of football. Areas of interest include play design, player evaluation and data-driven analytics. Twitter: @vrichardson444