The Optimist: The Panthers, McCaffrey, and a Catch-22

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You will read any number of eulogies for the Carolina Panthers 2021 today. There will be charges against the Front Office; Hints from the obvious regarding Sam Darnold; and more than a few jokes at David Tepper’s expense. Many of them may be well founded and well deserved by their subjects. However, this column will not be one of them.

I’ll try to focus this audience on two things: (1) why I’m still not mad at the Panthers for the Darnold trade, and (2) their ever-evolving enigma, which is Christian McCaffrey. If you are angry and want to burn jerseys or write strongly worded letters, today may not be the place for you.

That’s OK.

I would be mad now if I wasn’t so bored with this team. From patchwork solutions to ignored problems to knee-jerk reactions, the panthers become clichéd if they are not lackluster. That goes back to at least 2016, but only because some players (Luke, Cam, etc) were able to rise above the deliberate processes that caused these errors on the team.

I would love to see an organization, from owners to coaches, that doesn’t induce years of tantrums in the name of pride.

And yes, that goes for Tepper’s willingness, in his eagerness to release the quarterback position, to burn assets like they were matches in his in-laws’ bathroom. I have strong feelings right now for a franchise that seems addicted to mediocrity.

Still, we will aim for the positive. With the optimistic.

Darnold was worth the risk

I mentioned earlier that Tepper’s willingness to spend money on the problem until it is resolved is actually part of the problem. That’s because the NFL is not designed to be a quick-fix league. Every team has the same number of draft picks at the beginning, and every team has the same amount of money to spend. He bought a team in a strange place, let that oddity fester, and now struggles with talent and persistence with the quarterback and every position on the offensive – perhaps the six most competitive positions in terms of their job markets. Ultimately, it takes patience to resolve these concerns without creating other potentially bigger problems. This is where Sam Darnold comes in.

Trading with Darnold was a gamble, as I wrote back in April. Right now it’s pretty obvious that the complaint project is a failure. Back then it was just an idea. Matt Rhule and Scott Fitterer faced the following decisions: A) to keep Teddy Bridgewater for another year knowing he was not the answer; B) Spend a second round on Sam Darnold in 2022, who was of a similar age to the current draft class and came from a poor family background; or C) Spend the number 8 in the 2021 draft on a quarterback they weren’t sold to (who turned out to be Justin Fields or Mac Jones).

They chose the medium-cost option, which has the potential for high reward (a franchise quarterback) and lowest risk (a few late round picks, a second round pick, and cash).

What else would you do?

Fields and Jones are probably both better than Darnold, but are they franchise quarterback stuff? It’s hard to say, but neither of them have just got off to a Justin Herbert-level start. Are they better enough to be worth the difference in design capital that their acquisition would have required? Not if they’re not franchise quarterbacks.

I wrote in April that I consider Darnold worthy of a choice who could easily have been the next Amini Silatolu. I stand by that. Fitterer seems to have had an impressive first draft in 2021, but we haven’t even had these guys rookie years and it’s just a draft. NFL general managers are consistently inconsistent enough in draft that I refuse to look back in two years to see who we “swapped” for Darnold. They had an option that they considered to be on par with the field of rookie quarterbacks available, and they paid a lot less for him. It’s just good business. The tragedy is that maybe it was a terrible rating.

It was a medium risk bet

The biggest hit available to Darnold is not the base cost of the trade, but the cost of selecting the second round and the mediocre success it has had will keep the Panthers from having as good a draft as they otherwise would have. In other words, their ability to continue building the team, such as investing in the offensive, has been compromised. That is true and represents her first real Fitterer-era management puzzle.

How do you reclaim a project quarterback and give them the environment they need to succeed when you can’t build a new environment for them? Now, nine games in the 2021 season, that’s a fair question. The front office thought they had improved the offensive line. They thought they would at least get Darnold behind a line superior to his previous unit in New York. It’s a shame we’ll never know if that’s true as Taylor Moton is the only offensive lineman on the team who has a chance to finish the season without missing multiple games. He and Matt Paradis were in the running until Paradis tore his cruciate ligament in the second game of the game yesterday.

An already shaken quarterback is not going to thrive or grow behind the chaos in the NFL. So, yes, a change needs to be made for the second or third year in a row, depending on how you view the phrase “must” in that phrase.

The good news is that this has not been the same team for the past two years. Two designs made an impression, albeit mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Investment is still needed along the offensive line and at the quarterback, but these are the two most pressing areas. Everything else is manageable.

Simply put, the Darnold Trade didn’t leave them where they were when they made the bet. The risk that seems to have become a reality is that it didn’t get them anywhere either.

When does a problem become an identity?

This is still a team deeply rebuilding on the offensive. For all defense complaints, I would suggest patience. The defense’s fatal flaw is not talent or plan, but rather an offensive that can keep them fresh by keeping them off the field, that occasionally – or always – can give them the opportunity to play with a lead. Instead, the Panthers have scored a touchdown in the past three weeks.

This is mainly because their moderate risk bet on Darnold didn’t pay off. The defense was built to order and they thought they had found a shortcut on the offensive. That shortcut that became an obstacle was always a possibility and why I started this section talking about Tepper and patience. You can’t roll the dice and then get annoyed by the results. They weren’t weighted and the Panthers knew this was a possibility. Hell, most of the NFL would have told them it was more likely to lose that bet.

The Panthers’ staff have to be humble, they have to accept that the competition this season is largely out of their reach. Also next season, if Darnold is still her $ 18 million husband.

Now all you can do is shrug your shoulders and keep your eyes open for the next bet. But that doesn’t mean they should go all-in on every quarterback who shows an arm. I’m not mad at the losing second round pick, but I am upset when the Panthers break the bank for a single player when they have more than one investment they have to need to make in order to guarantee sustainable success.

Catch-22 vs Run CMC

This isn’t a clever campaign to give McCaffrey a new nickname. The Panthers are really in a fix. You’ve proven three things since McCaffrey signed his contract renewal last April. First, they can’t give him the ball more than 30 times per game and keep him healthy. Second, he doesn’t have to be on the field every time to make big moves or be a big part of the offense. Third, they cannot move the ball on the field without it. Something has to give.

Appreciating a better future versus a still bad present

The Panthers made solid efforts in the first half yesterday to spell McCaffrey and fully prove that third point. Yet even with limited snapshots, McCaffrey led the team in both rushing and receiving. How do they manage to play soccer without killing their best player, without whom they apparently can’t play soccer? The answer is deceptively simple: you don’t.

The competition is beyond them with no monumental change in the quarterback position. For Panthers fans who can remember the team before 2011, most quarterbacks need a better offensive line than the one we currently have in order to be successful. Stop me if I’ve said this before.

The virtue of humility

The Panthers should use McCaffrey in the future, just as they should use everyone in their roster. Open the playbook. Experiment. See if there is a combination of these players and coaches that can look successful in live competition, but don’t worry about losing games.

Sacrificing a superstar’s physical health to save a coach’s job is why we ended up in the quarterback purgatory that we are suffering from today. Please. Please don’t break Christian McCaffrey. I wrote this article seven months before his contract renewal. Since that extra time, McCaffrey has played seven out of a possible 25 games.

[Tepper] bought a team in a strange place, let this oddity fester and now faces problems with talent and persistence …

The Panthers’ staff have to be humble, they have to accept that the competition this season is largely out of their reach. Also next season, if Darnold is still her $ 18 million husband. They have to embrace this mess and start asking something else of their team. Maybe they learn something.

I think what I’m saying is that I’m thrilled that McCaffrey is still McCaffrey. Yesterday it was shown that his outburst and eyesight weren’t affected by so much time. That’s great. The panthers should do everything in their power to keep this true. Rather than throwing him in the ground to win games this season that we all know are way out of the playoffs, I’d rather see them try anything else that isn’t about who Killing careers of their best offensive players. Again. I would love to see an organization, from owners to coaches, that doesn’t induce years of tantrums in the name of pride.

Yesterday they seemed ready to be more cautious with McCaffrey’s commitment in his third first game after an injury last year. Such a consistent effort would be a step forward for the coaching staff. It would be the most encouraging sign of the Matt Rhule era yet. I don’t doubt he’s smart and a hell of a good football coach, but I’ve seen a lot of coaches stare stupidly in the face and not even realize it. The ability to be humble and accept the obvious things that he doesn’t like would give me more hope than I’ve had in a long time. For both McCaffrey and the Carolina Panthers in the years to come.