Timing wasn’t on the Carolina Panthers’ side this season. The team hits the bye week about as late in the 2020 campaign as it possibly could, 12 games into a 4-8 season. Ideally, Carolina could have used the break anytime in the last month and a half as injuries mounted and the team dropped five straight and six of the last seven.
The rest will certainly help the Panthers, but the final month of the season does them no favors either. Carolina faces three teams currently leading their divisions in the last four contests — although one of those division leaders is 4-7 Washington, tied atop the dreadful NFC East.
This was expected to be a transition year for the Panthers, who jettisoned most of their veterans before the season and used their entire draft on young defensive players. Still, the team has shown tangible signs of progress while also making it clear where work is left to be done.
Here’s a look at what’s worked and what hasn’t for the 2020 Panthers.
Worked: The quarterback position
Teddy Bridgewater won’t be making a Pro Bowl trip, but the veteran has stepped in and upgraded the spot, which had gotten progressively worse the last few years as Cam Newton struggled with injuries. Bridgewater has completed 70% of his passes, a 10% boost over last season’s Panthers passers. He’s also flipped the touchdown/interception ratio, from 17/21 last year to 15/10 through 12 games. His quarterback rating is also 20 points higher than the 2019 Panthers. He’ll likely be holding a clipboard or wearing another jersey by the time the team is contending again, but he’s provided stability as the team starts its journey there.
Hasn’t worked: Running back
This isn’t an indictment on the Panthers’ performance. The problem with this spot has been Christian McCaffrey’s health. Injuries have limited the All-Pro to parts of three games played this season. While Mike Davis and a group of young players have helped keep the drop-off from being too steep — from 113 yards per game to 106 — McCaffrey’s big-play threat running and catching the ball is missing, as is the additional attention paid to him by opposing teams, which creates a game-planning challenge.
Worked: Wide receiver
Offseason free agent signing Robby Anderson has been a find, leading the team with 75 catches while ranking second with 912 yards. He’s helped open things up for D.J. Moore, who has a team-high 924 yards. Curtis Samuel has also been a key contributor. In addition to his 517 receiving yards and three scores, he’s lined up frequently at running back, scoring twice there as well.
Hasn’t worked: The offensive line
It seems like it’s been a problem since Newton was drafted, and the line hasn’t treated Bridgewater any better. Panthers quarterbacks have been sacked 22 times and been disrupted countless other times due to pressure. The line has also exacerbated the problems with the running game.
Worked: The defensive draft picks
The Panthers became the first team in NFL history to use every draft pick on defensive players, and the selections have helped get the team’s revamp off to a fast start. First-round pick Derrick Brown hasn’t put up gaudy numbers, but his presence in the center of the defensive line has helped the Panthers move to the middle of the NFL pack in yards and points allowed. Late second-rounder Jeremy Chinn has also been a pleasant surprise, tying an NFL record last week with two fumble returns for touchdowns, capping off a season of strong play.
Hasn’t worked: The defensive draft picks
With so many picks on one side of the ball, there’s plenty of room for positives and negatives from the draft. Early second-rounder Yetur Gross-Matos showed promise early in the season, but ankle problems have limited him this year and his production has suffered. He’s a building block, but he hasn’t paid dividends this season. Fourth-rounder Troy Pride could also be a building block, and he’s gotten plenty of playing time this year, but he’s struggled — which is even more evident for someone playing cornerback.
Worked: Brian Burns
As a rookie last year, Burns would have been in the “hasn’t worked” category, but his development provides hope for Gross-Matos and Pride. Burns, a former first-rounder, has become a rising star at edge rusher. He has six sacks and 17 quarterback hits on the season. Once Gross-Matos finds his stride, having Burns on the opposite side should help open things for the current rookie.
The Panthers still have holes and room to grow, but they’ve been an entertaining team and seem to have responded to new coach Matt Rhule, who has breathed air into the team. Rhule may come through with some head-scratching decisions at times, but he’s shown faith in his players and they’ve responded.