The Panthers and Falcons meet twice a year, but the NFC South rivals will need to have some pregame introductions when they meet in the season opener in Atlanta on Sunday.
Both teams have undergone extensive makeovers in an effort to snap out of the malaise that has stricken the organizations.
Since playing in Super Bowl 51 in February 2017, the Falcons have gone 42-56, including a streak of five straight losing seasons and three straight finishes in the bottom two in the division. Since their trip to the Super Bowl a year earlier, the Panthers have gone 46-68 with five straight losing records and four finishes in the bottom half of the NFC South in the last five years.
Something had to change in both locker rooms, and did it ever this offseason. Both teams will have new quarterbacks after following the same progression at the position — after parting ways with the franchise QB who led them to the Super Bowl, each team tried to go the veteran route before finding the quarterback they hope will be their future.
The Marcus Mariota experiment lasted less than a season in Atlanta, and now the Falcons hope Desmond Ridder can take the team to the heights that Matt Ryan reached in his 14 years as Falcons QB1. The Panthers, meanwhile, are turning to first overall pick Bryce Young, who replaced a revolving door of potential replacements for Cam Newton that included Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, Newton (again) and Baker Mayfield.
Ridder, a third-round pick last season after leading Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff, started four games a year ago, winning two. He completed 63% of his passes for 703 yards and threw two touchdowns with no interceptions — encouraging numbers but far from a guarantee of stardom. He only played in one preseason game this year, completing seven of nine passes, but one of his two misses was an interception.
Ridder did get a vote of confidence from his top target, Drake London.
“He only had four games last year — people didn’t really see all of Des,” London said. “Now they get to see him and get to see what he does, so I think he’ll shut a lot of people up and silence those doubters for sure.”
Quarterback is not the only spot in Atlanta with new faces. The Falcons made extensive changes on defense and will have essentially a brand new secondary, as well as a new coordinator calling the shots. They also added several skill position players on offense to give Ridder other options besides London.
Over at Carolina, the Panthers have given the keys to the offense to Young. He got mixed reviews during the preseason as the team struggled to protect him. Young finally threw his first touchdown pass in the preseason finale. Joining him in wearing the “my name is” sticker is a new face at coach in Frank Reich, who has presided over several changes on both sides of the ball.
With all the changes on both rosters and coaching staffs, the biggest factor in the opener may be a player who was expected to be one of the few remaining islands of stability. Panthers edge rusher Brian Burns, who has developed into one of the NFL’s leading pass rushers, is engaged in a contract battle with the team, and his availability for the game has been cast into doubt. Burns is in the final year of his rookie contract and looking to get an extension as well as a raise. He didn’t play in the preseason as he looked to come to an agreement with Carolina. Now it’s game week, however, and things don’t appear to be progressing. He missed two practices in a row, including Monday’s first of Week 1, for “personal reasons.”
After missing a walk-through last Thursday, Burns told ESPN he wasn’t holding out or refusing to play without a new deal.
“No fault to anybody who is not participating,’’ he said. “But we’ve got something special, and I’m a big part of it, so I can’t miss no time. I’ve just got to be here.’’
Monday’s absence threw that into doubt, however.
“I’m not involved in the contract negotiations. At all. I have zero [input],’” Reich said on Monday. “I’m just worried about getting my team ready to play Atlanta. Do I hope he is there? Absolutely, I hope he is there. If he’s not there, I’m not worried about it. Just move forward.”
Someone will move forward on Sunday when two organizations who desperately need to make progress will meet.