The past five years have been a rollercoaster for the Carolina Panthers. Coming off a crushing loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers have been struggling to recapture their identity. A disheveled ownership scandal caused longtime team owner Jerry Richardson to sell the team back in 2018, to hedge fund mogul David Tepper for a whopping $2.2 billion dollars. Tepper has sought to restore a winning culture in Carolina but has failed to do so in his first two seasons with the team.
Carolina has failed to make the playoffs since Tepper has taken over the franchise, finishing below .500 during that time span. Tepper has made it clear this off-season that winning is his top priority. With four games left to play in the 2019 season, Tepper relieved Head Coach Ron Rivera and Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner of their duties. Rivera spent nine seasons in Carolina amassing an overall record of 76-63, while reaching the playoffs four times.
Out with the old, In with the new
Coming off of a disappointing 5-11 record in 2019, finishing last in the NFC South, Carolina hired a new head coach. On January 7, 2020 the Carolina Panthers named former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule to become the fourth head coach in franchise history. Rhule brought along with him Defensive Coordinator Phil Snow, who coached under Rhule at Temple and Baylor. One of the more shocking off-season signings was that of highly sought-after LSU Passing Game Coordinator Joe Brady. At only 30 years of age, Brady was the mastermind behind LSU’s National Championship offense, grooming Cincinnati Bengals first overall pick Joe Burrow into a Heisman winner last season.
One of the first roster moves the Rhule regime made in Carolina was the releasing of long time Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton before virtual OTAs began back in March. The former 2015 MVP had missed some of the 2018 season and was sidelined nearly all of 2019 because of shoulder and foot injuries.
Shortly after Newton’s release, the Panthers signed former Saints Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater 3 year - 63-million-dollar deal. Bridgewater is once again reunited with Brady, who served as an offensive assistant for the Saints during the 2017-18 season. Bridgewater’s familiarity with Brady’s offensive system was key for Carolina in the signing. Whether Bridgewater is a short term or long-term solution at the position has yet to be determined, however, known for being a game manager, Bridgewater went 5-0 last season when Saints starting quarterback Drew Brees went down with an injury mid-season.
Brady and Bridgewater will have plenty of weapons to play with on offense, as Carolina secured All-Pro Running Back Christian McCaffrey to a four-year deal worth upwards of $64 million dollars, making McCaffrey the highest paid running back in NFL history. Last season, McCaffery amassed over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving, joining only Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only three players in NFL history to do so. He finished the year with 2,392 yards from the line of scrimmage.
The Panthers offense also acquired free agent wide receiver Robby Anderson from the New York Jets, signing him to a 2-year deal worth $20 million. Anderson will join the likes of DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, who both hope to reap the benefits of the Joe Brady style aerial attack.
Rhule and his staff made a statement in the 2020 NFL Draft that defense was a top priority for the team moving forward. With the loss of seven-time Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly to retirement in the off-season, Carolina is looking for a fresh start on that side of the ball. With all seven picks in the draft, Carolina went defense. Carolina ranked in the bottom third in the NFL in overall defense, especially when it came defending the run.
With their seventh overall pick in the draft, Carolina selected Nose Tackle Derrick Brown out of Auburn to help mitigate that. Brown’s selection made it back to back years Carolina drafted a defensive lineman in the first round. In 2019, the Panthers selected Brian Burns out of Florida State, who was a defensive rookie of the year candidate until a hand injury deterred his playing time down the stretch. Carolina followed up their first-round pick by adding Defensive End Yetur Gross-Matos out of Penn State, and Safety Jeremy Chinn out of Southern Illinois-Carbondale in the second round.
Season Predictions and Future Outlook
According to DraftKings, the Carolina Panthers have the worst odds in the division at +2000 to win the NFC South. This comes as no surprise with Carolina being the only team in the NFL with turnover at the head coaching position, and with the offensive and defensive coaching side.
A pandemic is one of the worst scenarios possible for a new coaching staff as they attempt to implement their system. Almost the entire off-season was virtual, as the coaching staff tried to not only learn their new roster but establish a new culture within the franchise. Carolina is rebuilding for the future, and what comes with rebuilding is the inevitable L’s in the loss column. I predict Carolina’s 2020 record will be 5-11, as Christian McCaffrey and company will be able to squeeze out a few wins, including a favorable week one match-up against the Las Vegas Raiders.
As for the uncertainty for the future at the quarterback position, it all depends on how Bridgewater manifests during the regular season. Is he the quarterback for the future? Or is he the “bridge” in Carolina’s rebuilding process. All in all, I would not be surprised if in next year’s draft Carolina selects Clemson's Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields, as Carolina shapes up to have another early first-round selection.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel as Saints Quarterback Drew Brees, Tampa Bay’s Quarterback Tom Brady, and Atlanta Falcons Quarterback Matt Ryan are all nearing the end of their respective careers. Look for Carolina to lay down a solid foundation that will surely rise them back to the top of the NFC South in the upcoming years.