Alright, you’re catching me on a lazy, gorgeous Friday afternoon where I’m stuck inside thinking about football. I suppose I might as well be writing about it. If you’re looking for a painstakingly organized, impeccably argued super-blog, stop reading right now. Seriously, go read Bruce Feldman, or one of the other opining opinion-havers whose life’s purpose it is to chew up information and regurgitate its reconstituted form into digestible bits for you. No, this is something more Faulkner--a rollicking flow of consciousness that goes down as easy as that September sun outside my window. Take a deep breath. The weekend is here. Enjoy:
First, things I appreciate:
The T.V. executives who decided to do their jobs this week. The last couple years have been a plague of clogged time slots, as competitive-jerk networks have sought to fight over “primetime football”. It’s all Saturday football, baby--it’s all prime time. There are plenty of eyes to go around, and the stations will get more of them, anyway, if the viewers don’t have to choose between Georgia-Notre Dame and Michigan-Wisconsin. Each of these time slots has a marquee game, complemented by an important secondary game (Like the night games featuring Georgia-Notre Dame and Texas-Oklahoma State). If you don’t have two T.V.s I don’t know what to tell you…..there’s no one to blame but yourself.
Mike Leach’s press conferences, that pretty much recall your dad on his couch spouting off takes at people who stopped listening 15 years ago. Leach’s opinions are about as nuanced and textured as a stick of butter. That being said, let them melt over me. His expression meanders with the voluminous freedom of someone more preoccupied with having strong opinions than supporting them--whether his dart fall on pirates or this week’s episode of California’s Dirty Streets. Don’t tell me he’s irresponsible. If you’re asking looking for expert opinion, find a mind not 85% cluttered with option routes and blitz pickups. Take him for what he is: the rare college football coach who doesn’t give an ish, and treats the public like an old, conspiratorial friend. May he fill the vacuum that Spurrier left with as many misbegotten, messy claims as he can give us.
This is the entertainment business, and I’d rather hear what Leach has to offer than the longform spewdom that is the average post-game press conference; where ears perk up in rapture every time a coach does more than say they’ll “go back and watch the film”, “work on execution”, “reassess their preparation”, “make necessary adjustments”, and “keep moving in the right direction”.....I have more, but my fingers are already bored.
Beating them at their own game will be the key storyline in almost every big matchup this weekend. I love contrasting styles as much as the next two-bit quasi-blogger (Clemson’s Fun vs. Bama’s Run, Ground and Pound vs. Throw-it-around, Driving vs. Miss Daisy), but there’s something poetic about locking up with a team that wants to do the same thing you do, and having to just be better at it. Oklahoma state vs. Texas? Fly down the field on offense; invoke whatever diety might save your secondary each quarter. Georgia vs. Notre Dame? Control the ball, run it down their throats, make timely plays to talented wide receivers. Auburn vs. Texas A&M? Defense: Meet at the quarterback. Offense: Give ‘em hell with whatever funky misdirections, sweeps, qb rollouts, and downfield heaves you’ve got in your bag of tricks. Northwestern vs. Michigan State: Let’s just kinda tussle for 60 minutes. These are honest matchups of like vs. like, and for the first time all year there won’t be anywhere for a lot of these teams to hide their flaws.
But that’s enough appreciating. I’m far less thrilled about
Conference depth. Don’t try to sell me on any of these piddling conferences. Even the SEC, my heart’s unholy weakness, has come limping off the non-conference battlefield with less than a loincloth of dignity. I’m looking at you Miss St., South Carolina, Mizzou, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Vandy. All of you have embarrassing losses to programs that SEC fans would barely raise their heads to sneer at. Welcome to the crowded second-tier of college football. This Gamecock fan is already feeling claustrophobic. Luckily, we’re in decent company.
The Pac-12’s second-best out-of-conference win so far is over BYU, the team that took OVERTIME to beat TENNESSEE. Arizona State, you did ‘em proud, but the rest of these louts haven’t done the conference any favors. Our Western Frontiersman probably wouldn’t switch places, however, with the ACC, which just had the worst weekend in the recent history of power conference perception. NC state got neutered by an aspiring-to-mediocre West Virginia team (Hey Clem’s Son, WVU just scored again….), Georgia Tech lost to the Citadel, BC, a team which has already beaten Virginia Tech, lost in Boston to the worst power conference program of the 21st century. Maryland, the team that housed Syracuse, lost to Temple, and it took all of the gumption in Blacksburg for Virginia Tech to beat the Plucky Paladins. It’s indefensible, especially because many of these teams are still seen as candidates to serve as Clemson’s handmaiden in the annual Tiger anointing which has become the ACC conference schedule.
Taking kids to truly big college football games. We made our bid to take the Littlest Gamecock to the Bama game this weekend. I’ll try again in 2023. 5 minutes before kickoff, a two-year-old who began the day screaming “Go Cocks” and “Watch Football Game” had already declared “It TOO LOUD! Go DADDY’S CAR”. When duty calls. I stayed long enough to watch Tua toss his first touchdown, before the Little Master hustled me outside the stadium. Alas, an expensive lesson learned. But I soon learned another : Always take babies tailgating (provided that they’re cute and willing to explain their trials to strangers in devastatingly endearing broken English). On the way back to Daddy’s car, with him on my shoulders, we were invited under every tailgate tent, offered every morsel of leftover barbecue, and given every seat. Daddy got the luxury of free sustenance and game-watching, The Littlest Gamecock found 500 new punch-drunk babysitters. We tailgate-hopped the whole first-half, lilly-padding our way back to the car. It’s an underrated way to experience a game.
That’s all for this week. As always, we’re glad Carolina’s on your mind.
Welp, not the greatest THERS-day in the Carolinas...
A lot of us went to bed on Thursday night questioning where the Carolina Panthers are going as a football team. After a remarkably disappointing, 2nd straight home loss to the Bucs to open the 2019 season, we have to wonder, what is 2019 going to look like for the Panthers? And what should 2019 look for the Panthers??
We all have that one friend, the “hot take guy”, who has watched the last 2 games and decided it’s time to “Tank for Tua”, “Hunker for Herbert”, “Fail for Fromm”, or if you’ve watched much College Football lately, maybe even “Bellow for Burrow”. There’s always someone saying that Cam is a headache, that he needs to stop dressing like a GrandMaMa, instagramming in hieroglyphics, and will never focus enough on football to be a great QB. You may even have a buddy, God forbid, who thinks it’s time to “give Will Grier a shot”. Before the Panthers hang up the cleats for the season and we all prepare ourselves for a repeat of 2010’s disastrous season (2-14), let’s examine some positives and negatives we can take away from the Panthers’ first two games:
Areas for Optimism:
Christian Mccaffrey: Do I think it’s in the Panthers’ best interest for CMC to get 29 touches per game, as he did in week 1?? Absolutely not. But despite his dud against the Bucs in week 2, CMC remains one of the most unique offensive weapons in the NFL, and his ability to serve as a security blanket for Cam Newton is one of our greatest threats. Mccaffrey had 18 touches in Week 2, with 16 carries and 2 catches, and despite the offensive struggles of the Panthers, between 18-24 touches should be a sweet spot for CMC. As we’ve discussed on the podcast, Carolina has some talented and dynamic young runners in Reggie Bonnafon and Jordan Scarlett that we would love to see get a little more work and take the pressure of Mccaffrey. CMC is awesome, and should lead the Panthers in targets and catches most weeks, but if we can sprinkle in more carries for our young running backs, we have a lot of room for optimism in the run game.
Weapons on the outside: The Panthers have so much talent on the outside, and it shows despite the struggles of Cam Newton throwing the football (more on that later, he is NOT in this section of this article). DJ Moore, despite a few drops, has consistently gotten separation from defenders and been a go-to guy for Cam. With Ian Thomas out in Week 2, Greg Olsen of old came to play, as he finished with 6 catches for 110 yards in a breakout game. I will say, as reliable as Greg was catching the football, he didn’t exactly look like a spring chicken once the ball was in his hands, but I don’t think anybody expects Ole Greg to shake and bake anybody in the open field. Curtis Samuel had a strong week 2 as well following his disappointing opening game, with 4 catches for 82 yards. It has to be a bit troubling that he was only able to reel in 4 of his 12 targets, but he created consistent separation, looked sharp on his routes but was routinely overthrown. Curtis will continue to get a few carries too, with reverses and double reverses routinely featured in Norv Turner’s offense, and look for him to break a few of those for big gains!
Front 7 on Defense: Luke Kuechly is the best in the business. Yes, he dropped a surefire interception, but he had 8 tackles and 2 TFL, and was disruptive throughout, as he has been for his entire career. Dontari Poe had a sack on Jameis Winston, Brian burns recorded his first sack, and even 2018 5th rounder Jermaine Carter Jr got in for a sack with Mario Addison. I know, I know, we allowed Peyton Barber to scamper for 82 yards, but no Bucs averaged more than 3.6 yards per attempt. We just weathered the Rams ball carriers last week, limiting Gurley to less than 100 yards, albeit on only 16 carries, but we have the chops and talent to put pressure on opposing QBs and make it hard on RBs going forward.
James Bradberry: I won’t go crazy in-depth here, but Bradberry is having an outstanding start to 2019. He recorded an interception in week 1, and made life miserable for Robert Woods and Mike Evans in back-to-back weeks.
Areas for Concern:
Cam Newton: I think we can all agree that Cam has been... ehhh... rusty? inaccurate? tentative? just plain awful??? Cam has not been at his Pro Bowl form so far in 2019. Yes, he threw for 333 against the Bucs, but on 25/51 passing?? Cam has never been a terribly accurate quarterback, but in years past, we could take the inaccuracy because he excelled so much as a playmaker and runner. Not only has Cam been ineffective (well, nonexistent) as a runner, but his pocket mobility has looked genuinely terrible. Cam has looked inept moving the pocket to find space to throw, and it has led to many of his errant passes. On the biggest play of the game, a 4th and 1 late in the 4th quarter, we dialed up some trickery to get CMC the ball on a sweep that ultimately failed to collect the required yardage. Over the last 8 years, Cam has been the single best short yardage weapon in the NFL, and it seems Ron Rivera didn’t feel he could trust him for that task on Thursday Night. To address the hot topic, I think that Cam’s shoulder is fine, but he isn’t doing the little things in the pocket and with his footwork to ensure accuracy on his throws, and it is a glaring deficiency.
Offensive Scheme: If you’ve watched Carolina’s last 2 games, you’ve noticed a clear lack of verticality in our passing game. Norv Turner’s offense, with dinks, dumps and quick strikes, is great if you’ve got a reflexive thrower who is decisive and accurate. Cam is a lot of things, but he is not those specific things. I mentioned earlier that Curtis Samuel caught only 4 of 12 targets in Week 2? He’s a phenomenal route runner, but without a QB who can throw him open out of breaks, and consistently fit a ball into those tight windows, we can continue to see those stat lines from the 2nd year player. We finally hit on a few passes 15+ yards, but those were to Greg down the middle. I think most Carolina fans would love to see some more deep shots to a guy like DJ Moore, who has the big play potential that reminds us of Panther legend Steve Smith.
Offensive Line: As a huge NFL guy, there aren’t a ton of players I don’t recognize if they’ve been around the league for a few years. Carolina’s poor offensive line play ensured that I wouldn’t go another week without learning who Shaquil Barrett is, as he regularly invaded the backfield to the tune of 3 sacks, 2 of which came on back-to-back plays. Daryl Williams gave up those sacks to Barrett and was tagged with a holding penalty, and Cam was constantly under pressure from the Bucs defense.
So what do we do NOW?
While starting (0-2) with a division loss is a very difficult way to begin a season, there is still hope for Carolina to climb back into playoff contention. There is even recent evidence to suggest such optimism, as in 2013, the Panthers started (0-2) and eventually (1-3) before charging back to a first place NFC South finish. Cam Newton is still the best hope at consistent QB play (personally, I’d trust Taylor Heineke over our current backups), and Carolina has a defense that continues to be in the top half of the league.
Cam HAS to be better. Plain and simple. He finally has the weapons, and he no longer has to be Superman for the Panthers to win football games, as he did early in his career. All he needs to do now is be an NFL quarterback and make the throws he is supposed to make. If Cam can improve his accuracy and we can establish the run consistently, it should allow for easier first downs and more big play opportunities on second and shorts.
The Saints seem destined to win the division, but the Bucs and Falcons are very beatable football teams. Carolina’s next 4 contests are away versus the Cardinals and Texans, then home against the recently QB-less Jaguars and a rematch at Tampa bay. Call me an optimist, but I can still see 3 wins in those 4 and a chance to enter the Week 7 Bye at .500 and well-positioned for a playoff push.
-Stew Kremer (with contributions from Mark Kremer, Lee Branscome, and William Carrigan)