Questions loom as new-look Panthers gear up for season opener against Raiders

 By Zach Goins

September 11, 2020

Just a few months ago, many questioned whether football season would even be a possibility this fall. Now, we’re just days away from the Panthers kicking things off against the Raiders. 

After a turbulent offseason, Sunday’s matchup will give Panthers fans across the Carolinas their first look at a totally revamped franchise. With so much change coming to Carolina, first-year NFL head coach Matt Rhule is getting ready to usher the organization into a brand new era of Panthers football.

Without any sort of preseason to give fans, or opponents, an idea of what they should expect from the new (and hopefully improved) Panthers, it’s safe to say there are plenty of questions surrounding the team. The biggest one for fans is whether or not the team will actually be any good this year. Rebuilds often take time, and Rhule’s track record proves that, with his previous stops at Baylor and Temple requiring two seasons before delivering wins. If the power rankings from pundits around the NFL are any indicator, the Panthers can expect to follow the same pattern. 

It’s only Week 1, but the Panthers– and their fans– are already desperate for a win. Things got off to a bumpy 0-2 start last season before Carolina reeled off five wins in six games. By midseason the Panthers looked primed for a playoff run at 5-3, but then disaster struck with eight straight losses to close out the year. When Sunday rolls around it will be 315 days since the Carolina Panthers last won a football game. Now, Rhule and his players are looking to turn the tide, and it all starts on Sunday with the Las Vegas Raiders. 

You read that right. After decades in Oakland, the Raiders finally made the move to Las Vegas, but they’re still the same hard-nosed football team led by head coach Jon Gruden. Last year Gruden led the team to a 7-9 record as the Raiders offense averaged 363.7 yards per game (11th-most in 2019). Much of that offensive production came from rookie running back Josh Jacobs, who tallied 1,150 rushing yards in just 13 games, as well as breakout tight end Darren Waller, who ranked second in the league among tight ends with 1,145 receiving yards and 90 receptions. Both standouts are back along with quarterback Derrick Carr, and the Raiders are looking to turn the production into points after averaging just 19.6 points per game (24th) last year. 

Ahead of the season opener on Sunday, here are the five biggest questions for the Panthers ahead of kickoff:

Are they ready to play?

It’s been probably the craziest offseason in NFL history. Sure, there was the lockout in 2011 that wiped out many of the same events, but never has there been so much uncertainty surrounding an NFL season, and it’s not ending anytime soon. With that being said, it wouldn’t be entirely out of the picture if players on both sides look a little rusty on Sunday. The game will mark both teams’ first live action since Dec. 29, 2019, so it may take a drive or two to get back into the groove. 

On top of that, there won’t be fans in the stands to bring the energy to Bank of America Stadium. In order to compensate, the league will allow teams to play artificial crowd noise to create some semblance of atmosphere, but as linebacker Tahir Whitehead said Wednesday, it’s just not the same.

“You can’t feed off of the juice from the crowd when you make a big play and all of that stuff. It’s only us out there,” Whitehead said on Zoom. “It’s really going to come down to whichever team can come together and really create their own energy, and whoever can last the longest, make the least amount of mistakes.”

What will we see from Joe Brady’s offense?

Carolina’s offense has been entirely revamped this offseason. There’s a new offensive coordinator in former LSU wunderkind Joe Brady, plus former Saint Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback and the addition of free-agent acquisition Robby Anderson at wide receiver. 

Brady’s offense dominated the collegiate level last season as LSU rolled to an undefeated season, a national title, and a record-setting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. In Carolina, he’ll be joined by those new additions, plus All-Pro running back and human Swiss Army knife Christian McCaffrey, as well as two standout wide receivers in DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel. With so many weapons on the field together, things could get pretty exciting.

“There’s not many coaches that are fortunate to have at least three wide receivers at any given play we feel confident getting the ball to,” Brady said last week of Moore, Anderson and Samuel. “They all bring different strengths to our offense, and it’s my job and our coaches have to put them in positions to have that success.”

While the lack of a preseason has its drawbacks when it comes to getting in a rhythm ahead of the real games, it also has a few perks for a new team like Carolina.

“Nobody knows what we’re going to come out and do,” Moore said Wednesday on Zoom. “That’s a scary thing for the opposing team.”

Well, the fans don’t either, so everyone could be in for a treat come Sunday.

Can the offensive line improve from last year?

As exciting as all that potential scoring sounds, none of it is possible without the big guys up front. Despite the Panthers’ success with McCaffrey on the ground last season, Carolina struggled to protect its quarterbacks, giving up a league-high 58 sacks.

This year’s unit is anchored by veteran free-agent addition Russell Okung at left tackle, Taylor Moton at right tackle, and Matt Paradis at center. The guards are where things get fuzzy. John Miller is listed to start at right guard, while second-year player Dennis Daley is slotted at left– only Daley has been out of practice this week with an ankle injury. That means veteran backup Michael Schofield may be filling in, but Rhule seems okay with that possibility.

“I feel great about Scho, I think he’s played a lot of football,” Rhule said. “We brought him here in hopes to compete to be a starter and he’s practiced well and played well.”

Whoever ends up starting will have their work cut out for them as they line up across from edge rushers Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, a duo who combined for 14.5 sacks as rookies last season.

“We’ve got a lot of skill players that we like, but a big part of this is keeping Teddy clean in the pocket,” Rhule explained. “Our center and both guards keeping the pocket firm, but then those tackles have to win one-on-one, and you’re looking at a really good rush.”

Can the rookies keep up on defense?

There’s no doubt the Panthers will be able to put up points this season, but a big question is just how many their own defense will be giving up.

In January, Carolina lost the face of its defense when linebacker Luke Kuechly retired, then the team lost its No. 1 cornerback, a veteran safety, and six of its top seven sack leaders to free agency. The depleted unit used all seven picks in April’s draft to shore up the defensive side of the ball, but will the young guys be ready to step up right away?

On Carolina’s projected depth chart, four rookies are expected to start: seventh-overall pick Derrick Brown at defensive tackle, Yetur Gross-Matos at defensive end, Troy Pride Jr. at cornerback, and Jeremy Chinn in a hybrid linebacker-defensive back position.

On the bright side, the Raiders don’t boast a veteran receiving corp, which should provide a bit of relief for the Panthers’ young secondary. Las Vegas is expected to start rookies Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, as well as second-year wide out Hunter Renfrow.

Who steps up to lead?

In a time of transition, a team needs someone to take charge. The offense lost quarterback Cam Newton, and the defense is without Kuechly– the two de facto leaders of the team. So, who will be the one to replace the superstars?

McCaffrey is clearly the new face of the franchise. His play speaks for itself, and his teammates have praised him for becoming a more vocal leader this offseason. In addition, Rhule said that Bridgewater has quickly come into Carolina and taken charge of the offense.

“You can call it Joe Brady’s offense, but I think it’s Teddy’s offense as much as anything now,” Rhule said. “He’s got to take the reins.”

Defensively, Whitehead is taking Kuechly’s spot at middle linebacker, but linebacker Shaq Thompson and safety Tre Boston have cemented themselves as leaders on that side of the ball.

The Carolina Panthers vs. Las Vegas Raiders kicks off at 1 p.m. EST on Sunday on CBS.

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