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Carolina Panthers: Cats Scratching Back?

Signs of life in Charlotte …

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For the first time in a long time, fans of the Carolina Panthers are feeling something other than vein-popping rage, abject misery and unadulterated terror as they contemplate the future of the franchise. Last week’s ugly win over a middle-of-the-road Atlanta Falcons team – followed by a valiant near-comeback victory over an improving Green Bay Packers squad – might not look like much at first. But these two games gave Panthers’ fans a glimmer of something that they haven’t felt in quite a while: Hope.

Well, assuming their numbskull owner can refrain from screwing the pooch … err, the kittens.

Since billionaire hedge fund manager David Tepper purchased the Panthers in 2018, the team has posted an embarrassing 31-66 (.319) record – failing to reach the playoffs and failing to secure a winning season. By contrast, in the five years prior to Tepper buying the team, the Panthers went 54-32-1 (.621) – reaching the playoffs four times and making it to Super Bowl 50.

Talk about a tailspin …

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Tepper is currently on his sixth coach (although three of them have filled that role in an interim capacity after the irascible owner fired his previous choices). For his third rebuild, Tepper is aggressively targeting Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator (and North Carolina native) Ben Johnson – even though the 37-year-old reportedly has a $15 million per season asking price and is said to be far more interested in the vacant Los Angeles Chargers’ head coaching gig.

Johnson was Tepper’s top pick a year ago, but he opted to stay in Detroit – and there is no indication he will be inclined to work for someone like Tepper when he is expected to have other options.

According to Dianna Russini of The Athletic, “Tepper has taken hit after hit around the league for meddling and creating a culture of fear, but a league source said Tepper has been self-reflective, blaming himself for almost all the mistakes made this season.”

“He’s incredibly accountable and ready to make it right,” the league source told Russini. “He’s rejuvenated.”

Is that true? Even if so, Tepper has pissed off half of his team’s fan base in the Carolinas while simultaneously mortgaging the franchise’s future – leaving the next head coach with a shortage of both goodwill and draft picks.

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RELATED | PANTHERS SCREW JOB OF SOUTH CAROLINA

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Tepper surrendered those draft picks to land this year’s No. 1 overall selection Bryce Young, the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Alabama. While Young’s rookie season has been a disaster, against the Packers he finally showed flashes of the potential Tepper saw when he bet the house to acquire him.

“He was in complete control,” interim head coach Chris Tabor said as Young recorded his first 300-yard performance (completing 23 of 36 passes for 312 yards and a pair of touchdowns). “Our quarterback is playing confident.”

The 22-year-old Philadelphia native also logged a career-best quarterback rating of 110 against the Packers.

“There’s so much more to come,” Panthers’ wide receiver DJ Chark Jr. said of Young. “He’s making plays. He’s comfortable. But that’s who we know him to be, at least in this locker room. We believed in him the whole way through. Three, four, five years from now, he’s going to be definitely at the top, if not one of the top quarterbacks.”

For that to happen, though, Carolina will have to put premium talent around Young on offense – something they are not in position to do in the 2024 draft after giving up their first round pick to Chicago as part of the deal that acquired him. The Panthers will also miss out on their second-round pick in 2025 as part of the blockbuster trade that brought Young to Charlotte.

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Those are two high-value selections, not unlike the No. 9 and No. 61 picks surrendered to Chicago in this year’s draft as part of the Young trade. The same deal also enabled the Bears to acquire wide receiver DJ Moore – who has 83 catches for 1,141 yards and seven scores through fifteen games in his first season in Chicago.

That’s precisely the sort of receiving weapon Young has lacked all year …

Speaking of weapons, Tepper previously unloaded star tailback Christian McCaffrey – who did not want to leave the team. A Panthers’ captain, McCaffrey converted $7 million of his 2022 salary into a signing bonus so the team could save money against the cap and, ostensibly, become more competitive. He is currently leading the NFL in rushing and scoring for the San Francisco 49ers, the top team in the league.

Can Carolina turn things around? Yes. It may take awhile given the hole in which Tepper has placed the franchise, but a successful rebuild around Young is still a distinct possibility (especially if he plays the way he did against the Packers). The key is going to be finding the right coach … which is going to be infinitely harder for the Panthers to do unless Tepper is serious about stepping back and letting people who know something about football take the reins of his team.

If he is, there is hope yet for the Panthers …

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Travis Bell Photography)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and eight children.

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The Colonel Top fan December 25, 2023 at 5:50 pm

Who cares?

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