Why the Carolina Panthers Will Make the Playoffs in 2020
Written by Jonathan Lidskin
Since the 2016 season where the Carolina Panthers posted an NFL best 15-1 record in the regular season and an NFC title, the franchise has been very up and down. Cam Newton has battled injuries since his MVP season that same year and because of his health issues, the Carolina front office felt it was time to move on. Unable to find a trade partner, the Panthers had no choice but to release Newton. The Panthers’ other major news this season was the surprise firing of head coach Ron Rivera with four weeks remaining in the regular season. While most franchises crumble into a rebuild after losing their head coach and franchise quarterback, the Carolina Panthers will surprise most people this season and make the playoffs.
The Panthers first needed to address the head coaching position prior to free agency. The candidates included a couple of coordinators, a former head coach and a college coach that was relatively unknown in the football world before 2019. The Panthers chose that college coach in Matt Rhule from Baylor. Rhule was an offensive line coach for the Giants in 2012, but he is more known for his time spent at the college level. In 2013, Rhule became the head coach at Temple. When he arrived at Temple, the team was coming off a 4-7 season and it was clear it would take awhile to rebuild. After going 2-10 in 2013, Rhule led Temple to 6 wins in 2014 and then back to back 10 win seasons in 2015 and 2016. Right before the Military Bowl in 2016, Rhule left Temple to become the head coach at Baylor. The Baylor program at the time was coming off of a terrible sexual assault scandal under Art Briles and had many players leave the program. Like at Temple, Rhule’s Baylor team struggled in his first year going 1-11. However, in his second year at Baylor the team won 7 games and then followed that up by winning 11 games in his third year and nearly winning the Big 12 championship. Rhule’s ability to rebuild programs fast is the reason he is such a great fit in Carolina.
Matt Rhule’s first act as Panthers head coach was to bring in Joe Brady as the offensive coordinator. Brady should get a lot of credit for the offensive turnaround at LSU last year as he was brought in as the passing game coordinator. His play calling and offensive system will greatly improve Teddy Bridgewater’s ability as a passer. The combination of Brady’s offensive system to go with Christian McCaffery should make the Panthers one of the more dangerous offenses in the NFL.
Despite the great hires, the Panthers still needed the talent that they lacked last year at many key positions. Replacing Cam Newton was the top priority and they did so with New Orleans Saints backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater went 5-0 starting for the Saints last year in Drew Brees’ absence and managed to complete almost 68% of his passes in the games he started. I expect to see similar numbers from Bridgewater this year in terms of individual success as the Panthers also added a weapon in Robby Anderson. Anderson underwhelmed a lot of Jets fans last year primarily because Adam Gase used him solely as a deep threat. Anderson’s route running ability is underrated because of last season and he will have a breakout year with Carolina. One of Carolina’s main problems last year was defending the run. The Panthers ranked 29th in the league against the run and 13th against the pass so if they wanted to contend, they were going to have to improve both areas. In the draft, the Panthers used their first two picks on defensive tackle Derrick Brown and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. Both guys should start for the Panthers right away this season and will help greatly against the run. The Panthers also selected safety Jeremy Chinn who will improve the pass defense as well. The Panthers defense is far from being elite or even good, but what they did in the draft will vastly improve it this season.
The final reason the Panthers will make the playoffs is due to their schedule. The Panthers have the 18th easiest schedule going into the 2020 NFL season. The Buccaneers and Falcons, two teams that should be fighting for a playoff spot within the same division both have a harder schedule than the Panthers. This bodes well for the Panthers in a year where they have a lot of new faces on their roster.
With a team that looks relatively new, the Carolina Panthers front office made all the right moves in the offseason to revamp the team. The Panthers coaching staff is smart, their personnel is better than people give them credit for and their schedule is favorable. For those reasons, the Panthers will win 9 games and with the playoffs expanded to 7 teams per conference, the Panthers will sneak in as the 7 seed. They have a good recipe even in a tough NFC to make a run at the playoff.