Entering the 2021 season, the Carolina Panthers were a dark horse playoff team. Behind second-year coach Matt Rhule and a new quarterback, many expected the Panthers to compete for a playoff spot. After a 3-0 start, Carolina looked well on their way. Following a Week 4 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Panthers made a move to snag Stephon Gilmore for a 2023 sixth-round pick. Gilmore, paired with star rookie Jaycee Horn and another solid cornerback in Donte Jackson, gave Panther fans hope heading into the later part of the season.
Unfortunately, after that 3-0 start, the Panthers lost 12 of the next 14 to end the train wreck of a season at 5-12. Injuries derailed the roster as Horn broke his foot, and Christian McCaffrey was in and out of the lineup throughout the year. The worst part of the year was how the quarterback position was handled. Sam Darnold was placed on IR midway through November, thrusting P.J. Walker into the lineup. Cam Newton also returned to the Panthers following Darnold being placed on IR. The trio would all take snaps throughout the final weeks of the season. Fans called for Rhule’s firing towards the end of the season, and they didn’t get it.
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What Went Right
The defense, which was Rhule’s specialty when he took the job at Carolina, was stout for the first few weeks, and they showed flashes throughout the rest of the year. Jeremy Chinn continues to be one of the best young defensive stars in the league, along with Derrick Brown. The tandem of Haason Reddick and Brian Burns was one of the league’s best pass-rushing duos that weren’t talked about as much because of the offensive woes. Burns and Reddick combined for 20 sacks. Burns continues to improve, while Reddick looks to get the bag in free agency, potentially from another team.
What Went Wrong
There is a lot to list off here. The obvious is the handling of the quarterback position. After four weeks, the Panthers seemed to have found their franchise quarterback when Darnold was doing a fantastic job. Unfortunately, that came crashing and burning once the team went on a losing streak and the former first-round pick got injured. Then, Newton flashed in the game against Arizona and was awarded the starting job for a few weeks, which didn’t go much better. Upon returning, Darnold was the starter over Newton. The trio combined for 3,573 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions.
The offensive line wasn’t addressed as many thought it would be during the offseason. Yet again, the Carolina quarterbacks were smacked by opposing defenses for 52 sacks. For a team that spent loads of money to sign C-tier players like Pat Elflein and Cam Erving, Carolina was a massive disappointment offensively, specifically in the trenches.
Perhaps the worst thing Carolina did all year was fire offensive coordinator Joe Brady. The mastermind of the legendary LSU championship offense had the Carolina offense humming for the first few weeks of the regular season. Unfortunately, injuries to McCaffrey and Darnold derailed the offense. Another underrated piece here is the trading of Dan Arnold to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Rhule’s firing of Brady was seen as a scapegoat for the team’s performance.
Team Award Winners
MVP – D.J. Moore
Despite the quarterback struggles, Moore still had a great year. The fourth-year pro had a season similar to the ones he’s had earlier in his career as he posted 93 catches for 1,157 yards and four touchdowns on 163 targets. Going into his fifth year, the Panthers have a franchise receiver at their disposal. Unfortunately, they haven’t gotten him a quarterback. Moore fought with Robby Anderson for targets, and Moore had the better year.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Chuba Hubbard
When Hubbard was selected, many expected the load of McCaffrey to go down to lower the risk of injury. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So, the rookie was thrust into the starting lineup more than expected throughout the year. He led the Panthers in rushing yards with 612 on 172 carries and had an additional 25 catches for 174 yards and six total touchdowns. With some rumblings of McCaffrey potentially being a piece in a trade, Hubbard could receive a much larger role next year.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – Jaycee Horn
As bad as it may sound, this wasn’t close. In only three games, Horn showed fans why the front office decided to select him instead of other players in the draft. While the Panthers had other needs on the roster, such as offensive line and quarterback, cornerback was a sneaky need on the opposite side of Jackson. Horn started all three games he played and had five tackles and an interception. When Horn comes back next year, expect him to perform as he did earlier this year.
Biggest Surprise – Stephon Gilmore
Picking a winner for this award was a difficult one. New England traded Gilmore to Carolina early in the season and he immediately made an impact. He had an interception in the first two games he played for the Panthers, including one against the Patriots. Gilmore is an impending free agent, so it will be interesting to see what Carolina does with him in the offseason.
Biggest Disappointment – Sam Darnold
For a few weeks, it seemed the trade for Darnold was working. Unfortunately, that came to an end quickly. Carolina traded multiple picks for the former first-round pick, thinking he would turn the quarterback position around. The same woes haunted him this year as they did in New York, with a lack of an offensive line hindering his skills as well. Now, it is more likely than not that the Panthers will have a different man under center next season.
One Burning Question
Who Starts at Quarterback Next Year?
While there are potentially more pressing needs on the roster, specifically on the offensive line, Rhule and the front office need to figure out the quarterback position first. Darnold and Newton aren’t capable of bringing this team to the next level. Unfortunately, it seems as though Carolina has put themselves out of the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes with how little draft capital they have in the next few seasons. So, unless they want to spend more draft capital on the quarterback position, it may be time to swing for the fences at one in the draft. Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral, or someone like Sam Howell or Carson Strong could all be in consideration this April.