Peter Schrager’s Cheat Sheet: Are the Carolina Panthers Legitimate Contenders?
Through Peter Schrager
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
Welcome to the week 4 edition of the Schrager Cheat Sheet.
Each week, I take a look at several things you need to know ahead of the NFL weekend. This week, we’re packed with nuggets on the Carolina Panthers, Tom Brady, rookie QBs and more.
1. A real test for the Carolina Panthers
Many observers have taken a “wait and see” approach to whether the Panthers are legitimate NFC contenders. Why? Because their victories were won by the hapless Jets in Week 1, a team of Saints tired from travel and hit by COVID-19 in Week 2 and a rookie QB in Houston in Week 3.
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Sunday in Dallas will be Carolina’s first “real” test. While many see the 10-day break as an advantage against the Cowboys, the Panthers will be deprived of their best player in Christian mccaffrey, their best defensive cornerback rookie Jaycee Horn and their best nickel defender in Myles Hartsfield.
But make no mistake: this is a scavenger hunt for the Panthers. They will be on the road in Dallas in front of a national television audience. Does this team deserve our attention?
One thing we do know is that the young defense is real, and maybe way ahead of schedule. Earlier this week, head coach Matt Rhule called his 65-year-old defensive coordinator Phil Snow the best coach he’s ever been around. It is certainly Rhule’s best defense.
After spending their top seven picks in last year’s NFL Draft on defense, the Panthers have seen the seeds planted from the past two off seasons blossom into a ferocious flower. In three games, Snow’s D allowed the fewest yards (191.0) and second fewest points per game (10.0) in the NFL.
But the Jets or the Texans or even the Saints don’t have players like Dak, Zeke, Amari and CeeDee.
Sam Darnold is also an interesting figure in this game. On his second touchdown in Carolina’s win over Houston last Thursday, his helmet was ripped off his head and he celebrated with his offensive linemen, shouting and smiling for the world to see. I had known Darnold during his three years with the Jets. Believe me, there weren’t a lot of smiles.
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But his best game as a pro came against the Cowboys. In Week 6 of 2019, with Jim Nantz and Tony Romo on call and a national audience watching them, Darnold went 23 for 32 for 338 yards and two touchdowns in a Jets win over Dallas. Can Darnold start over? He certainly won’t be intimidated by the logo on the opposition’s helmet.
Everyone’s back on the Dallas train after the Cowboys’ last two wins. There are still very few of them on Carolina’s bandwagon. That could change on Sunday.
2. Be patient with newbie QBs
Shame on us in the media for expecting one of those freshman QBs to transform their franchises from the get-go. Six rookies have started games so far this season. Only one of them, the Patriots’ Mac Jones, won a game. And that victory, naturally, came against another Jets rookie, Zach Wilson.
The six rookie QBs are now a combined 1-10.
The struggles of the recruits are not unique to this class.
Peyton Manning went 3-13 as a rookie in 1998 at Indianapolis, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. His 28 picks are still a rookie “record”.
Troy Aikman went 0-11 and threw twice as many (18) interceptions as touchdowns (nine) in his 1989 rookie season. The Cowboys finished 1-15, the worst NFL record this season.
Everyone’s current darling, Rams shooter Matthew Stafford, threw 20 interceptions in 10 games as a rookie in 2009.
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The numbers for this year’s harvest have been alarming so far. Wilson has already pitched twice as many INTs in three NFL games than he did his entire 2020 season at BYU. Trevor Lawrence has already lost more NFL games (three) than he lost during his entire time at Clemson (two). Justin Fields just made one of the worst statistical outings in Bears quarterback history. And if you know the history of the Chicago Bears quarterbacks, that really means something.
Is there a lesson in all of this?
I know it’s hard. But that’s the key word with all these guys. Their times will come. Or they won’t. But the NFL is just too tough to pass judgment on any of them as a player after just three weeks.
3. The NFL Draft Is An Inaccurate Science
We’re still debating the NFL Draft quarterback lessons and we’re wondering, “How could anyone take Trubisky over Mahomes?” Or “Why was Connor Cook taken before Dak Prescott?” But it’s not just a quarterback affair.
The NFL Draft is really tough. And a good example of that is the 2020 Draft cornerback class.
Consider the former against the latter, and it is quite confusing.
Jeff Okudah (third overall) struggled a lot in his rookie year with the Lions and is currently out for the remainder of the season with a broken Achilles. CJ Henderson (ninth overall) was drafted by the old Jacksonville regime and was traded this week – for 60 cents on the dollar! – to Carolina for a reserve tight end and a pick of day 2.
Falcons corner AJ Terrell (16th overall), Raiders corner Damon Arnette (19th overall) and Dolphins corner Noah Igbinoghene (31st overall) haven’t had enough home to write yet either.
But the cornerbacks in the second round of this draft were nothing short of spectacular.
Bears CB Jaylon Johnson, taken 50th overall out of Utah, started on Day 1 and was Chicago’s best defensive back this season. One place behind Johnson, Dallas selected Trevon Diggs 51st out of Alabama. Diggs has been an absolute eye-opener for Dallas this season. His pick of six Monday night against Philadelphia not only put the game aside, it was also an artistic thing. Titans cornerback Kristian Fulton, 61st overall in last year’s draft, was also formidable.
I realize we’re only three weeks into their second season, but the three cornerbacks taken in the second round of the 2020 Draft all have better careers than the five corners taken in the first round. It’s not as if the Scouts of these five teams went out of their way to get their boards wrong, or that there hadn’t been a Scouting Combine in March of last year.
Drafting is an inexact science. Quarterbacks, cornerbacks, bettors, you name it. Tom Brady finished 199th overall. Diggs went 51st.
4. Cooper Kupp vs. Hunter Renfrow?
Last week I said Cooper Kupp could be the best wide receiver in football, and as expected, I got a ton of pushbacks. He then came out and had yet another awesome game.
I went to my “Good Morning Football” show on Tuesday and spent three minutes with guest host Golden Tate salivating on the road that Kupp raced on this incredible Stafford TD.
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As soon as I got back to my chair, I was bombarded – in classic Raider fan fashion – with over 1,000 tweets, all pointing to a Hunter Renfrow route since Las Vegas’ victory over Miami on Sunday. Check this one out.
So, guys, tell me. Which route was better: Kupp’s or Renfrow’s? Anyway, we’re looking at two technicians in their craft, doing their thing, for two teams 3-0.
5. Brady vs. Belichick is much more than Brady vs. Belichick
The Brady-Belichick stuff will be broken down in 100 ways over the next few days, but I think this one means a lot to Tom Brady. And not because of Belichick, but because of the way things ended in this stadium.
The last time Brady played a game for New England it was a shocking home playoff loss, in which his last stint as the Patriot was a miserable pick of six to Logan Ryan. Brady did it all, and he avenged pretty much everything in his career that required revenge (OK, Giants and Eagles fans, not everything).
I don’t talk to Brady often, but I know the guy’s competitive spirit enough to know that he doesn’t like the way this game went and doesn’t want the stench of that pass or this defeat is the last thing he’s done like a pro in this building. I think Brady will be off Sunday night, and I would be really surprised if his last pass was anything like this.
6. “The Many Saints of Newark”
On one of the coolest nights I’ve had in the past 18 months, I saw the âThe Sopranosâ prequel âThe Many Saints of Newarkâ at the Beacon Theater last week. It was the rare prequel in which you don’t need to know all 70+ episodes of the TV series to enjoy the movie. He stands alone.
I loved the movie and left it all on the floor while raving about Bill Simmons on his podcast. And, naturally, my love for the movie brought me back to the original series. I’ve watched the entire series twice before, but thought I’d give it a whirl again by flying to and from LA last weekend.
Season 2 is my favorite, and I think David Proval’s Richie Aprile is my favorite character on the show. Richie’s underrated moments: the face he makes when the maid’s husband wears the leather jacket, his treatment of poor Beansie, and when he asks Janice, “Did you ever think you’d see Richie Aprile make a dog upside down? “
Watch the movie. Watch the show again. It’s so, so good.
Peter Schrager is an NFL writer for FOX Sports and a “Good Morning Football” host on the NFL Network.
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