JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2023 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Darin Gantt of Panthers.com on the Carolina Panthers’ matchup with the Jaguars at EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville Sunday at 1 p.m.
Question: The Panthers are 2-13 with the NFL's worst record, but they beat the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago and pushed the Green Bay Packers this past Sunday before losing, 33-30. What's the state of the Panthers entering Sunday?
Answer: If you look at the last drive of the Atlanta game and then last week, [rookie quarterback] Bryce Young has played his best football over the last five quarters of this season. He has looked a lot sharper. He has looked more in command. He always has been more comfortable in a rhythm situation like two minute or when things are on the move. It's no secret that the Carolina Panthers' offense was a struggle for every yard for the first half of the season until 11 weeks. That's why you get changes like they had when [former Head Coach] Frank Reich was let go 11 games into his first year here. Since then, they kind of stripped things down a bit. They're playing a little more downhill with their offensive line, which suits the personnel. [Running back] Chuba Hubbard has been running the ball physically and well. That has been a big component of buying Bryce a little time and allowing him to do a little more play-action stuff, which suits him. He has been on the move a little more. In stripping down the offense to its basics, they've kind of created a situation where his natural playmaking is able to take root a little more.
Q: Sometimes teams in the Panthers' situation can feel rudderless. This doesn't feel that way entering the final two games.
A: Give a lot of credit to [Interim Head Coach] Chris Tabor. Before he got that title, he was one of the best special teams coaches in the league. He has shown a real knack for game management. There were a dozen little things in that Atlanta game, like taking a timeout with three seconds left in a quarter so he could punt with the wind instead of against it, that only a special teams coach would've thought of. Beyond game management things, Chris has brought a little energy and a little levity to what was a pretty tight situation. If you fire a coach in the middle of his first season, things haven't gone well. Chris has brought a former P.E. teacher's sense of fun to the proceedings a little bit and allowed those guys to play loose. He told them the only way to really do this with any success is to be confident enough in what you're doing that you can play loose on Sunday. A little bit of that has taken hold. Obviously, there's a nothing-to-lose mentality because you know there is going to be change after the season and the next coach will create a new direction. But at the moment, these guys are playing decent football for a guy who is an interim among a bunch of interims.
Q: You mentioned Young. He had a difficult start, but he seems to have his feet under him now.
A: That's one of the benefits for the organization as a whole no matter who the next coach is. Bryce has played better football of late. He was never physically overmatched. When things were going poorly early in the season, you heard a lot of internet chatter about, "Oh, he was always too small." He was thrown into a bad situation. He didn't have a ton of playmakers around him from the start in terms of the passing game, and then got thrown into a situation where a coaching change became necessary. Because he's an intuitive kid and a tough kid, he was able withstand some of that stuff. He took 48 sacks in his first 12 games and has continued to play professional football. It's not like he's physically broken, or anything like that, at his size. He has come through this thing. He's positioned well depending on what happens around him in the next couple of months to go on and have the sort of career a lot of people anticipated from him to begin with.
Q: They allowed 33 points to the Packers Sunday. What have they been typically defensively this season?
A: From Weeks 9-15, they were second in the league in yards allowed – which you wouldn't imagine when you go through some of the stuff they've been through this year. They lost middle linebacker Shaq Thompson in Week 2 to a broken leg and he's out for the year. Jaycee Horn, their best cornerback, missed 10 games in the middle of the season. [Defensive coordinator] Ejiro Evero has done an incredible job really keeping things together and rebuilding a defense on the fly. They have a well-coached team. They done an incredible job on defense considering everything that they've had to overcome.
Q: A 2-13 record means a tough season, but it feels in the last two games as if the Panthers have given people something to hold onto.
A: I think so. If you look at it, and if you look at the contract status of some of these guys, that defense has the opportunity to come back largely intact. [Outside linebacker] Brian Burns will be a free agent, but everybody expects him to get a franchise tag so he will be back next year in some way, shape or form. You're looking at a defense that should return most of its key pieces. Bryce's development is the only important thing, but there have been a couple other little complementary type things that I think they will have the opportunity to look back on someday and think, "That was helpful."