JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2019 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Joe Person of The Athletic on the Carolina Panthers' matchup with the Jaguars at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sunday at 1 p.m.
Question: The Panthers are 2-2 – and like the Jaguars, they have won their last two games. While quarterback Cam Newton remains out with a foot injury, backup Kyle Allen has filled in capably – and this feels like a team with momentum. Assess the Panthers' start from your perspective, and how does this team feel about itself entering Sunday?
Answer: When they fell to 0-2, the fans were kind of starting to turn against them here – at least a segment of the fans. Cam got booed in the Tampa Bay game (a Week 2 Panthers loss), when of course we found out later he was basically playing on one leg. [Tight end] Greg Olsen said after that Tampa Bay game he thought it was a good time to get out of Charlotte, and kind of go "us against the world" and let's rally together and get going for a couple of weeks. That's what they did. They obviously got a shot in the arm from Kyle Allen, especially in Week 3 in Phoenix (Allen threw four touchdown passes in a Panthers victory). The defense is playing very well and of course [running back] Christian McCaffrey is doing everything for them. So, they come back home and they're 2-2 – and feeling much better about things and about where they stand at the quarter pole.
Q: This feels like an odd time for the Panthers. It has been Newton's team for almost a decade, but he has struggled with injuries and hasn't played like himself lately. Are the times changing for this franchise?
A: It's a great question. It certainly feels like a franchise that is potentially in transition. Owner David Tepper has a big decision to make with Cam Newton. From Cam's perspective, he doesn't want to go out and play hurt anymore. Because in the first couple of games this year and the end of last season, he was a shell of himself. If in fact the Panthers were to go a different direction he doesn't want to be out there putting bad tape on film. And I don't think that's his motivation. But [Head Coach] Ron Rivera, [General Manager] Marty Hurney … it feels like the whole franchise is in a prove-it year. A lot of the free agents they signed in the offseason they only signed to one-year deals. They didn't really re-up with anybody in the offseason, and a couple of guys on defense like [linebacker] Shaq Thompson and [cornerback] James Bradberry they could have extended and they didn't. It feels like the organization is in a crossroads moment.
Q: Discuss Allen. Is he for real? A stop-gap quarterback? How would you assess him?
A: I think he may be somewhere in between those two. He was lights out against Arizona, making every pass, throwing it into tight windows, playing with a lot of confidence. He was the No. 1 prep quarterback in the country coming out of his high school in Scottsdale, Arizona. He went to all the Elite 11 camps. He played this sport at the highest level from a young age. The college career did not pan out nearly like he hoped, but the moment's not too big for him. That showed up Week 17 last year against New Orleans. Yes, the Saints were kind of getting ready for the playoffs. The defensive starters played the first half, but he looked like a guy who felt like he belonged. The thing that cropped up Sunday at Houston (in a Panthers victory) were the fumbles. Ball security. He struggled with that at his two college stops, Texas A&M and Houston, and it popped up Sunday. They were lucky to win when your quarterback puts it on the ground three times. A lot of people here are asking what happens if he wins five starts in a row, but this is still Cam Newton's team. Ron Rivera is an old-school coach. He is a players' coach. If and when Cam is healthy again, Rivera's going to hand the offense right back to him.
Q: Most fans know about McCaffrey, considered an MVP candidate. From your perspective, what's something that makes him special that maybe people nationally don't grasp?
A: He does a little bit of everything. On the highlights, you see the splash plays. But against the Texans, for instance, his longest run was 13 yards. But he keeps slamming himself into the hole. Those might catch up with him eventually and I do think he should look for opportunities to step out of bounds once in a while. Kyle Allen said something Sunday I thought was interesting. He said it's reassuring to know you've got a guy (McCaffrey) who is always where he needs to be. He runs precise routes and he catches everything. He doesn't drop the ball. He rarely fumbles the ball. He carried them against the Texans Sunday.
Q: For years this was a team people associated with big-time defense. Is this still a team that can go a long way based on that side of the ball?
A: Their defense is really good – better than I thought it would be. I thought it would be pretty good and their pass rush is better than what I anticipated. Rivera made a big thing in the offseason of going to more of a three-man look (on the defensive front). They've ended up barely using it. Because of what their first few opponents have done with spread and four-receiver sets, Rivera said they've barely been able to get into the odd-man fronts. They have used so much nickel and four-man fronts in front of it. Obviously, [linebacker] Luke Kuechly is still Luke Kuechly. Shaq Thompson is playing at a high level. Bradberry in a contract year has bene playing very well against some top-level receivers. Then, there's the pass rush: They had had 14 sacks the past two weeks. They overwhelmed [Cardinals quarterback] Kyler Murray, but I thought, 'They're not going to be able replicate that against [Texans quarterback] Deshaun Watson' – and they did. They got him six times. They have certainly a playoff-caliber defense.
Q: It's Week 5. Where do you see this going this year?
A: It's hard to say, because you don't know how effective Cam's going to be when he comes back – and I do think he'll come back. I think the defense will keep them in a lot of games, but the back end of their schedule is tougher than the front end. Ron Rivera is a proud guy and a good football coach – and a pretty good defensive football coach. It looked early like the wheels might come off this thing. They seem to have righted the ship. I don't think they're going to rattle off eight straight wins, but I think they're going to be in most of these games going forward. Then, Cam is a big question mark. It's weird to say that about the franchise quarterback in those terms but that's where he is at 30 years old and following three different surgeries.