Though the NCAA Women’s and Men’s Basketball Tournaments were cancelled this season due to COVID-19, the NFL delivered us their own version of March Madness with a Free Agency period that many fans won’t soon forget. In the midst of the madness, or Free Agency Frenzy as NFL fans call it, teams get better, teams get worse, and teams do things that can either make their fans jump for joy or call for their general manager’s head. In Free Agency Frenzy 2020 there were some clear winners as well as some clear losers; however, today, at least in my opinion, we’re going to talk about a clear winner. The Carolina Panther’s were added to the NFL as an expansion team in 1996. Since then, the Panthers have made the playoffs eight times including the three NFC Championships, one in which they made in their very first year of existence which is incredible, but they lost, and two that they won. In those two season where they won, they would advance to the Super Bowl only to fall 32-29 to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 and 24-10 to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 in 2016. The Panthers would miss the playoffs in the 2016/2017 season and then return in the 2017/2018 season only to fall 31-26 to their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints, in Wildcard Weekend. Since then the Panthers have stumbled to a (7-9) record in 2018 finishing 3rd in the NFC South and a (5-11) record finishing 4th in the NFC South. Yes, injuries were factors in these last two seasons, but sometimes a change of scenery is good for players and coaches alike.
This offseason the Panthers made changes that ended eras as they would fire head coach Ron Rivera and release quarterback Cam Newton. Both Rivera and Newton were brought in by the organization in 2011 and their tenure would end after the 2019/2020 season. Also, linebacker Luke Kuechly would call it a career at twenty-eight years old after spending his whole career in Carolina since being drafted in 2012. Though these departures would leave the Panthers looking a little different, the change may be the beginning of a new era in Carolina. This off season the Panthers would hire new head coach Matt Rhule. Rhule has quite the resume in coach as he has coached numerous positions at numerous levels from college to the NFL since 1998. He was hired for his first head coaching job in 2013 as the head coach of the Temple Owls, a place where he coached just two years prior from 2006 to 2011 serving as many different roles throughout the coaching staff. In his three years as the head coach, Rhule would lead the Owls to one bowl game in 2015, the Boca Raton Bowl, were they would lose 32-17 to Toledo after a (10-4) season. Coach Rhule would then head to Baylor where he would coach from 2017 to 2019 leading the Bears to two bowl games: The 2018 Texas Bowl where they defeated Vanderbilt 45-38 and the 2019 Sugar Bowl where they were defeated 26-14 by Georgia. Matt Rhule has certainly paid his dues in the coaching world as he has now earned himself his first NFL head coaching job.
Along with a new head coach, the Carolina Panthers would sign one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league who just so happened to be sitting behind Drew Brees in New Orleans. In 2016 just before the season started, Teddy Bridgewater suffer a near career ending injury that would’ve altered his life. By the grace of God, Teddy Bridgewater not only returned to football, but returned playing at a level that many thought he might not ever be able to achieve again. Last season in 2019, the twenty-six-year-old started five games in the absence of Drew Brees due to injury and the Saints went (5-0) in that period of time. It’s safe to say Teddy’s back and now he’ll have his own team. The Panthers would also sign three wide receivers including Pharoh Cooper, who would help out special teams tremendously, Robby Anderson who really came into his own in the last few seasons playing for the Jets, and Seth Roberts who has didn’t have the best season Baltimore last season, but was memorable in Oakland two years before. The Panthers added to their defense as well signing Stephen Weatherly at defensive end , Zach Kerr at defensive tackle, Juston Burris at safety, and Tahir Whitehead at linebacker. Though the defensive signings aren’t eye popping, they are much needed pieces as the Panthers look to rebuild their defense.
Now for the storybook ending. Quarterback PJ Walker was having quite the season with the Houston Roughnecks in the XFL before the season was cancelled due to COVID-19. The Roughnecks were (5-0) and Walker was leading the league in total passing yards at 1,299, and in passing touchdowns at 15. Many people felt that the Roughnecks would go on to win the XFL this season and that PJ Walker would be the MVP of the league. After the numbers he had in only five games, those people may have been on track with their prediction. Interestingly enough, head coach Matt Rhule coached PJ Walker all four years he was at Temple from 2013 to 2016. In those four years, Walker became the all time leader in wins with twenty eight as the starting quarterback at Temple and he also leads in all time passing yards at 10,668, passing touchdowns at 74, completions at 830, attempts at 1,458, total yards at 11,439, and total touchdowns at 83. Walker also helped lead the Owls to their first conference title in forty-nine years in 2016 and their first ever back to back bowl appearances in program history in 2016 and in 2017. After going undrafted in 2017, PJ Walker would be signed by the Indianapolis Colts as a practice team player from 2017 to 2019. In 2019, PJ Walker was signed to the Houston Roughnecks for the launch pf the XFL.
All in all, the Panthers have an entirely new look to them this coming season and only time will tell if all of these moves make up the perfect storm for Carolina. Will Coach Rhule be the coach to help the Panthers earn their first Super title? Will Teddy Bridgewater be the quarterback to take them there especially after nearly saying goodbye to football just four years ago due to injury? Regardless, he has already made the ultimate comeback with just returning to the game and playing as good as he has, but with the competitor that Teddy Bridgewater is, he has his eye on the Lombardi Trophy. Will all those free agent pickups make a huge difference in the Panthers this season? And will the reunion of Coach Matt Rhule and his quarterback from Temple, PJ Walker, be the spark to ignite the flame in Carolina to take on a very competitive NFC South? We shall see when the NFL takes the field in the fall.
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