A redemption journey is never without obstacles — not for a football team trying to rise from a long period stuck in the valley, and certainly not for a young quarterback trying to lead that return.
Carolina went all in at the most important position on the field when they made the blockbuster trade with the Chicago Bears for the first pick in the NFL Draft. Aside from giving up two first round draft picks and two second-rounders, they gave up their No. 1 wide receiver — one of the best pass catchers in the league in D.J. Moore.
Former Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young from Alabama was their choice, and as is typical for a young quarterback, he’s had his growing pains. After a home opener loss against the New Orleans Saints, where the offense once again stumbled in a 20-17 defeat, head coach Frank Reich remained optimistic about Young’s potential.
“It is certainly our struggle on offense, it’s not one person. We will look at the film, but I thought Bryce did some really positive things, made some plays with his feet, made some good decisions, made good throws, (and) showed plenty of things that we want to see,” Reich said. “I was encouraged by that. I know how hard it is to play that position.”
Two of the main factors in the Panthers’ decision to go with Young were good decision-making and an ability to quickly process what he saw on the field. Young had the highest score in the S2 cognitive test — designed to evaluate how well an individual can process and react to information — among all the quarterbacks at the 2023 NFL Combine, scoring a 98 out of 99 possible points.
Young was groomed to be a star QB since high school, playing at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, after transferring from Cathedral High School in Los Angeles. Mater Dei is now the only high school in America to have developed three Heisman Trophy quarterbacks.
Young excelled and was the Gatorade Football Player of the Year after throwing for 4,528 yards and 58 touchdowns his senior year. He was also the USA Today Offensive High School Player of the Year. He passed for 13,520 yards in his high school career with 152 touchdowns and was a five-star recruit, ranked the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation.
He took his talents to Alabama, the football powerhouse coached by Nick Saban and won the Heisman his sophomore year with 4,872 passing yards, 47 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
After his junior season, where he led Alabama to an 11-2 record with 3,328 passing yards, 32 TD’s and five interceptions. Following a victory in the Sugar Bowl, he declared for the NFL Draft.
Before they ever drafted Young, the Panthers front office was focused on elevating the quarterback position. Their plan was to make the transition to pro ball as smooth as possible for any incoming QB, hiring Reich, a former NFL quarterback, and bringing in previous NFL starter Josh McCown as the quarterback coach.
But a young quarterback needs help, and in the process of acquiring Young, they lost a quarterback’s best friend, trading Moore to the Bears. Having a go-to receiver makes the job much easier, and it’s been anything but easy for Young so far.
Queen City Nerve was at the Sept. 18 Monday Night Football game against New Orleans, and while the view from the press box was pristine, what was happening on the field was sleep-inducing. When halftime rolled around, the Saints led 6-3 at the half.
Some boos inevitably rang out with 2:15 left in the third quarter after Young was sacked and then missed a pass rather badly. When asked about the boos, Reich took the heat for his young quarterback
“I don’t think that’s Bryce. That’s on me, that’s on our team,” he said. “That’s part of it. I don’t like it. Believe me we want to give the fans wins and an exciting brand of football. That’s what we are planning on doing. It’s a process.”
Carolina stuck around that Monday night, getting within a field goal after a late drive with New Orleans in a prevent defense. Young looked good on the final drive, going 9-11 with 61 yards and a touchdown, then completing a pass to Adam Thielen for the two-point conversion. But alas, the promising effort proved too late.
When I asked Young after the game if that final touchdown drive could build momentum for next week’s game, he was reluctant to place too much value on it.
“You try to build on positive things, but it’s not going to carry over for any points on Sunday. Just like any week, there is good and bad,” he replied. “You want to, obviously, correct the bad, get that cleaned up and then there is positive stuff that we can look at and try to continue to build off of.”
In the two games Young has started, the Panthers have gone 0-2 and the offense has accounted for just 520 yards, with Young throwing for 299 off them, plus two touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s been sacked six times.
Young’s 4.2-yard average per pass play is tied for the worst in the league, as the Panthers weren’t throwing the ball downfield — tossing more horizontal pass plays than vertical.
While there are questions about the quality of the wide receiver room, with veteran Thielen looking like the best of the bunch so far, Reich remained optimistic: “I thought the receivers ran good routes. I have to take a closer look at the film, but I am confident in our group of receivers.”
The offensive line often hasn’t given Young enough time behind center. They need to get more cohesive and better, because as much Young might say it can be an advantage, as he told us in April, he’s a small quarterback who needs protecting.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be tall, to be honest with you,” he said when asked how his size has translated in The League. “I think there are a lot of things I can improve on. We’re 0-2, so we have to do a better job. We all want to look in the mirror and grow. But again, I don’t really know what it’s like to be tall, so I can’t compare it to something else.”
Young fumbled once when chased down from behind, and lost another ball on a quarterback hit, but a penalty on the defense negated that play. Young seems prone so far to being susceptible to losing the ball when hit, and that’s a situation where he’s going to have to learn to protect the ball better while his teammates learn how to protect him better.
Speaking about his costly fumble in the red zone, Young said, “I have to do a better job of making sure that I’m secure with the ball. I didn’t see him, but when you’re outside of the pocket, most of the time, it’s the guy you don’t see and I have to do a better job of being aware of that and putting the ball away.”
The defense has looked better than the offense thus far, but it has lost a couple of key players to injury in longtime Panther linebacker Shaq Thompson, out for the season with a broken leg, and cornerback Jaycee Horn, who suffered a hamstring injury and is not expected back until sometime in the second half of the season.
Defensive stalwarts Derrick Brown and Brian Burns have played well so far, with Brown leading the team in tackles and Burns logging three sacks, just ahead of fellow linebacker Frankie Luvu, who has 2.5. (Luvu left the Week 3 Seattle game with an injury but isn’t expected to miss any time).
The defense does need to create more turnovers, though, with just two takeaways in their first three games — both interceptions. They have forced one fumble, but didn’t recover it. The defense is going to have to be better for the Panthers to make noise in this first year of the new regime.
Coming into the season, the NFC South looked like one of the weakest divisions, with all four teams coming off sub-.500 seasons, but their three division rivals have all kicked off the new campaign relatively strongly. New Orleans, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay are all 2-1 after three weeks, while the Panthers are bringing up the rear at 0-3, a start that can be incredibly tough to overcome.
For the Panthers, this is just the beginning. There is still much work to do for both the players and the coaching staff — solidifying the offensive line, adding weapons to help Young prosper, and learning to work together.
In a sense, the Panthers were starting over when they brought in the new coaching staff and went all in to draft Young, so that process won’t be a short one. Looking further ahead, the team will have to draft well and use their available cap space to fill in holes on the roster.
Growth is not just about size, it’s about putting players in a position to succeed and building their confidence. Teaching. Being patient. Learning how to win. It doesn’t happen overnight and there usually isn’t a quick fix. It was not long ago that rookie quarterbacks were expected to ride the bench a few years and learn under their predecessors before starting games.
Young and the coaching change was the start. Now the real work begins, which includes keeping Young healthy and upright at all costs. He missed the Seattle game and at the time of this writing was still questionable for the upcoming game against Minnesota on Oct. 1, though things were looking up as of Wednesday, when Young returned to practice.
In the meantime, the Panthers had their best offensive performance of the season thus far without Young in Seattle; veteran backup Andy Dalton threw for 361 yards and two touchdowns in a losing effort as Carolina succumbed to the Seahawks 37-27.
Dalton had five passes for over 20 yards in the game, while Young had only one in the first two contests. Second-year left tackle Ikem Ekwonu had four false starts in the game and isn’t off to a great start this season. He’s going to have to be better, as the LT is the main bodyguard for the quarterback. The 0-3 Panthers face the 0-3 Minnesota Vikings Sunday, so something has to give there.
When you start at the bottom, it’s a long climb to the top. The Panthers are trying to put the puzzle together, and if they get the right pieces, there’s a good chance they get there — it’s just not likely to happen this season.
Having the right leader in the room and the quarterback make the climb a lot easier, and from that standpoint, they’re off to a good start.
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