What are the Carolina Panthers doing?
This exact question has been asked numerous times this offseason based on what appears to be a disjointed plan of execution regarding the franchise's new direction under first-time NFL head coach Matt Rhule.
On paper, the Panthers look like the NFC South's fourth-best team. They are fighting an uphill battle involving culture change, system implementation and perhaps not having as much time to jell in the offseason because of the coronavirus.
But what if everyone is looking at the Panthers transition in the wrong light?
The pieces are in place for the Teddy Bridgewater-led offense to overachieve this fall.
Yes, the obstacles are obvious. But Carolina isn't allowing excuses to creep into its new mentality.
"I've coached at Temple and at Baylor, and my players will probably tell you we didn't have a lot of advantages when we got there," Rhule told NBC Sports' Peter King. "Just figure it out. Figure it out, bro. Really, that's the key to life."
History tells us this won't be a quick turnaround under Rhule's supervision. His teams got worse at Temple and Baylor before they got better. In fact, Rhule sported a 3-21 combined record during his first seasons at his previous stops.
And that very well may be the case this fall, too, especially as the defense transitions to a much younger group after the losses of Luke Kuechly, Mario Addison, James Bradberry, Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Eric Reid.
But Rhule has the foundation of a great offense in place. With the offense as the catalyst, the head coach hopes his following "Rhule" applies to the Panthers:
"It's pretty well-documented that over half of the Fortune 500 companies, the most successful companies in the world, were started in depression or recession times. That's really kind of counterintuitive. How can great companies come out of times when there wasn't much money, when things were hard, much like they are right now? Really, the answer is these companies weren't built on fads. They were built on solid fundamentals. They were built the right way because they had to be or they never would have survived."
Everything in today's NFL revolves around the quarterback position. The Panthers made the difficult decision to move on from former league MVP Cam Newton after the front office signed Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million free-agent deal.
The investment shows a commitment to the 27-year-old signal-caller. The Panthers can't realistically get out of the contract without incurring significant dead money until the 2022 league year. Bridgewater will lead the way under the supervision of new offensive coordinator Joe Brady. This pairing has the potential to develop into a powerful duo.
Brady became one of the hottest names on the coaching market when the LSU passing game coordinator turned Joe Burrow from a middling quarterback into a Heisman Trophy winner who produced the best season in college football history.
The coach took some of the principles he learned with the New Orleans Saints under Sean Payton—where Brady spent a year working with Bridgewater—while implementing a heavier reliance on run-pass options, multiple-receiver sets and horizontal routes.
On top of the familiarity with the system, Bridgewater is ideally suited to perform in Brady's scheme.
The original allure of the Louisville product was his combination of accuracy and efficiency. Nothing has really changed throughout his career, except his health. Bridgewater was well on his way to becoming the Minnesota Vikings' long-term starter before he suffered a knee injury prior to the 2016 campaign. Due to the severity of the injury, Bridgewater needed time to recover and eventually work himself back into the quarterback he once was.
Ultimately, he landed with the Saints, where he started five games during the 2019 campaign while Drew Brees nursed a thumb injury. Bridgewater once again looked like a starting-caliber signal-caller with a 67.9 completion percentage and a nine-to-two touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Bridgewater's efficiency in the Saints' rhythm-and-timing passing scheme lends well to what he'll be asked to do in Carolina's new scheme.
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Teddy Bridgewater was among the most efficient short passers in the NFL last season — 107.4 passer rating on attempts under 10 air yards, 5th among QB in 2019 (min. 100 short att). Will Bridgewater air it out more in Carolina under Matt Rhule & Joe Brady? https://t.co/WZlYsyOdYG https://t.co/7o7A6zZRvg
Brady's approach should maximize his quarterback's skill set while downplaying his shortcomings.
Bridgewater will be asked to push the ball down the field at times, of course. Yet those instances will be strategically timed based on the setup of the play-calling and what opponents afford throughout contests. If Bridgewater is allowed to work from the pocket, make quick decisions and lead his skill-position performers to create after the pass, he'll reach another level as the Panthers' starting quarterback.
Carolina's weapons have the skill sets to properly execute and flourish in a system similar to the one seen at LSU last season.
"The offense that we're looking to have is one that applies pressure," Brady told reporters during his introductory press conference. "... We can do that in multiple ways, whether that's formations, whether that's personnel groupings or tempo. It's our job to exploit mismatches and move guys around to get them the matchups that we want. Applying pressure, getting your speed in space, making defenses defend every blade of grass and just let your players do what they do best."
Say what you will about Carolina investing a four-year, $64 million contract in running back Christian McCaffrey, but the way he can be weaponized in Brady's approach is obvious. McCaffrey isn't simply one of the NFL's most productive runners; he doubles as one of the league's best receivers. His utilization with the incoming RPO game will make the Panthers extremely difficult to defend.
As defenses attempt to slow McCaffrey, the Panthers present a trio of wide receivers with varying skill sets to exploit.
DJ Moore led last year's team with 1,187 receiving yards. Moore's greatest strength is his ability to create after the catch.
According to Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle, the 23-year-old wide receiver ranks third in yards after contact per reception (7.9) among wide receivers since 2006 with 50 or more catches. Only the Tennessee Titans' A.J. Brown and San Francisco 49ers' Deebo Samuel—both of whom were rookies last season—have higher averages.
Moore's ability to create after the catch will be downright dangerous on crossing patterns.
Curtis Samuel is another multifaceted weapon, and though he usually lines up wide, he can play some running back. Last season, Samuel finished second and third on the team in rushing and receiving yardage, respectively. He and McCaffrey can be used interchangeably to keep opponents on their heels.
Robby Anderson, who had a previous working relationship with Rhule dating back to his collegiate days at Temple, provides a completely different dynamic as a vertical threat. Anderson has posted the 11th-most deep receiving yards since 2016, per PFF.
The Panthers signed Anderson to a two-year, $20 million free-agent deal, so he should be prominently featured in the passing game. More importantly, his presence will keep defenses honest because the 27-year-old will create chunk plays if/when opponents start cheating safeties closer to the line of scrimmage.
Brady isn't content to implement only what he used last season. The Panthers offense should be what the Tigers featured last season, plus more.
"Now I can expand upon that package and hone in on some new things that we didn't have an opportunity to get to," the coordinator said. "But from an offensive structure standpoint, yes, that all can translate."
There are still concerns beyond trying to bring the team together through a virtual offseason, of course.
Tight end Ian Thomas is unproven and may not replace what released veteran Greg Olsen brought to the table. The skill-position depth chart beyond the starters could use upgrades. The offensive line has to come together with the additions of Russell Okung and John Miller as well as Trai Turner's departure.
It's a lot. And the franchise's seeming unwillingness to commit to a specific building plan—whether as a team ready to compete now or entering a rebuilding phase—is baffling.
With all of that in mind, Carolina's offense has the pieces in place to be successful sooner rather than later. Bridgewater could very well reclaim his status as a franchise quarterback. McCaffrey can quiet all of those who don't believe it's viable to invest heavily in the running back position. The unit's young receivers can be dynamic playing in Brady's scheme.
Maybe the Panthers know what they're doing...at least on one side of the ball.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.