Dave Choate: With Cam Newton out, will Tyler Heineken be able to wrestle the job away long-term? Or more seriously, what if anything should we expect from him in this one?
Walker Clement: The reality is we have no idea what to expect. Taylor Heineke* had a mixed bag of a preseason and that is all we have really seen of him so far. I won’t read anything into his few fourth down/hail mary attempts in do-or-die situations this season. If he has any accuracy at all with deep to intermediate passes then you can expect to see a shadow of the offense the Panthers wanted to run this season. Personally, I have my fingers crossed for a more Nathan Peterman-like experience. I’m always a fan of bad teams being hilariously bad, it’s just the best kind.
Dave Choate: Christian McCaffrey has morphed into a true workhorse back. Is anyone concerned about his workload, especially with 40 touches coming up against Atlanta?
Walker Clement: I’m going to knock on a salt shaker and throw a pinch of wood over my shoulder before I say this, but he has been remarkably durable so far this year. He is 21 yards rushing and 232 yards receiving away from posting 1000 yards in each category on the season. All of that said, I am going to be the first person to pick up a torch and pitchfork if the coaching staff gets him hurt while chasing those milestones.
Those are mostly concerns against the Saints in the last game of the season, however. The Falcons game presents an easier path for McCaffrey, who all Panthers fans lovingly refer to as “Deuce Deuce” after his jersey. It’s not that Deuce Deuce won’t see 40 touches, it’s that at least 15 of them will be pass attempts following his 50-yard passing touchdown to Tight End Chris “Martinez” Manhertz last week. He should be well protected from contact on those snaps.
Dave Choate: Obviously the offense hasn’t been great generally outside of a few bursts, but the defense has been. Where is this team spending its draft capital and free agent dollars in the off-season?
Walker Clement: An offensive tackle and a defensive end are their glaring needs. The Panthers defense has been a flat disappointment this year because they haven’t been able to put consistent pressure on quarterbacks. The offensive line, meanwhile, has been rolling out the red carpet for every team since Pittsburgh. A little more time for Cam and a little less time for his counterparts on opposing teams are the only things the Panthers really need to turn it around in 2019.
Dave Choate: Broadly, since I’m not going to ask questions about the defense because they will make me weep, what the hell happened to Carolina? You guys looked like a playoff lock briefly and I’m legitimately shocked by the downturn.
Walker Clement: We’re going to spend a lot of time this offense looking at a single play against Pittsburgh where TJ Watt speared Newton’s throwing shoulder with the crown of his helmet. Cam was already dealing with residual shoulder soreness following a surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in early 2017. Deep throws had been difficult before that hit, but Newton seemed to lose the ability to throw the ball with any power or accuracy more than 8 yards down the field after that hit.
Ultimately, that hit may have been coincidental, but it sure rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. One way or another, Cam’s shoulder has deteriorated this season. Combine a quarterback that can barely throw with a defense acting as tour guides to the end zone and you are are not going to come away with a winning football team.
Dave Choate: Expectations for this game? What is Carolina playing for these final two weeks?
Walker Clement: They are playing for an outside chance (<1%) at the playoffs? The coaches may or may not be coaching for their jobs. The players, who all whole-heartedly support their coaching staff, will play for them as well. They will also play for pride. The defense finally showed up last week and they will want to turn that into some momentum they can carry into next season. The offense will just try to get by and minimize any possible risk taking on the part of Heinicke.
As for expectations, I expect the Panthers to score only a small handful of points. Heinicke has been getting a lot of practice time with the first team for the past several weeks as the team tried to limit Cam’s throwing to preserve his shoulder. He has the potential to put together a good game, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Whether or not the defense shows up will speak volume’s about Ron Rivera’s ability to make this team better next year. I think they’ll try and I think that whether or not Julio Jones plays in this game will ultimately decide the winner.