“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” That is a line that race car driver Ricky Bobby (played by Will Ferrell) said in Talladega Nights, the racing movie that captured the heart (and humor) of many in the early 2000s.
In the National Football League, “If you ain’t first, you’re last” certainly has followed the Carolina Panthers. The Cats, as I like to call them, were 6-2 at the midpoint of the 2018 NFL season. They had knocked off the Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants (on a time-expiring, 63-yard field goal by Graham Gano), the defending Super Bowl Champions, Baltimore Ravens, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Cam Newton was looking like his same old self, Christian McCaffrey was playing at an MVP-caliber level, and the defense looked strong.
But then, the Pittsburgh Steelers blew the Cats out on Thursday Night Football, 52-21, and everything seemed to go wrong for the Panthers. They would go onto finish an unfortunate 7-9, and endured a six-game losing streak along the way. Cam Newton started to struggle throwing the ball downfield, and it was discovered from Supercam himself after the Week 15 heartbreaker to the New Orleans Saints that he had been playing with a shoulder injury most of the season. When you go back and look at his throwing numbers, the number of throws over 40 yards was the lowest in his career (three in 2018, the previous low was four, back in 2014). On deep throws, especially late in the season, backup quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen would be brought in so that Supercam did not hurt his shoulder even further.
With a chance to salvage the season in Week 16 against the Atlanta Falcons, Taylor Heinicke was called upon. He held his own, going 33-53 for an impressive 274 yards, a touchdown, and three interceptions, but was unable to lead the Panthers to victory in that game. The 24-10 loss eliminated the Carolina Panthers from playoff contention. The next week, Kyle Allen came in and played lights out in a 33-14 victory against the New Orleans Saints, going 16-27 for 228 yards and two touchdowns, and gave Panthers fans something to feel good about after a tough year.
Going into the offseason, I had one question: Who would the Panthers start at quarterback if Newton was not ready to go?
Luckily, Cam Newton is almost 100 percent, and the Panthers are being cautious with him in the preseason, as they held him out of their victory against the Bears to heal his shoulder even more. Heinicke showed what he can do against the Falcons with his strong arm. Allen played the hero in Week 17, and had an impressive 2019 preseason debut against the Bears.
That said, which quarterback am I most excited about besides Newton? Will Grier, the 100th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, and the guy who I predicted was going to win the Heisman Trophy in 2018 (that was won by Kyler Murray, the number one pick of the 2019 NFL Draft).
I have been a fan of Grier ever since he played at West Virginia University. He is a proven leader who knows how to play football. Last season, I was fortunate enough to see him play live, as the Mountaineers took on the Tennessee Volunteers at Bank of America Stadium to open their season. In that game, Grier looked like the Heisman hopeful he was entering the season, completing 25 of 34 passes for a whopping 429 yards and five touchdowns.
Since that game, Grier and the Mountaineers put together a good season, as they went 8-4, but not ever quite playing at the level they reached in the Tennessee game. Grier continued to play well, throwing for at least 332 yards in all but one game (30-14 loss to Iowa State), but the defense did not. The Mountaineers gave up 41 and 56 points in two consecutive weeks to end the season. In the Mountaineers’ bowl game against Syracuse (34-18 loss), Grier did not play.
At the end of the Mountaineers’ 2018 season, Grier entered the NFL Draft where he was selected 100th overall by the Panthers. Since then, he has performed well in camp and made a good impression on the Carolina faithful in Week One of the 2019 NFL Preseason. In that game, Grier completed nine of 16 passes for 77 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. It remains to be seen if Grier, Allen, or Heinicke will start for the Panthers in their second preseason game on Friday, August 16 against the Buffalo Bills.
Grier looks like he could be the Panthers’ backup quarterback going forward. If Newton were to re-aggravate his shoulder, the Panthers would be in good hands with not one, but three capable quarterbacks of leading them to victory.
And with an exciting young receiving corps and the addition of Gerald McCoy, the Panthers will look to once again be a force in the league in 2019.