Panthers offense has scary potentian under Joe Brady
By: Brady Akins
Hiding in plain sight, smack in the middle of the busy streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, lays a gold mine untapped by many, but bountiful for a few.
Not a literal gold mine, no. Something much better. An offensive football gold mine that goes by the name ‘Carolina Panthers.’
This gold mine doesn’t have the reputation of the one in Kansas City, or attract as much attention as the one in Buffalo. But because of one man– that gold mine in Charlotte is set to become a hot commodity in a way that nobody can see coming.
That man is Joe Brady, the Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator.
Despite a quiet offensive season in 2020, this Panthers offense is taking significant strides to this point.
‘Quality’ of experience over ‘quantity’ of experience
Joe Brady’s career resume is short. Like, really short.
Brady, the 31-year-old, did not get his shot to lend his aid to a football coaching staff until 2013 when the William & Mary wide receiver made the transition to William & Mary’s linebacker coach following his graduation.
As the years progressed, Brady bounced from being a position coach on an FCS team to an assistant on an FBS team in Penn State to an offensive assistant in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints until 2018.
Two more years brought about two new roles for Brady, with the young coach stopping off in Baton Rouge for a cup of coffee and a national championship for the LSU Tigers, piloted by what might be the greatest offense in college football history. There, Brady helped the team as the group’s passing game coordinator– but got his first shot to be the sole coordinator of an offense just last year, when the Carolina Panthers rolled the dice on the young up-and-comer.
Like I said, really short.
But the more you dig into the shortlist of Brady’s accomplishments, the more a trend begins to emerge. Where ever the Panthers’ offensive coordinator goes, success tends to follow in his wake.
It happened with the Saints, where New Orleans went from a 7-9 team the year prior to Brady’s arrival to an 11-5 NFC South Champion that finished fourth in points per game in his first year as an offensive assistant. In 2018, Brady’s last with the Saints, New Orleans managed to get even better– improving to 13-3 and placing third in the league in points per game.
It happened with the LSU Tigers, where a previously passable offense morphed into that aforementioned powerhouse seemingly overnight. A 2018 Tigers’ team that featured Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Terrace Marshall Jr., and Clyde Edwards-Helaire concluded the season averaging 32.4 points per game– 38th in the FBS. The next season, well, things got better.
In Brady’s first and final year with the Tigers, that middle-of-the-pack offense went from a group barely in the top 40 of college football to the highest-scoring offense, well, ever. No, seriously. LSU’s 726 total points in 2019 weren’t just good enough for tops in the FBS, but tops in FBS history. All with the same ‘good but not great’ core they had the season prior.
Joe Burrow became a Heisman-winning sensation in one offseason, Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase became sensations in the same time span, with both players finishing top three in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, with Chase finishing fourth in yards per catch and Jefferson finishing the year first in total catches.
And wouldn’t you know it, the Joe Brady effect carried over to the Panthers in 2020, as once again, Brady proved that he didn’t need much practice to nail what was essentially a brand new role.
The team numbers won’t blow you away, but that’s kind of why this article needed to be written. Despite finishing 24th in points per game, despite seemingly stagnating in total yards per game, Brady’s offense flashed the potential to be a fantasy football goldmine heading into 2021. Consider the following two points.
Point #1: The Carolina Panthers did not receive much help on the offensive side of the ball in the 2020 offseason. In fact, Carolina made NFL history in the 2020 NFL Draft by becoming the first team in the modern draft era to only select players on the defensive side of the ball.
You might think that would mean the Panthers took care of their offense through free agency. But, well, you would think incorrectly. Don’t feel bad– it happens to everyone.
Sure, Carolina brought in a starting quarterback and a wide receiver as free agents in 2020, a fact that, on a surface level, seems like a massive overhaul. That is, until, you realize the quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, hadn’t been a Week One starter since 2016, and the receiver, Robby Anderson, hadn’t had a season with 1,000 yards or 65 catches in the history of Robby Anderson’s existence.
Point #2: The biggest weapon Brady had to work with at the start of 2020, Christian McCaffrey, played just three games throughout the course of the season. Even the few and far between assets the Panthers did have on offense struggled with injuries.
The Panthers had a few nice pieces heading into the 2020 season, but lacked the overflow of talent that Brady had at his disposal with LSU. With a shallow receiving corps and an injury-prone, inexperienced quarterback, it would be nearly impossible for Brady to turn his team’s lesser-known players into stars.
Except for that, Brady did exactly that.
Turning coal into diamonds
Anderson broke his trend of underwhelming receiving seasons in a major way– hitting 95 catches, a career-high by a mile, and doing so on a high volume of targets.
In fact, both Anderson’s targets and receptions numbers were top ten in the NFL, with both figures ahead of fantasy football powerhouses such as Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson. All three of those receivers finished as clear-cut WR1’s in standard-scoring formats.
The one thing holding Anderson back from playing with the fantasy big boys was a lack of touchdown receptions– a number that could have faltered due in large part to his quarterback, Bridgewater.
Yes, under Brady’s guidance, Bridgewater did shine relative to expectations, hitting career-best marks in completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and, well, you get the idea. But despite the ‘Brady Bump’ (trademark pending) going in Bridgewater’s favor– that career-high in passing touchdown’s peaked at just 15, only the 24th most in the NFL.
Anderson wasn’t the only player affected by Bridgewater’s ‘game manager’ approach to football, either. Both D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, two wide receivers with two impressive seasons on the field, didn’t see much of that success play out in the realm of fantasy football.
Moore and Anderson teamed up to become the Panthers’ first two pass catchers (excluding Christian McCaffery, a freak of nature athlete but a dedicated running back) to break 1,000 yards in a season since 2014– when Brady was coaching linebackers at William & Mary. Only 18 players had over 1,000 yards receiving in 2020. The Panthers had two of them. Are the only other teams with multiple players at over 1,000 receiving yards? The Chiefs and the Seahawks.
Even Curtis Samuel had an impressive season in his own right– ending the year with over 800 receiving yards and adding 200 on the ground. With the yardage those three players had, coupled with the volume (118 targets for Moore, 118 touches for Samuel), the Panthers’ receiving trifecta was set up to become the Cerberus of fantasy football power. Scoring held them back, however, with Samuel’s five total touchdowns being the most between the three.
But the quarterback who struggled to find his receivers in the endzone is gone– replaced with a former first-round pick who has struggled in the past and could use the help of a certain wizard-like offensive coordinator to bail him out.
Turning diamonds into even more diamonds
Say what you want about Sam Darnold as a player, but at least he’s had seasons with more than 15 passing touchdowns.
Not that Darnold has lit up box scores in the past. In fact, his most prolific passing season peaks at 19 touchdowns. But take into account one simple dynamic– the shift from being coached by Adam Gase with the New York Jets, to Joe Brady and the Carolina Panthers.
That’s the exact reality Darnold finds himself early in the 2021 season. Freed from the clutches of Adam Gase, now as synonymous with coaching failure as he is with players finding individual success after breaking loose of his death grip. Players like Ryan Tannehill, Kenyan Drake, and our friend Robby Anderson have all gone on to have career years away from Gase.
Darnold has shown really glimpses early in the season and he very well could be a steal for your roster. Darnold now gets Joe Brady, the mastermind behind the peak college football offense, the high-volume receiving seasons of newly exceptional receivers, and the guy who has helped just about everyone in his path reach new heights. All Darnold needs to do is get his guys to the endzone.
Christian McCaffrey went down in yesterday’s Thursday Night Football matchup. It seems that he should miss noticeable time, but not significant time. However, CMAC has proved to be sharp when healthy this season. He notched 50 yards rushing AND 50 yards receiving in the same game where they blew out the New Orleans Saints.
Buy D.J. Moore. The Panthers WR1 has 6-80, 8-79-1, and 8-126 in three games at this point. He has shown to be a reliable target who is uncoverable for Darnold’s QB talents. With CMAC facing an injury, it only makes more sense to buy in on D.J. Moore.
Trust Joe Brady and his offense this 2021 season.