Panthers Throw in the Towel

Tom Durkin, horse racing's now-retired legendary race announcer, would say that a horse "throws in the towel" — a term that of course has its origins in boxing — when it relinquished the lead in a race and then proceeded to back up through the field.

After opening the 2022 season with close losses to the Browns and Giants, the Panthers held on for a 22-14 win over the Saints, almost blowing a 19-7 fourth-quarter lead.

This was followed by three losses in a row, in which the Panthers were outscored 87 to 41, and were out-gained in total yards 1,095 to 731 (thus by more than 120 yards per game).

After the second of these three losses — 37-15 at home to San Francisco — head coach Matt Rhule was fired. His final record as an NFL head coach (if one makes the anything-but-dangerous assumption that he will never secure such a job again) was 11-27.

In Rhule's place comes Steve Wilks, who was fired after one miserable season as head coach of the Cardinals — 2018, when they finished a league-worst 3-13 (this is how Arizona got Kyler Murray).

Following a listless 24-10 loss to the Rams in Inglewood in his Carolina debut, Wilks "improved" his head coaching record to 4-14 with a 21-3 win at home over Tampa Bay, dropping Todd Bowles' lifetime record as a head coach to 29-45. Guess somebody had to win.

Meanwhile, Dennis Allen, the head coach of another NFC South team — the Saints — is 10-33 lifetime (8-28 with the Raiders in 2012-14 and 2-5 with underachieving New Orleans this year), leaving Atlanta's Arthur Smith in the role of Larry Kroger from Animal House, in that he is at the top of the NFC South pledge class: he's 10-14.

And in addition to firing Rhule, the Panthers have made two personnel moves that cry out to heaven for vengeance in the form of the NFL joining the rest of the North American sports world in adopting a draft lottery system.

On October 17, one week to the day after Rhule got canned, Carolina traded uber-speed receiver Robbie Anderson, who ran a 4.36 at Temple's Pro Day in 2016 (he was not invited to the combine that year, and rather surprisingly, went undrafted) and has a gaudy 96 speed rating over at Madden 23, to Arizona for the "king's ransom" of a sixth-round pick in 2024 and a seventh-round pick in 2025 (in an ironic twist, Rhule had been Anderson's head coach at Temple — and Anderson is not off to a good start with Wilks, who sent him to the showers, as they say in baseball, after things got heated between Anderson and Carolina receivers coach Joe Dailey on the sideline during the Rams game. It must have been a really cold shower!).

A 6 and a 7 for a receiver who as recently as 2020 had 95 catches for 1,095 yards — in 16 games?

As John McEnroe would say, you cannot be serious!

Three days later, the Panthers struck again, trading Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers for four draft choices, none of them a first-rounder (Carolina will receive San Francisco's second, third, and fourth-round picks in 2023, along with a fifth-round selection in 2024).

True, McCaffrey has struggled with injuries of late, but still — and unlike Anderson, no one in his or her right mind (remember that there are female sports beat writers now — just ask Cam Newton!) can accuse McCaffrey of being any "cancer in the locker room."

And the fire sale in Charlotte may not yet have run its course: Brian Burns, an edge rusher with great size (6-5, 250) who attended what will presumably go down in history as the last Pro Bowl ever played last winter, is rumored to be the next man out.

None dare call it tanking — but it actually is; and not for nothing, but in 2020, the then-Washington Football Team not only made the playoffs, but won the "NFC Least" (to which this year's NFC South bears an uncanny resemblance), after starting 1-5 — and the 2015 Chiefs also not only made the playoffs, but got to the Elite Eight, after starting 1-5 and then running the table.

Both of those seasons consisted of 16 games — and going further back, in 1970, the Bengals started 1-6 in a 14-game season, only to run the table and win what was then known as the AFC Central in the first year of that division's existence.

So the fact that the NFL now has a 17-game schedule makes Carolina's cravenness that much more reprehensible.

In what is on pace for becoming known as The Century of the Public Outcry (from politics to sports to even Hollywood — see Will Smith), it behooves the NFL to get out and, as the late William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote, stand astride history and shout STOP!

And of course, the NFL could do that by going to a lottery, starting with the 2024 draft (it would be logistically impossible to do it in 2023, because one would think that the league is already committed to the current draft format for next year).

Since baseball will now use its new lottery, agreed to in conjunction with the Major League Baseball Players Association, as part of the deal that ended the 2021-22 lockout, to determine the first six picks in the first round of its draft, and the NFL has the same number of non-playoff teams as MLB has (18), it logically follows that the NFL can use any lottery to determine their first six picks as well.

The NFL should also adopt the same tie-breaking procedure that baseball uses: if two (or more) teams finish with the same record, the team that finished with a worse record in the previous season drafts higher (and/or gets more chances in the lottery), and if the teams were tied two years ago as well, the tie-breaker is repeated as far back as necessary until the tie is broken.

This is much fairer than using strength of schedule, which doubly penalizes a team that played a tough schedule — and it helps make sure that the draft gives talent-poor teams a hand up, rather than giving talent-rich teams that just happened to have had a couple of key injuries the season before a handout.

And any NFL lottery should be kept simple: the team that finished with the worst record gets 18 chances, the second-worst team 17 chances, all the way down to the best non-playoff team, who gets one chance. All ties are broken as outlined in the previous paragraph.

With ticket prices as high as they are, the fans are entitled to an honest effort — not only from the players, but from the front offices as well.

An NFL lottery will go a long way towards making sure that the fans get it.

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