Scott Fowler

You won’t believe Jon Gruden’s prediction for the Carolina Panthers

Jon Gruden is very bullish these days on the Carolina Panthers.

How bullish?

“They could run the table,” Gruden said in our interview Saturday during a break from his preparation for broadcasting the Panthers-Miami Dolphins game Monday night. “They could win the rest of their games in this regular season and be a high seed in the NFC playoffs, just like they were in 2015.”

That would be quite a task for the Panthers. They are 6-3 entering their first and only “Monday Night Football” appearance of the 2017 season against an up-and-down Miami team. To run the table in the regular season the Panthers would need to win seven more games in a row – including a road game against NFC South-leading New Orleans and home games against Minnesota and Green Bay.

Gruden was an NFL head coach at both Oakland and Tampa Bay and won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers in 2002. He joined ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” as its lead analyst in 2009 and has been there ever since, establishing a reputation as one of the most prepared and entertaining NFL broadcasters around.

Jon Gruden – shown on the sideline in Charlotte in 2007 as he directed a win over the Carolina Panthers – coached Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl win in the 2002 postseason. Chuck Burton AP

“He’s a junkie,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Gruden. “When you watch him, he loves everything about football…. I love to listen to guys like him because they’re going to tell you something you may miss.”

Gruden had some interesting things to say about a number of Panthers-related topics that he will likely address on Monday night’s broadcast. He especially seems to love Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, linebacker Shaq Thompson and defensive end Julius Peppers. Here’s what Gruden said about those men and several other topics.

On Christian McCaffrey: “I loved him at Stanford. I was on the draft set at ESPN and when Carolina took him, I was envious. Because he can do it all. He can catch it, he can run it, he can return kicks. He’s a great, deceptive player. You can fake it to him and give it to somebody else. He’s obviously smart, very athletic; he’s got football character that I admire. He’s a perfect, perfect modern-day football player.”

On Carolina’s defense: “I love watching Carolina play defense. I really do. The effort is extraordinary… I mean they have the steam up front to get after your quarterback. I think (Panthers defensive coordinator) Steve Wilks has a scheme that is awfully hard to deal with also. I just love the passion that these guys play with.

On Julius Peppers: “I got a little nervous when I walked into the (Panthers stadium) today because I’m used to walking in as the coach of Tampa. And the first guy I see is Julius Peppers. So I got hunched over. I got nervous…. Somebody had a stat on the ‘Monday Night crew.’ I was an NFL head coach for 11 years and who sacked my quarterbacks the most? It was Julius Peppers. I never liked Peppers – until today.”

According to Jon Gruden, in his 11 NFL seasons the defensive player who sacked his quarterbacks the most times was Julius Peppers. Here was one of those sacks, in a 2006 Carolina-Tampa Bay game. David T. Foster III

On Cam Newton: “He’s getting healthy. People have got to remember it’s tough to play quarterback when you’re right-handed and you’ve got a rotator cuff in your right shoulder that’s a problem. It inhibited him last year. He had no offseason (in 2017), he had no training camp. And then really the first four to five weeks of the season he doesn’t practice Wednesday, he doesn’t practice Thursday, throws a few balls around on Friday and then he’s got to go out and play.

“That’s ridiculous to think he could play at an MVP level with those circumstances. But I think he’s healthy now. He’s practicing again. You can just see it in his eyes. You can see his vibrancy again – and that’s scary for the rest of the league.”

On why he was in Concord at PDQ restaurant Saturday afternoon, hosting local high-school football teams from Harding, Mallard Creek and Providence Day: “The FFCA – the fired Football Coaches Association (an organization Gruden started) – we try to raise money and give money back to high school football and youth football. Try to keep the game strong. The game has taken a lot of hits from people for some reason. I want to try to do everything I can to recognize these coaches and these teams. Provide some funds to help them out a little bit. … There are some geniuses out there that are trying to eliminate all the games. And it bothers me.”

On the importance of high school football and what he tells high school players at events like Saturday’s: “I want them to understand the benefits they are getting by playing football. They are getting some benefits they don’t even know about: Sportsmanship, teamwork, accountability, mental and physical toughness… I miss high school football (Gruden was a high-school quarterback in South Bend, Ind.). Those were the greatest days of my life. And sometimes I’m sitting on the beach, looking up at the sky and I still remember throwing that touchdown pass against Mishawaka High, baby!

On Carolina trading Kelvin Benjamin: “Anytime a guy gets traded at midseason – a young player – it’s surprising. … But Benjamin and (Devin) Funchess are very similar. To get a third- and a seventh-round pick and to get (Curtis) Samuel, Russell Shepard, some of these young guys on the field – makes sense. They want to get some speed on the field. To do that, you’ve got to make a position available.”

“Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden is a fan of Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, who he says has shown he can run with wide receivers 40 yards down the field. Jeff Siner

On Shaq Thompson: “I don’t see another linebacking corps quite like the Carolina Panthers. (Luke) Kuechly and (Thomas) Davis get all the ink and they should – they’re great.

“Nobody talks about Shaq Thompson. I don’t know what he is. He’s like a nickel corner/linebacker. When those three guys are on the field together, good luck. I’m glad I’m not in Tampa anymore because I don’t want to play them twice. … When you study them carefully, there will be times Shaq Thompson running 40 yards down the field covering DeSean Jackson … It doesn’t bother him at all.”

On Miami’s chances of upsetting Carolina: “Miami is struggling on offense. I don’t know if they’ve got a right tackle. I really don’t. That’s an issue. … Mario Addison is going to have a good night against (Laremy) Tunsil, who has struggled at left tackle. Jay Cutler is still learning this offense. I don’t care what he has in his past with (Miami coach) Adam Gase, he has to learn his new teammates and all that stuff. It’s tough.

“But Carolina has been lucky at times on defense. Julio Jones doesn’t drop wide-open touchdown passes. I thought Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston missed some open targets. … If Cutler is on and they can protect him, we could have a ballgame. But I think Carolina is in good shape in this if they take care of the rock and play like they’ve been playing.”

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler