Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Sep 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
On paper, the 2012 Carolina Panthers are a classic "sleeper" team on the verge of breaking out. You’ve probably heard about how at least five new teams have reached the NFL postseason every year since 1996. Generally, at least one of those teams had a bad record -– like, say, 6-10 –- the year before.
The Panthers are coming off a six-win season in which they went 4-2 down the stretch. Not bad for a team that went 2-14 the previous season and was acclimating to a virtually all-new coaching staff in a short offseason. That staff, led by Ron Rivera, has now had more than a calendar year to install its systems.
More importantly, the Panthers have had a year to groom their young franchise quarterback. Not only does the sky seem to be the limit for Cam Newton, but the 23-year-old is surprisingly close to the clouds already (more on that in a moment). The Panthers had the NFL’s No. 5 ranked scoring offense last season. So, reason says, a healthier defense that can at least be average -- unlike the lackluster 2011 version that ranked 27th in points and 28th in yards -- should make this club a postseason contender, right?
The Panthers seem to think so. In July Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer to predict a Super Bowl. Kalil’s coaches and teammates immediately stood behind him ... perhaps because they had no other choice, or perhaps because Kalil’s prose was too laudable to censure. (Kalil asks fans to look closer and see "the daunting, unpaved path ahead, lined with detours, naysayers, and walls which seem insurmountable.") Despite the politics behind the team backing Kalil, optimism seems genuinely high in Carolina.
Of course, if submitting full-page ads and talking big in interviews actually helped win games, every NFL team would single-handedly be preventing its local newspapers and television stations from slowly dying right now. The Panthers still have a ways to go. But they have a realistic shot at soon getting there.
Many outside the organization poked fun at Kalil for his Super Bowl ad because, well, that’s the normal reaction to such bravado. But notice that no one completely ridiculed or reproached him for it. No one banged on the tables to remind Kalil that Carolina has finished above .500 only once in the past five years. Kalil can thank Cam Newton for his free pass.
The sheer presence of the blossoming star quarterback makes the Panthers legit Super Bowl contenders. Maybe not this year –- maybe not even in the immediate future. But certainly in the long haul. At least, that’s the assessment based off Newton’s professional body of work thus far.
No rookie quarterback in NFL history has been as impressive as Newton was in 2011. It’s not just the plays he made with his arm (4,051 yards passing, 21 touchdowns) and legs (706 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns), it’s the plays the Panthers asked him to make. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski did not scale back his playbook for the rookie. He had Newton make reads and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. He asked Newton to work through progressions from the pocket. He put the ball in Newton’s hands in critical moments and asked even more of him when the stakes raised.
Newton continuously responds. Sure, he showed plenty of imperfections. His decision-making disintegrated into recklessness at times -- which was reflected in part by his 17 interceptions. And Newton’s accuracy on simpler, rhythmic throws wavered a bit too much.
But the negatives far outweighed by the positives. Not only did Newton show all of the attributes that made him a star at Auburn, he tailored those attributes into the specific skills that pro quarterbacking demands: the anticipation of passing windows, manipulating defenses with subtle fakes and eye movement, standing firm in a muddy pocket. Newton showed a level of quarterbacking maturity that most players take years to reach or never reach at all. He did all this despite being barred from the team’s facility during the lockout.
Newton must learn to apply this kind of maturity to the locker room and huddle. He’s acknowledged that he’s too emotionally reactive to the natural ups-and-downs of the pro game. This is something that will likely sort itself out, especially since its Newton himself, and not someone like Rivera, general manager Marty Hurney, or owner Jerry Richardson, highlighting the need for change.
A much bigger concern is whether Newton can actually build on his success. Chudzinski did a brilliant job of tailoring his system to Carolina’s personnel. That personnel has now fractured a bit. No. 1 tight end Greg Olsen is back, but his running mate, Jeremy Shockey is not. Unless fifth-year backup Gary Barnidge can suddenly become a flexible receiving weapon, Chudzinski will have to drift away from the dual-tight end sets that defined his offense last season.
With a two-tight end approach, Carolina’s offense had an inherent unpredictability to it. The Panthers could always line up in a balanced set with a receiver and tight end on each side of the field. Or, without changing personnel, they could flex into a spread formation. That would stretch a base defense wide, leaving no help for whatever linebacker was matched up on Olsen or Shockey. There were a host of other formation variations in between these two, many of them involving a shotgun. What made this flexibility really potent was the fact that Carolina was great at running out of the shotgun.
Credit Chudzinski for building an unconventional ground game. By going shotgun, he compelled defenses to treat Newton as a run and pass threat on every down. That gave defenders an extra set of thoughts to process on each play. Chudzinski gave teeth to this by actually making good on the threat of Newton running. At 244 pounds, Newton, unlike the faster-but-far-more-fragile Michael Vick, has the strength to absorb hits and finish runs. He also has an innate sense for using his elusiveness to minimize the impact of the blows he takes. Also, Chudzinski placed an added mental burden on defenders by featuring counters and misdirections in the ground game and play-action. It helped that the Panthers had a pair of upper echelon running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Both are fundamentally sound all-around runners with the quickness and bendiness to create their own space after receiving the ball from a standstill position.
Expect the Panthers to keep using the shotgun in 2012. With Shockey gone, their base offense will likely include new fullback Mike Tolbert, which could mean a little less formation flexibility. Still, Tolbert is a very good pass catcher; aside from Oakland’s Marcel Reece, he’s the only fullback in the league capable of lining up in the slot. Chudzinski can concoct some quality wrinkles with his new base personnel. (Tolbert has been seen at H-back, fullback, running back and slot receiver thus far.)
If the Panthers discover they can’t fully spread the field with Tolbert, they’ll settle for traditional three-receiver sets and hope that newcomer Louis Murphy emerges as a threat. Murphy, who was traded from Oakland for a conditional draft pick, flashed potential as fluid possession type receiver early in his career -- think a slightly more explosive Jabar Gaffney -- but injuries have hindered his development.
It’s not an understatement to say that the Panthers are relying heavily on Murphy. Yes, they have a perennial top-five caliber receiver in Steve Smith. At 33, Smith can still separate from double coverage on intermediate routes, find open space running after the catch, and win jump-balls downfield. But he’s all there is at wide receiver. The trio of third-year pros rounding out the receiving depth is badly flawed, as Brandon LaFell is too methodical, David Gettis will start on PUP as he tries to return from a serious knee injury, and 2010 third-round pick Armanti Edwards is still about as raw as he was coming out of Appalachian State.
Shoddy receiving depth isn’t the only reason Carolina prefers to stay in base personnel. Besides having a dynamic rushing attack, the Panthers’ passing attack is predicated on taking big shots downfield. Shot plays are easiest to execute out of running formations, where you can set up the necessary max-protection, sell run fakes, and face the more mundane base defensive packages
The Panthers rely on lots of max protection even though two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross is proficient enough to consistently win battles one-on-one. Gross’s excellence allows for more help on the right side, which tackle Byron Bell and guard Geoff Hangartner need. The undrafted Bell flashed good body control in pass protection as a rookie last season, but he still has plenty of room to grow. Hangartner’s issue is a lack of power.
Rounding out the line is one of the league’s best all-around centers, Ryan Kalil, and über-athletic second-round rookie Amini Silatolu, who has a huge transition coming out of Division II Midwestern State (LA). Depth up front is a concern, as unimpressive ex-Colts guard Mike Pollak and tackle Garry Williams (who missed all of last season with a broken ankle) are the only experienced options. However, former Raiders lineman Bruce Campbell, a workout worry with virtually no live NFL experience, impressed during training camp.
The good news is that Carolina’s issues on defense in 2011 were easy to spot. The bad news is the issues were easy to spot because they pertained to a lack of talent. Most notably, a lack of linebacking talent. Injuries were largely to blame, but with the middle part of the defense being so important in Sean McDermott’s scheme, the Panthers still felt it necessary to make a dramatic personnel change.
Hurney spent his first-round pick on Luke Kuechly, who was an instinctive field-reader and prolific tackler at Boston College. In part because of stereotypes (white guy with a motor and high football IQ), many perceive Kuechly as a safe, solid pick who will stabilize the defense. The Panthers, however, are counting on him to ignite the defense, and plenty of top football minds believe he has the upside to be elite.
Kuechly’s arrival and the return of star Jon Beason (back after tearing his Achilles last September) could turn the Panthers’ weakness into a strength. But first, Rivera and McDermott must figure out where to play everyone. Beason has excelled inside and outside, so the decision will likely center around what’s best for Kuechly. So far, Kuechly is slated to work on the weak side, where he’ll have more room to run and chase.
Some have hoped that Thomas Davis could start on the weak side, but having suffered three ACL tears in three years, the 29-year-old is not someone to lean on. The fact that Carolina has kept him around speaks to Davis’s character and, more so, his uncommon athleticism. That athleticism has surely depleted some, but being a former safety and requiring limited reps, a nickel role seems like a natural fit for Davis if he still has some nimbleness. However, assuming Beason doesn’t come off the field, Davis would have to take nickel snaps away from starting strongside linebacker James Anderson, which is unlikely. Anderson plays with a respectable burst and has always been fluid in pass defense. It's also possible that Kuechly could warrant snaps in nickel.
It won’t matter how stable and assertive this linebacking group is if Carolina’s defensive tackles don’t become more consistent. Last year’s third-round picks, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, were mostly disappointing. McClain showed decent mobility as a 290-pound gap-shooter, but unrefined technique and a tendency to play tall often made him easy to dislodge. In fact, the Panthers went ahead and dislodged him from the roster on Friday. Fua was unnoticeable despite 11 starts and heads into this season slotted behind middling veteran Ron Edwards. Helping Fua’s chances at redemption is the fact that Andre Neblett’s four-game suspension could afford him extra snaps early in the season (though Fua is more of a nose tackle and Neblett is more of a three-technique).
Improving against the run will allow this defense to regain some control, but in today’s NFL, most games are won and lost through the air. That’s why a tepid pass-rush is so debilitating. The Panthers have a double-digit caliber sack artist in Charles Johnson, but he’s an end with limited speed who relies on power and crafty maneuvering. That’s noble, but not always worthy of a double-team.
There isn’t a veritable pass-rusher opposite Johnson. Third-year pro Greg Hardy is quick for his lanky build, but he only produced four sacks despite starting all 16 games last season. Undrafted second-year pro Thomas Keiser snuck on to the roster at defensive end.
If there were much optimism about the options on the other side from Johnson, GM Marty Hurney wouldn’t have spent a fourth-round pick on Oklahoma’s Frank Alexander. Panther fans might cringe at Alexander; being slightly undersized and not possessing a great burst, he’s a little reminiscent of Everette Brown. At least Alexander, unlike Brown, didn’t cost the Panthers an additional first-round pick down the road. He’s gotten his weight up to 270, but that’s still not big enough to anchor.
Without enough resources to simply line up and rush the passer, Rivera and McDermott will have to manufacture pressure with blitzes and subterfuge. Rivera knows how to do this from having coached a 3-4 scheme in San Diego, McDermott knows how from having learned Jim Johnson’s 46-type scheme in Philadelphia. Expect to see more of the 46 concepts, as its inside blitzes tend to emphasize strength over speed. To buttress the manufactured pressure, Carolina will shake things up with amoeba type looks before the snap. Eric Norwood and Hardy were both used as standup rovers last season, and at the back end of the depth chart is a classic miscellaneous rusher in Antwan Applewhite.
No matter how creative the pass-rushing tactics might get, Carolina’s secondary will be under a lot of pressure to sustain prolonged coverage. Starters Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn are both capable of applying the physical jams that help make this mission easier, but neither is a star. Gamble, being a versatile off-coverage defender, will handle the tougher assignments, while Munnerlyn will toggle between the perimeter and slot. Though far from elite, Munnerlyn has the physicality and aggressive mindset to handle this, and he’s actually a very good blitzer when lined up inside.
The question is: do the Panthers have someone to fill Munnerlyn’s spot outside in nickel? Fifth-round rookie Josh Norman drew some good reviews during offseason team activities, but NFL game speed is a big adjustment for any player coming out of tiny Coastal Carolina. Last year’s fourth-round pick, Brandon Hogan, was sent to IR, and the team lost former practice-squadder R.J. Stanford on waivers to the Dolphins.
Because of the dearth of corners, don’t be surprised if the Panthers wind up bringing another safety in to help Haruki Nakamura in nickel, with starting strong safety Charles Godfrey covering the slot. They’ve put Godfrey there before. Ideally, however, they’d like to keep the rangier fifth-year pro in space, where he can read the entire field and not just one receiver. Sherrod Martin, who isn’t terrible but has been somewhat prone to misreads in deep coverage, will take over the other safety spot when they move Godfrey inside.
Justin Medlock outlasted Olindo Mare to win the job here, then looked shaky with a pair of (long) misses in his last preseason game. With Jason Baker gone, the Panthers spent a sixth-round pick on what they hope will be a long-term punter in Brad Nortman. In the return game, Armanti Edwards has been a complete dud and failed to fend off fourth-round rookie Joe Adams on punts. Kealoha Pilares had a few big kick returns last season and is back in that role.
Cam Newton is a rare enough talent to singlehandedly make the Panthers playoff contenders one day. It’s possible that day can come in 2012, though he’d have to overcome a middling defense and receiving corps.
7 comments, Last at 11 Mar 2013, 5:08am by jack123