Franchise Analysis – Carolina Panthers

It’s safe to say the Panthers Super Bowl hangover was real, as 2016 was not kind to this franchise. Coming off their appearance in Super Bowl 50, expectations were higher than ever. How did a team with the defending NFL MVP go from first to worst in their own division?

2016 Evaluation – Offense

With any team, a quarterback will get all of the credit, and all of the blame as well. It looked like Cam Newton finally realizd his potential and established himself as one of the next great quarterbacks. It was evident this season that something wasn’t right with the 2015 NFL MVP.

Overall, this offense finished 15th in points and 19th in yards. That’s a drastic drop off from finishing first and 11th in those respective categories in 2015. Was Cam Newton really to blame for this sharp decline in production? The answer: not entirely.

The 2015 Panthers ran the ball 526 times, which was more than any other team. Next season they only attempted 453 runs, good for seventh in that category. Many factors contributed to this decline. First, Jonathan Stewart missed three games. The Panthers averaged less than 100 yards rushing and three turnovers per game during that stretch.

Panthers Super Bowl hangover

Will Cam Newton try to reincorporate running the ball as part of his game for the 2017 season? (Courtesy of; ABC News Radio)

Second, Cam Newton failed to run the ball effectively. At times, he even seemed unwilling to run. Compared to his MVP season, he rushed the ball 42 fewer times and scored five fewer rushing touchdowns. This could be the result of the punishment he continually took this season. It’s smart for Newton to run less, but he’s always been more effective as a threat to run.

In the last two seasons, the Panthers are 14-5 when Newton has at least seven rushing attempts and are 6-2 when Newton runs at least 10 times. Double-digit rushing attempts is probably too much, even for Newton. He has to find a medium between running too much, and not at all. Since his completion percentage has never been above 60 in consecutive seasons, running the ball must be a part of his game.

Third and finally, the Panthers offensive line did not produce to the same level as they did in 2015. Michael Oher, Mike Remmers and Dan France couldn’t stay healthy enough or play well enough to maintain the run game.

Entering 2017, this offense needs to focus on rebuilding their running attack in order to shake off the Panthers Super Bowl hangover.

2016 Evaluation – Defense

If the 2016 Panther’s offense took a step back, then the defense fell off a cliff. This defense finished 26th in points and 21st in yards after being top 10 in those categories a year ago. Specifically, this team could not stop anyone through the air.

In 2016, opponents on average had three less passing attempts against the Panthers per game, but had more success. They gave up 34 more passing yards per game on average. That may not seem like much, but 34 yards equates to three more first downs per game. That impacts field position and scoring.

It’s evident that this unit missed Josh Norman. He’s not the sole reason for this decline. However, when this defense is still top 10 against the run and is decidedly worse against the pass, his absence played a role in contributing to the Panthers Super Bowl hangover.

Apart from inconsistent play from young but talented players, the Panthers’ defensive scheme needs tuning. This defense would routinely ask linebackers and defensive linemen to play an active role in coverage. Using less athletic defenders to cover tight ends and slot receivers should be used sparingly, not featured. If this defense can adjust their scheme to minimize the impact linebackers and defensive linemen have in coverage, they will undoubtedly improve.

Panthers Super Bowl hangover

Luke Kuechly’s return in 2017 will no doubt have a positive impact on this lackluster Panthers defense. (Courtesy of; Deadspin)

The Panthers also suffered from one of the most heartbreaking injuries of the season. It was painful to see Luke Kuechly miss the last six games as a result of a concussion. Kuechly is always one of the best linebackers against the run and is incredibly versatile in coverage. The Panthers will no doubt improve with a healthy Luke Keuchly back in the lineup.

What’s incredibly frustrating about this defense is that they finished second in sacks and 10th in third down defense and teams could still pass against them. This team needs more consistent play from all of their players. It’s clear they are capable of top defensive play, but they must become more consistent if they wish to return to the Super Bowl.

 

Divisional Analysis

Unfortunately, the Panthers reside in the NFC South. This division is the best in terms of quarterback play from top to bottom. What other division has a first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, two MVP’s, and a rising star all at the quarterback position? Thus, the Panthers have to build their team to combat such players.

The Panthers are already capable of rushing the passer. They must upgrade their secondary to get more consistency against the pass. There are a plethora of good defensive backs in the 2017 NFL Draft. With the eighth overall pick, the Panthers will be able to address this need, should they make it a priority.

With players like Marlon Humphrey, Quincy Wilson, Marshon Lattimore, and Adoree’ Jackson available, the Panthers will have plenty of good options. Because there are so many good defensive backs, they could look to trade back and still be able to select one of these top prospects.

They could also use this pick to address their diminished rushing attack. The Panthers could make a splash and select Leonard Fournette. Infusing a talent like Fournette in this offense could allow the Panthers to return to their 2015 dominance.

The Panthers could also use this opportunity to address their left tackle position. If Cam Robinson is not on the board when the Panthers pick, I don’t see them selecting a tackle. There isn’t a player, besides Robinson, worthy of a top 10 selection at this point.

The point is, the Panthers were dominant when their offense was effective running the football. They were able to keep the opposing teams’ quarterback off the field, and thus limit their impact on the game.

Postseason Prospects

Clearly, the Panthers have certain strengths that give them the potential to be a playoff team. Here are the Panthers’ ranks in the following offensive and defensive metrics that can indicate postseason success.

Panthers Super Bowl hangover

It’s nearly impossible for an NFL team to be great in every facet of the game. Often, teams are very good at a few things, and are at least competent at the rest. For Carolina’s offense, they weren’t particularly good at any one part of the game. Yes, they finished top 10 in time of possession. Outside of that metric, they were mediocre in all other categories.

This doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t improve next season. However, the Panthers need to re-establish their identity as a run first team. If they are successful, they will have increased time of possession, third down conversion rate, and allow less sacks.

Panthers Super Bowl hangover

While the drop off for the defense was significant, they still show flashes of greatness. Finishing in the top 10 in three of these categories is great. However, they failed to even be average in terms of points and yards allowed. If they could have just been top 20 in both of these statistics, this team would have had a chance to make the playoffs.

Hopefully the Panthers will continue to build upon the defensive success that made them conference champions in 2015.

2017 Predictions

I see improvement in the Panthers future. They will be returning key players who missed time from injury, as well as acquiring new talent through the draft and free agency.

The only question is, will the coaching staff and quarterback be willing to regain their run first mentality? I think the answer is yes. However, with ascending teams like Tampa Bay and Atlanta, the Panthers Super Bowl hangover will remain. I like Carolina to improve to 9-7, but miss the playoffs.

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