2013 Team Preview: Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

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  • 2012 Record: 7-9 (2nd in NFC South)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -6 (18th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +1.2 (t-9th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.40 (11th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.65 (9th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.86 (4th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.63 (28th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 386.68 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 399.87 points

With the Lions being the sole exception, no team blew more winnable games last year than the Panthers and that ended up being the difference, say, a 10-6 record and a wild-card spot in the playoffs where it’s entirely possible Cam Newton could have shredded the Packers’ defense with the read option a round earlier than Colin Kaepernick ultimately did…and a 7-9 record that required a 5-1 finish to get there.

Now there’s two viable ways of projecting the Panthers’ 2013 chances based on that information. One way is assuming that there’s no possible way they can be that bad in late-game situations again and that their 1-7 record in games decided by seven points or less will regress back towards the mean, leading to the first winning season in Charlotte since 2008. The other method is noting that Ron Rivera is still coaching the Panthers and thus they cannot be trusted.

Football Outsiders tried to use both approaches in this year’s edition of their Almanac, picking the Panthers to win the NFC South while simultaneously using the team’s chapter to take a dump on Rivera and backpedal away from that prediction as fast as possible. Contrary to its usual thoughtful and in-depth statistical reasoning, the book doesn’t really provide any defense for the skepticism of its own prediction other than a few cherry-picked stats and rumblings of player dissatisfaction in the locker early in the season. News flash: players on losing teams are often unhappy!

Predictive Yards per Play loved the Panthers throughout last season, ranking them as high as 3rd when they were 3-8 in November (which even I thought was insane) and ultimately placing them 7th in the year-end rankings. Yet its projection model only picks them to finish around .500 this season. And the biggest reason, by far, is perhaps a reasonable on-field indicator of Rivera’s shortcomings as a coach: completion percentage.

The Panthers had a below average consistency index on both sides of the ball in 2012, but their sub par offensive figure isn’t anything to get too worked up about – Cam Newton had a 60.0% completion percentage in 2011 and it’s reasonable to think he’ll bounce back to or even exceed that percentage in his third season. Defensively, however, while the Panthers defense drastically improved in virtually every other manner over their 2011 performance, their Consistency Index did not. In fact, the Panthers’ CI figure of -6.075 was the worst in the league and that finish, coupled with their 30th-place ranking in the category in 2011, says as much about the inadequacies of Rivera’s coaching style as it does about the weaknesses in the Carolina secondary (which have been, and still appear to be, plentiful).

Though he spent his formative coaching years in Philadelphia during the time that Jim Johnson was blitzing every last quarterback in sight, Rivera’s preferred defensive strategy lies much closer to the Tony Dungy Tampa-2 school of thought – generate a pass rush with the front four, send everybody else into soft zone coverage and wait for a sack or for the opponent to make a mistake. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to run the Cover-2 – Dungy’s Bucs defenses and, more recently, Lovie Smith’s Bears defenses have shown the style to be extremely effective when run by talented players across the board.

The issue in Carolina has been, of course, a lack of talented players across the board. Luke Kuechly’s arrival last season gave Rivera the linebacking corps necessary to pull the scheme off and though you could hardly call the front four dominant, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy both had double-digit sacks coming off the edge and Star Lotulelei’s presence at defensive tackle could legitimately make the Panthers’ pass rush fearsome. In 2011 and ’12, however, Carolina merely generated a decent pass rush with their front four. And a decent pass rush isn’t going to keep anybody from completing eight-yard slants on Captain Munnerlyn all day.

The sad thing is, now that Chris Gamble announced his retirement in the offseason, Munnerlyn is currently the Panthers’ top cornerback. Behind him on the depth chart are second-year man Josh Norman (possibly the most picked-on corner in the league in his rookie season), Drayton Florence (who’s 32 and started only three games for the Lions last year, who have a pretty awful secondary themselves) and D.J. Moore (who lost his nickelback job on the Bears to Kelvin Hayden towards the end of last season). Additionally, the Panthers’ starting safeties – one of the more important positions in the Cover-2 – still project to be Charles Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura, who also go by the names “Crap We’re Screwed” and “Crap We Are Really Screwed.” The guy signed in the offseason to push them? Former Raiders safety Mike Mitchell, who is probably still best known for being the player picked way hilariously too early of the past ten years (your spirit still lives on, Al!).

Even with those inadequacies facing him in the secondary, though, Rivera has rigidly adhered to the Cover-2 concept the past two years. Football Outsiders research shows that a year after rushing the passer with just his front four 72% of the time, Rivera sent a standard four-man rush even more often in 2012, crossing the 75% threshold apparently in an attempt to become the most predictable coach in the league. Essentially, pass plays run by Carolina opponents have gone in one of two ways the past two seasons: either Carolina’s pass rush got to the quarterback and forced a sack or an incompletion…or the pass got completed. And more often that not, it’s the pass that been completed.

The Panthers allowed a 64.9% completion percentage in 2011 and then, despite giving up 66 fewer points, permitted opponents to complete 66.8% of their passes in 2012. And it hasn’t just been Drew Brees and Matt Ryan picking apart the Carolina secondary. Brady Quinn’s completed only 53.8% of his passes in his undistinguished career to date, but he turned into Joe Montana against the Panthers last year, going 19-of-23 for 201 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Freeman had one of the lowest completion percentages in the league last year at 54.8%, but he was a model of efficiency in the Bucs’ Week 1 win over the Panthers last year (16-of-24, 138 yards and a touchdown). And the Panthers completely dominated the Bears in Week 8, but inexplicably ran the same soft zone coverage over and over on the final drive of the game, allowing Jay Cutler to complete six of seven passes to get the Bears into game-winning field goal position so easily, it almost seemed like Carolina was throwing the game.

So if you’ve been looking for a statistical reason why Ron Rivera has been a terrible coach in his first two seasons, you’ve got one. That’s even leaving aside his lily-livered fear of going for it on 4th-and-short or his penchant for punting from his opponent’s 34-yard-line. Now that Romeo Crennel and Norv Turner have been fired, Rivera almost assuredly enters the 2013 season with the Worst Coach Alive title belt.

But let’s not forget: Norv Turner made the playoffs four times as a head coach and even Romeo got a 10-6 record out of the Browns one year. That Rivera will ultimately torpedo the Panthers’ Super Bowl hopes with horrible clock management or playcalling so conservative Barry Goldwater would tell him to lighten up a bit is a given; that it will necessarily keep Carolina from making the playoffs is not. Despite the sophomore slump narrative that surrounded him, Newton’s net yards per attempt actually increased from 2011 to ’12 and it’s reasonable to think he’ll take another a (potentially giant) step forward again in 2013. If he does put the team on his back this season, it almost won’t matter who the Panthers coach is. Almost.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.558266 -2.975 0.994494 -0.38907 386.6775

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: WR Louis Murphy

2013 notable offseason additions: WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Domenik Hixon, G Edmund Kugbila

Not a whole lotta change to talk about here, personnel-wise – basically, the changes amount to getting rid of one fast-as-crap receiver who can’t hang onto the ball and has trouble staying healthy for two other fast-as-crap receivers who can’t hang onto the ball and have trouble staying healthy. Cam Newton will be getting his play calls from a new offensive coordinator this season, however, as Rob Chudzinski used the Panthers’ offensive success from the last two seasons as a springboard to the Browns’ head coaching gig. Former quarterbacks coach and Alabama head coach Mike Shula takes his place and is unlikely to change much about the offense, although he is apparently simplifying the verbiage in the team’s play calls. At any rate, he’s not his brother, so there’s hope for success here…For the record, I really like me some Cam, but there’s still room for improvement in his accuracy and decision-making. He’s capable of making any throw, it’s more a matter of using the correct mechanics consistently. Also, if he never stares down another receiver who’s double-covered in the middle of the field, it’ll be too soon…Probably the deepest team in the league at running back anyway, the Panthers spent a sixth-round pick on nifty little guy Kenjon Barner to provide them with the best fourth-string running back in the league. Barner may actually end up getting use, though, since Jonathan Stewart’s currently on the PUP list.

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.020461 -6.075 1.005506 +1.165454 399.8651

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DT Ron Edwards, DT Andre Neblett, OLB James Anderson, OLB Jason Phillips, CB Chris Gamble

2013 notable offseason additions: DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short, ILB Chase Blackburn, CB Drayton Florence, CB D.J. Moore

Lotulelei was getting first overall pick buzz before an apparent heart condition that surfaced before the draft caused him to fall to the Panthers at #14. If he stays healthy, it could be a franchise-altering lucky break for the Panthers because Lotulelei’s combination of power and speed is exceptionally rare. Probably the most common NFL comparison Lotulelei’s gotten over the past year is to Haloti Ngata and if he turns out to be anywhere near as good as Ngata is, the Panthers will be ecstatic…Short, drafted in the second round, is considered more of a pure pass-rusher, meaning Lotulelei’s more likely to see time as the run-stuffing nose tackle and Short will likely be used as the penetrating 3-technique. Consistent production out of those two would mean Greg Hardy may have a shot at reaching 25% of his year’s goal for sacks, which is 50. What a reasonable and well-grounded young man he is…Any discussion of the Panthers’ defense wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Luke Kuechly, who looks like the next great middle linebacker in the NFL. He forms a pretty formidable triad of linebackers with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis that’s probably the strongest part of the defense – assuming Beason and Davis stay healthy for the second year in a row, which is a big “if.”

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 Seattle Seahawks
2 September 15 @ Buffalo Bills
3 September 22 New York Giants
4 Bye Week
5 October 6 @ Arizona Cardinals
6 October 13 @ Minnesota Vikings
7 October 20 St. Louis Rams
8 October 24 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
9 November 3 Atlanta Falcons
10 November 10 @ San Francisco 49ers
11 November 18 New England Patriots
12 November 24 @ Miami Dolphins
13 December 1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
14 December 8 @ New Orleans Saints
15 December 15 New York Jets
16 December 22 New Orleans Saints
17 December 29 @ Atlanta Falcons

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +0.78 points per game harder than average (10th-toughest)

Outside of Rivera’s bumbling buffoonery, special teams were probably the biggest culprit in the Panthers’ poor performance in close games last year. Justin Medlock was arguably the worst kickoff specialist in the league and Rivera didn’t trust him to hit any field goal beyond 45 yards. Other than that, he was great! Graham Gano came in late in the season and performed well enough to get a return contract for 2013. Brad Nortman might want to think about tightening up his performance in 2013, however – the punter tied with Mat McBriar for the lowest net average in the league last season…Predictive Yards per Play rates the Panthers’ schedule as the 10th-toughest in the league, but I see a pretty manageable schedule in the first half – meaning if this team isn’t at least 5-3 by the first meeting with the Falcons comes in Nov. 3rd, you might as well get a head start on packing up your office, Ron…Quirkiest part of the schedule: four divisional games in December, with two of those coming against the Saints in a three-week span that may just decide whether the team makes the playoffs or not. Can we get rid of those close-together home-and-homes for 2014, NFL? Please and thank you.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 7.7 wins (3rd in NFC South)

www.fireronrivera.com is still an available domain name.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 10-6 (t-1st in NFC South)

In Cam We Trust.

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