Carolina Panthers: The Road to Recovery

If you want proof of the mythical “Super Bowl Hangover,” look no further than the 2016 Carolina Panthers. In 2015, the team led by Cam Newton and suffocating defense started out the year 14-0 before finally losing to the Falcons in week 16. Despite their thwarted perfection, they won their next three games which landed them in the Super Bowl opposite the Denver Broncos and Von Miller.

The Carolina Panthers offense, specifically Cam Newton, crumbled against the historic Denver defense. The game ended in a 24-10 defeat. This represented the least amount of points the Panthers had scored all year. What ensued in 2016 was a broken team with a lost identity and no direction. They started the season off 1-5. Cam Newton focused on late hits instead of righting the sinking ship, and they ended the season 6-10. If we take a quick look at the numbers, it provides insight into just how hard the mighty had fallen in Carolina:

A Tale of Two Seasons 

Despite a seemingly strong roster, Carolina just couldn’t find the same scoring efficiency last season that they enjoyed in 2015. As shown in the chart above, they regressed in every category, and their overall record displays their inadequacy and ineffectiveness. They had elite players at quarterback and tight end in Cam Newton and Greg Olsen. In the passing and running game, they had solid, if not explosive options, but still couldn’t put together a decent effort.

In their Super Bowl run, the Panthers scored a touchdown on an astounding 69% percent of the times they were in the red zone, which led the NFL. During their 2016 hangover, their percentage dropped considerably as they only scored a touchdown in 59% of their visits inside the 20-yard line (12th in the NFL).

Perhaps the most confusing aspect of this offensive collapse is the fact that their offensive personnel stayed virtually the same from 2015 to 2016. Cam was still running the offense. Greg Olsen still flashed his elite talent at TE.  J-Stew was still toting the rock. And the receivers had all been there during the crushing championship defeat. In fact, the Panthers added Kelvin Benjamin to the WR corp. After an unexplainable 2016, Ron Rivera and the front office went into the 2017 NFL draft with one thought in mind: Surround Cam Newton with young and explosive talent.

Cam Newton has played with a duo of relatively one-dimensional running backs in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams both specializing in carrying the rock rather than catching it. In 2016, J-Stew caught ONLY EIGHT passes for the entire season. It doesn’t get more one-dimensional than that. To remedy this unfortunate situation, the Panthers looked to the 2017 class and made the most of the available talent.

Help Is On the Way

The organization decided it was time to give Newton short range receiving weapons both in the backfield and in the slot. Enter Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Curtis Samuel of Ohio State. Both are elusive options that provide high potential for yards after the catch. The Panthers offense was boring, stale, and ineffective last season. Their receivers weren’t fast enough, couldn’t get the proper separation, and didn’t give Cam the opportunity to unload before taking a shot to the helmet from a defensive end or a blitzing linebacker.

With the additions of these two high utility rookies, Carolina can speed up the pace of the offense and bring back something they haven’t seen since 2015. Offensive momentum. Both McCaffrey and Samuel can line up in the backfield or in the slot, creating a myriad of combinations that will confuse defenses and allow for gadget formations with a variety of personnel.

The Carolina front office spent high draft capital on McCaffrey (8th overall) showing both their desire and willingness to use the Stanford product right away. Last season, Newton was punished time and time again when he could not find a receiver down field and had nowhere to run. Now that McCaffrey is an option for a dump-off or designed screen pass expect scrambling Cam to shovel, flip, and float the ball to the rookie in the flat. McCaffrey may be the most elusive running back in the open field in this year’s class, and I expect to see big yardage gains and SCTop10 worthy plays when he’s catching the ball.

Even if Stewart handles 90% of the carries, don’t be surprised if McCaffrey makes a living on all of the backfield receiving work when he catches 40-50 balls in his rookie year. Time is running out for Stewart in Carolina, and when the final grain of sand falls through the proverbial hourglass, the lightning rod out of Stanford will be ready to become the feature back.

Even after using a top-10 pick to secure McCaffrey, the Panthers decided to buff up their receiving corps by drafting Curtis Samuel out of Ohio State in the second round. Although he played running back in college, it made more sense for him to switch to receiver when he entered the NFL draft. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, he put up solid numbers. Samuel’s junior season is when he truly broke out.

Listed as a running back, he posted both great rushing (97 carries, 771 yds, 8 TDs) and receiving statistics (74 receptions, 865 yds, 7 TDs). For a single running back or receiver, either stat line would have been an impressive junior season, but Samuel managed to obtain the numbers simultaneously. His ability to contribute from anywhere on the offensive side of the ball sets him apart from most of the players in this year’s rookie class.

The twin towers of Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess will be holding defensive attention on the outside while Samuel darts in and out of defensive coverage underneath and across the middle. As if being able to line up all over the field wasn’t enough, Samuel’s utility goes a step further. His success as a kick returner in college (21.6 yards per return in 21 runbacks at Ohio State), combined with the blazing 4.31 40-yard dash speed makes him the perfect candidate to make big plays in the return game.

2017 Rebound

Carolina retains most of the players that made up the roster during that historic season in 2015, most importantly Cam Newton, Greg Olsen, and Jonathan Stewart. What they lacked in explosiveness and speed, they fixed by drafting McCaffrey and Samuel. The Panthers are due for a bounce back season after a dismal 2016 and seem poised to make another run at the postseason. Ron Rivera and the front office realize this team is full of really special talent at all offensive positions after filling the holes with some of the most exciting rookies in the 2017 draft class.

Thank you for taking the time to give this a read. Please share any comments below or @DynastyPetro

 

 

jpetraccione

New York Jets fan, Syracuse University alumnus, proud Italian, and dynasty football addict. My obsession with the NFL is second only to my passion for the outdoors and wildlife. There's nothing like exploring the Colorado wilderness and admiring the Rocky Mountains...except maybe winning a dynasty championship. @DynastyPetro

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