By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Rarely does a 6-10 season inspire confidence among a franchise, but that’s exactly what happened to the Carolina Panthers. In fact, center Ryan Kalil was so confident about the prospects of the 2012 Panthers, he took out a full page ad in the Charlotte Observer predicting a Super Bowl win.
So far, the Panthers’ route to New Orleans – the site of Super Bowl XLVII – has taken some unplanned detours. Kalil has been lost for the season to a Lisfranc injury, their once explosive offense has regressed to the bottom of the league, general manager Marty Hurney has been fired, and the Panthers find themselves 1-5.
Surely, the genesis of any bubbling optimism was the performance of 2011 Rookie of the Year, quarterback Cam Newton. Newton dazzled the league with fleet feet and a rocket-arm on a linebacker-sized frame. Newton became the first rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards, set the single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (14), and completed 60% of his passes.
This season, Newton has replaced productivity with whining. In the waning moments of a blowout loss to the Giants, Newton sulked on the bench, drawing ire from teammate Steve Smith. Judging by Newton’s most recent post game press conference, he didn’t take Smith’s suggestion to heart.
Granted, athletes say regrettable things in the immediate moments after a tough loss, but Newton did a lot of finger-pointing and pouting during Sunday’s press conference. He threw offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski under the bus and sarcastically solicited the media for suggestions in a suggestion box. Here’s a suggestion, Cam, try completing a pass to your own team in the red zone.
Just a day after Newton’s press conference, it wasn’t offensive coordinator Chudzinski who was fired, rather it was Hurney. Owner Jerry Richardson sat Hurney down on Sunday night and posed to simple questions: Why is the team 1-5 and when are they going to get better? Short of an honest answer, Hurney was relieved of his duties.
Hurney does deserve some scrutiny here. After investing $44 M between running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, why did he bring in free-agent Mike Tolbert, when the Panthers clearly needed more weapons in the passing game? Furthermore, if you’re going to invest that much at the running back position, why are the three of them averaging a combined 16 carries a game?
The read-option system that the Panthers use in the running game isn’t an ideal match for Stewart or Williams. These two are best utilized in an I-formation power running scheme, where they can hit a designated hole downhill and make a decisive cut up the field. Instead, they’re forced to wait for Newton’s decision after reading the defense, which takes their explosiveness away.
The Panthers worked best last season when they involved both of their tight ends – Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey – in the passing game, so why didn’t they replace Shockey? Other than Olsen, no other Panthers tight end has caught a pass this season. The two tight end personnel grouping afforded the Panthers flexibility to run out of a traditional balanced formation, or shift into a spread formation pre-snap to get favorable match-ups against linebackers.
Another Hurney failing is the wide receiver position. How can Brandon LaFell and Louis Murphy be considered sufficient receivers to compliment Smith? The read-option system can create single-coverage opportunities down the field off of play-action, so other than Smith, the Panthers don’t have any vertical threats on the roster.
The injury to Kalil has forced some shuffling along the right side of the offensive line. Guard Geoff Hangartner has moved to center, right tackle Byron Bell has moved to right guard, and Gary Williams is now starting at right tackle. The left side of the line – anchored by Pro Bowler Jordan Gross – has stayed in tact. The Panthers wisely put their athletic second-round pick Amini Silatolu next to Gross to ease his transition to the NFL.
Offensively, the Panthers seem to be struggling to find an identity and how to properly use their personnel. Granted, the league now has a full year of tape on Newton to figure out his weaknesses – particularly making hot reads when blitzed – and devise schemes accordingly to minimize his effectiveness. The Panthers best chance is to pound the football to set up deep play-action shots, otherwise, more heads will roll in Carolina.
On defense, the Panthers are a middle-of-the-road unit. For a group lacking talent, recent injuries to two of their top players – Jon Beason (knee) and Chris Gamble (shoulder) – are huge blows to and already suspect back seven.
The Panthers spent their first round pick on Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. Prior to the combine, Kuechly carried the ubiquitous white guy labels of high motor and football IQ. However, his measurables ended up near the top of all combine drills for linebackers, entrenching his position as a top-10 pick. So far, Kuechly has not disappointed, leading the Panthers in both solo (27) and total (51) tackles.
Defensive end Charles Johnson is the Panthers top pass rusher. Johnson parlayed an 11.5 sack season in 2010 into a $72 M contract extension with $30+ M guaranteed. While Johnson isn’t an elite athlete, he wins his battles with technique and relentlessness. Johnson draws extra attention and must be accounted for on every play.
Johnson’s effectiveness is limited by mediocre play on the interior of the defensive line. Dwan Edwards has been the most effective defensive tackle, but isn’t disruptive enough to command a double team. This forces defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to bring pressure from the back seven, which further exposes an already talent poor secondary.
With Hurney out on the streets, head coach Ron Rivera’s seat got a little hotter. The Panthers have been in a position to win every game this season except one, so they’re not as bad as their record indicates.
During their four-game losing streak, it’s been untimely penalties and turnovers that have derailed several scoring opportunities late in games. Clearly, the Panthers don’t have enough talent to be a contender, but they shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.