Panthers Preview: In the Line of Fire
A word of caution to all those eager to enshrine Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III in Canton: Cam Newton circa 2012. Newton, you may recall, was absolutely sensational as a rookie in 2011, throwing for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 706 yards and another 14 scores. His numbers last season were actually very similar—3,869 yards and 19 touchdowns passing, 741 yards and eight touchdowns rushing—but his overall play was not nearly as crisp as expected. Facing more prepared defenses, Newton did not improve from Year 1 to Year 2.
This can change in Year 3. If Newton can recognize his superstar tools, the Panthers have additional strengths—running back, defensive front seven—to contend every week. But the change can also go the other direction. If Newton continues to tread water, the Panthers have weaknesses—wide receiver, defensive backfield—that could fell them.
So what is the level of optimism in Charlotte? There has not been a team leader taking out a full page ad to make an impassioned Super Bowl cry (thank you again, Ryan Kalil, for that entertaining missive last year), but logic would hold that this team, which is young in key places, is better now than it was at this time last summer. Yet owner Jerry Richardson seems guarded. He already fired 11-year general manager Marty Hurney last season, and eventually replaced him with longtime Giants pro personnel director David Gettleman. This season Richardson has third-year head coach Ron Rivera firmly on the hot seat.
Rivera’s pedigree is on defense, which is fitting. If he’s going to get this club above .500 and save his job, that side of the ball will have to take off.
After Chicago completed five easy slants on a 55-yard, 2:27 drive to beat Carolina with a come-from-behind field goal at the horn in Week 8, some veteran Panthers vented their frustration about the defensive strategy. “I just play the defense they call, but you gotta switch it up,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. Safety Charles Godfrey groaned, “They threw the same pass play all the way down the field. It wasn’t nothing they were doing. It was what we were in, the coverage we were in. That was a great play for that coverage. And they just ran that play all the way down the field. The coverage we were in, we stayed in that coverage. That’s what happened.”
Normally such riled candor from players would be considered bad form. Really bad form, in fact. Mutinous, even. But there was minimal backlash against the veteran defensive backs because, well, everyone knew they were right.
It wasn’t just the Bears game, either. The Panthers last season had arguably the NFL’s most simplistic defense. It seemed as if they rotated to the same soft Cover 3 look on every down. (For this team, that meant a single-high safety in deep centerfield zone, the corners in off-coverage on the outside and four zone defenders underneath behind a four-man rush.)
The Panthers did not play this way because it was all their coaches knew. Ron Rivera came to Carolina known for his diverse defensive background. He coached linebackers in a 46-style Eagles defense, coordinated a Tampa 2 style Bears defense and coordinated a classic 3-4 Chargers defense. And Rivera’s coordinator here, Sean McDermott, learned a wide breadth of concepts working 10 years in Philadelphia under the late Jim Johnson.
Rivera and McDermott played this way because they had to. Carolina’s secondary was atrocious last year. Cornerback Josh Norman was every quarterback’s favorite player. At times the fifth-round rookie presented such a soft cushion that fans sitting in some of the lower sections probably had a better view of his receiver than he did. Toward the end of the season Norman was benched behind mediocre outside nickelback Josh Thomas and undrafted youngster James Dockery (who has good length but iffy recovery speed). At the other corner spot, Captain Munnerlyn held up okay, but under better circumstances he would have been relegated to No. 3 slot duties.
Incredibly, Carolina’s safety play was even worse, as centerfielders Sherrod Martin and Haruki Nakamura took turns blowing coverages early in the season. Those coverages were actually hard to blow given how deep Carolina’s back safeties often played. Charles Godfrey, who has decent hitting prowess but suspect speed and quickness in his change-of-direction, wasn’t much better, though the Panthers are optimistic about his moving from strong safety to free safety fulltime this year.
The coaches’ willingness to keep the scheme simple and safe is why a defense with arguably the league’s worst secondary finished a very respectable 13th against the pass. This offseason Gettleman made only minor adjustments to the secondary. He signed journeyman veteran Drayton Florence, who can hold up inside or outside and may compete for a starting job. He also brought in D.J. Moore, who floundered as Chicago’s slot corner last year but showed signs of opportunistic playmaking prowess earlier in his career. Gettleman also signed ex-Raider Mike Mitchell, who has had issues with coverage awareness but figures to compete for snaps at safety.
The heavier-hitting moves were made at defensive tackle, with Star Lotulelei drafted in the first round and Kawann Short in the second. Hopefully this duo yields better results than the third-round pair of Terrell McClain and Sione Fua from two years ago. It should, though there are reservations about both rookies. Lotulelei is nimble and well-sized, but he played with an inconsistent motor at Utah. That’s better than Short, whose motor at times seemed to completely shut off at Purdue. Obviously, the Panthers are betting high on the flashes of greatness Short exhibited.
Cornerback Josh Norman was every quarterback’s favorite player. At times the fifth-round rookie presented such a soft cushion that fans sitting in some of the lower sections probably had a better view of his receiver than he did.
One could argue that Gettleman did not need to so thoroughly address the defensive tackle position. After all, the Panthers last season ranked 14th against the run (though 18th in yards per carry). Their rotational youngsters, Frank Kearse and Nate Chandler, both showed hints of upside (though on Chandler, the coaches may disagree, as he’s been moved to offensive tackle). With returning veterans Colin Cole and starter Dwan Edwards being solid pluggers, Carolina seemed to have enough resources to get by on all three downs. Especially when you consider that 2012 fourth-round pick Frank Alexander has shown he can be a noisy pass-rusher from end or nickel tackle. Greg Hardy—a fourth-year pro and third-year starter who has great initial quickness for playing tall at 6-4—is also capable of operating off the edge or from the inside. (He’s in a contract year and reportedly dropped about 15 pounds over the offseason to boost his speed-rush.) Oddly enough, Carolina’s only every-down defensive end is Charles Johnson, whose block-shedding ability and steady, exhausting bull-rush seem better suited for the inside than edge.
While certain aspects of Carolina’s front and back fours might appear bleak, the light shining from this linebacking trio is bright enough to blind most Panthers critics. Reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly is already the best 4-3 Mike backer in football. It seems only a matter of time before the 22-year-old (who, honest to goodness, in person looks like a 245-pound 14-year-old) becomes football’s best linebacker period. Kuechly has a preternatural hunter’s sense and a rare gift for going zero-to-60 in tight confines.
There was once a time where the future of outside linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason looked as bright as Kuechly’s. However, Davis missed 39 games from 2009 to ’11 with a trio of ACL tears. Beason, over the last two years, has missed 27 games thanks to a 2011 torn Achilles and simultaneous knee cartilage damage and shoulder labrum tear in 2012. Both veterans are still very capable of making vociferous stops in run defense and short-area coverage. Though neither is what he likely could have been, the belief in Carolina—and around a lot of the league—is that Davis and Beason can help make this the most formidable linebacking trio in football. Providing depth at all three spots is the reliable, highly intelligent ex-Giant Chase Blackburn.
Rob Chudzinski did a fine job in his two years as Carolina’s offensive coordinator, earning a head coaching position in Cleveland. Not surprisingly, his replacement came from in-house, with quarterbacks coach Mike Shula being promoted. The former Alabama head coach is expected to carry on a lot of Chudzinski’s concepts, but he’ll also make some necessary tweaks. While this has been one of the league’s more innovative offenses the past two years—with its zone-option run game, variety of base shotgun tactics and, in 2011, hybrid dual tight end gambits—it has at times been too cute for its own good.
Simply put, it doesn’t make sense for Carolina to have spent around nine figures over the years on two running backs (DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart), a Pro Bowl left tackle (Jordan Gross) and a Pro Bowl center (Ryan Kalil) but not commit to any sort of power run game. Yes, the NFL is a passing league now. And yes, often either Williams or Stewart—or sometimes both—have been hurt (Stewart is coming back from offseason surgery on both ankles this year). And last October Kalil landed on injured reserve with a Lisfranc (foot) injury. Yet still, even when all of the machine’s parts are working, the Panthers have been too reliant on deception and gimmicks in their ground game (55% of Carolina’s carries last season came from the shotgun).
This isn’t to say the Panthers should suddenly transform into an ’80s-style meat and potatoes offense. While Shula plans to scale back some of the zone reads and other “gimmicks,” it would be foolish to completely abandon them. After all, they’re in place to capitalize on the unique talents of Cam Newton. Unlike the diminutive Michael Vick or RG3, or the highly exposed, long-striding Colin Kaepernick, Newton, at 6-5, 245 pounds, is built to withstand—sometimes even deliver—the punishment that comes with running the ball. And many of Newton’s run threats set the table for Carolina’s all-important play-action passing game.
Most of the concern about Newton has pertained to his leadership. Beyond the the million-dollar smile, some critics decry the 24-year-old’s mopiness in adversity and others perceive undue arrogance. Indeed, character counts for something in the NFL. But the harsh reality is this stuff has much less direct bearing on winning and losing than people acknowledge. (If you’re not convinced, look at the two rings Pittsburgh won with a pre-suspension Ben Roethlisberger.)
It’s in the aerial game where Newton really needs to improve. The Panthers’ fate hinges not on whether the QB is a nice guy, but on whether he can throw with more consistent accuracy. Newton’s unacceptable bouts of erratic ball placement derive from poor footwork and bad habits in his release mechanics. It’s all correctable, and needs to be corrected, because Newton’s innately quick, powerful, compact delivery is too special to be flawed.
Going back to the character issue, this organization knows better than most that getting stars to play well is more important than getting them to play nice. For a dozen years, the Panthers have dealt with wideout Steve Smith’s unbridled and sometimes misplaced intensity. Through the ups and downs and perpetual shoulder chips, Smith has always maintained his speed, darting quickness, leaping ability and, most intimidatingly, low-centered strength. That’s why, at 34, he’s not just still on this team, but still a bona fide No. 1 receiver.
As has been the case since Muhsin Muhammad left, Smith will have to go it alone (so to speak); none of Carolina’s other wideouts strike fear in the defense. Fourth-year man Brandon LaFell finally flickered promise early last season, showing improved tempo and fluidity as a route runner. But at season’s end, he had amassed just 677 receiving yards—hardly the mark of a dynamic No. 2.
Statistically, LaFell was actually the No. 3, as tight end Greg Olsen finished second on the team with 69 receptions and 843 yards. (Smith had 73 grabs for 1,174 yards.) Olsen, who has nice body control and movement skills for a 6-6, 255-pounder—along with a knack for high-pointing the ball—can be a tough matchup in the seams and red zone. But his hard-to-watch limitations as a blocker hinder some of the offense’s flexibility. Olsen was easier to hide when Jeremy Shockey was here, giving the Panthers a true two-tight end system. With No. 2 tight end Ben Hartsock being a restricted athlete, Shula might be compelled to make “21” personnel (two backs, one tight end) his base, with fullback Mike Tolbert serving as the miscellaneous receiving threat. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Tolbert, though stocky in stature, is actually a very fine on-the-move pass-catcher and route runner. Still, all in all, it’s harder to be creative with “21” personnel than “12” personnel (that is, one back, two tight ends).
Unlike the diminutive Michael Vick or RG3, or the highly exposed, long-striding Colin Kaepernick, Newton, at 6-5, 245 pounds, is built to withstand—sometimes even deliver—the punishment that comes with running the ball.
Carolina’s options are also thin at second-string wide receiver. The hope is that Ted Ginn Jr. can inject some vertical speed in the pass game, but most likely he’ll be relegated to bit duties as the No. 4, with steadier inside presence Domenik Hixon being the No. 3. At the bottom of the depth chart, return ace Kealoha Pilares could warrant gadget play snaps. So could David Gettis or Armanti Edwards who, amazingly, is still on the roster after three underachieving seasons.
The group tasked with giving Carolina’s skill players time and space is stout at the two most important spots—left tackle and center—and somewhat tenuous at the others. Lining up between Pro Bowl veterans Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil is second-year left guard Amini Silatolu, whose good feet suggest that his underwhelming pass-blocking will eventually catch up to his respectable run-blocking. On the right side, with veteran guard Geoff Hangartner having been cut, fourth round rookie Edmund Kugbila will compete with Garry Williams, a right tackle/guard combo who did decent work filling in as a starter inside last year. At right tackle is fringe contributor Byron Bell, though presumably that could be subject to change.
Graham Gano will have every opportunity to keep his kicking job after making 9 of 11 tries upon joining the team for the final six weeks last season. Punter Brad Nortman really struggled as a sixth-round rookie in 2012, tying Philadelphia’s Mat McBriar for the league low in net average (36.5). To compete with Nortman, the Panthers signed undrafted rookie Jordan Gay, who hails from a college called Centre, where he punted and place-kicked. The paucity of sure things in the kicking game contrasts with an embarrassment of riches in the return game. Joe Adams, Kealoha Pilares and Ted Ginn Jr. are all great options.
It wouldn’t be a world-stopping shock if the Panthers became a worst-to-first type story in 2013, though that seems unlikely given that the weaknesses that plagued this team the past few years—namely defensive back and wide receiver—persist.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.