Our 2018 Regular Season Preview continues through the NFC South with the Carolina Panthers, who are looking to return to the Playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons. Few teams were hotter coming down the stretch than the Panthers, who after a 4-3 start to the campaign rounded into impressive form winning seven out of their last nine games. However, despite the wave of momentum that Ron Rivera’s charges rode into the Postseason, they were eliminated as quickly as they arrived in a 31-26 loss at division rival New Orleans, their third such defeat to the Saints inside of four months. Heading into 2018 and there is a good deal of change coming to Charlotte, North Carolina, in the form of new Ownership, a new General Manager (Marty Hurney), a new Offensive Coordinator (Norv Turner) and Defensive Coordinator (Eric Washington), along with a slew of fresh personnel, which should lend towards Carolina having a very different look this season. Of course, all storylines revolve around former MVP Quarterback Cam Newton, and his quest to regain the former that earned him that award back in 2015 and took he and his teammates to the brink of earning the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy. And it’s with that said that we take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately decide whether or not the Panthers have made the necessary changes to take another legitimate shot at Super Bowl glory, or if all of this transition is simply just a portent of greater turnover to come.
Back in 2015, the Panthers plowed through their schedule on the strength of a dominant Defense and the exploits of one Cam Newton, who was nothing short of spectacular in leading his team to Super Bowl 50. It seems like ancient history at this point, but the MVP earned that distinction on the strength of a campaign in which he completed 59.8% of his Attempts for 3,837 Yards on 6.73 Net Yards per Attempt, tossing a career-high Thirty-Five Touchdowns to just Ten Interceptions, all the while posting a Quarterback Rating of 67.0, not to mention wrecking opposing Defenses with his legs, rushing for 636 Yards and Ten Touchdowns on 132 Carries. Chances are if you had this guy on your Fantasy Team, then you probably won your league by a wide margin. Unfortunately, if you had him on your roster in either of the following two terms, you probably didn’t have him for very long, for these last couple of seasons have not been kind to the former No. One Overall Pick. From 2016 to 2017, Newton has completed a modest 56.0% of his Passes for an average of just 219.7 Yards per Game on 5.86 Net Yards per Attempt, along with Forty-One Touchdowns in comparison to Thirty Interceptions, and failing to post a Quarterback Rating above 53.3 in either year. There are no shortage of theories for his regression as a passer, with a porous Offensive Line providing dismal protection, to the erosion of the Receiving Corps, and a mounting list of injuries that have really begun to wear the herculean Quarterback down. However, the biggest issue has been an offensive gameplan that simply couldn’t figure out how to properly utilize the versatile playmaker on a weekly basis. Do they keep him confined to the Pocket in an attempt to preserve his health, knowing that he’s far from the most accurate Passer (58.5% Career Completion Percentage)? Or do they turn him loose to make those thrilling plays that have vexed opponents for years (4,320 Rush YDS and 54 Rush TD in Career), and led weekly highlight reels despite opening him up to further injury? Ultimately, it was a conundrum that cost Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula his job, particularly after a 2017 showing that simply proved to be too much for Rivera to bear; last year, Newton, who was slow to recover from Offseason Shoulder Surgery, completed 59.1% of his Attempts for 3,302 Yards on a career-worst 5.81 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Two Touchdowns and Sixteen Interceptions, while owning a Quarterback Rating of 53.3. He practically carried the Rushing Attack to boot, totaling career-bests in Carries (139) and Rushing Yards (754), which isn’t something that’s ideal for a suddenly injury-prone Quarterback that will soon be entering his 30’s. Can he recapture his 2015 form? Will he ever be able to evolve into a more consistent passer from the Pocket? Is there someone out there that can strike some delicate balance between the two? We don’t know if he’s the right man to do it, but we do know who will be getting the next crack at solving the riddle that is Cam Newton…
Though he’s been less than successful as a Head Coach, there have been few Offensive Playcallers over the past three decades with greater credentials than Norv Turner. The 66-Year Old has forgotten more football than most us will ever think about grasping, and has oftentimes boosted the play of whatever Offense he’s coordinated in his 32 years in the NFL. However, he’s got something to prove here, folks, particularly when you consider how his last stint calling plays ended in Minnesota; when the Vikings’ Offense collapsed midway through 2016, Turner abruptly left his post, citing differences with Head Coach Mike Zimmer, and effectively went unemployed throughout the entire 2017 season. Eventually, Rivera came calling in an attempt to correct his Offense, which has been in decline for two years now. Of course, Rivera served as Turner’s Defensive Coordinator with the San Diego Chargers for three years from 2008 to 2010, with the pairing’s roles reversed heading into 2018. So with that said, just what can we expect from the Panthers’ Offense with Ol’ Norv pulling the strings? Well, they’re still very likely to run the football, continuing to implement the powerful ground game that has served them so well over the years; Carolina has averaged 128.3 Rushing Yards per Game over the past five seasons, ranking Fourth Overall during that period of time. Granted, the aforementioned Newton has long-been a major component of that facet of the attack, though Turner is likely to dial back their reliability on the Signal-Caller a good deal, particularly with the addition of former Broncos’ Tailback C.J. Anderson (245 CAR, 1,007 YDS, 3 TD in 2017), who is expected to fill the void left by Jonathan Stewart (198 CAR, 680 YDS, 6 TD in 2017), who was released in the Offseason. And then there is Christian McCaffrey (117 CAR, 435 YDS, 2 TD in 2017), the Eighth Overall Selection in last year’s Draft, who despite setting a franchise record with Eighty Receptions for 651 Yards and Five Touchdowns, struggled to find his place as a traditional Rusher. Turner has plenty of experience with Tailbacks (Emmitt Smith, Adrian Peterson), and we expect that he’ll utilize this proverbial Swiss Army Knife in a similar manner to a former charge: Darren Sproles. The Panthers also actively added speed and athleticism in the Receiving Corps, welcoming veterans Torrey Smith (36 REC, 430 YDS, 2 TD in 2017) and Jarius Wright (18 REC, 198 YDS, 2 TD in 2017), while adding the explosive D.J. Moore with their First Round Selection in the NFL Draft. Turner has always favored the deep ball, with his Offenses persistently threatening opponents vertically, which is something this unit lacked greatly last year. Moore in particular has loads of potential, which should be further augmented with the healthy return of Pro Bowl Tight End Greg Olsen (17 REC, 191 YDS, 1 TD in 7 Games in 2017) and blossoming Receiver Devin Funchess (63 REC, 840 YDS, 8 TD in 2017). If a retooled Offensive Line can hold their ground long enough for Newton to make use of his Supporting Cast (which is a big if), then the Panthers’ Offense could be in for a renaissance this year.
Winds of Change
2018 has quietly become a very important season for the Panthers, or more importantly for Rivera and his Coaching Staff for a multitude of reasons. With longtime Owner Jerry Richardson selling the franchise to David Tepper, the proverbial clock is ticking on the current Coaching Regime. Of course, Rivera has been very successful during his tenure in Carolina, going 64-47-1 (.576) over the duration of seven seasons, guiding his charges to four Playoff Appearances, three NFC South Championships, and that aforementioned trip to Super Bowl 50 back in 2015. Indeed, under his watch the Panthers have become one of the more stable franchises in the league. However, as is oftentimes the case in sports, when there is change at the top, it’s not long before that change trickles down the metaphorical pyramid. It’s widely expected that Tepper will hire his own General Manager after this season, for Marty Hurney, the former GM who returned to the franchise to serve in an interim capacity in 2017 after the departure of Dave Gettleman during the sale of the team, is in the building on a temporary basis. Again, a new Owner and an inevitably new General Manager typically translates to a new Coaching Staff, which should have Rivera’s ears perking upward. If Carolina flames out in the Playoffs once more, or even worse, misses the Postseason altogether would it really be that unrealistic to believe that there will be a new Coaching Staff in 2019? After all, there has been plenty of change already to the Staff, who in addition to Turner will be on their third Defensive Coordinator in three years. Eric Washington was elevated from Defensive Line duties to replace Steve Wilks, who was hired as the Arizona Cardinals’ Head Coach after just one year in replacing former Defensive Playcaller Sean McDermott, who was hailed for the job he did in his first year with the Buffalo Bills this past term. The Panthers’ blitzed far more frequently under the direction of Wilks, though will likely ease up a bit under Washington, who would likely prefer to create more pressure with the Defensive Line, which is after all his specialty. Either way you slice it, this is a storyline to watch, for Rivera’s tenure in Carolina could be coming to an end if he ultimately fails to find a way to get the most out of Newton, who in addition to being one of the true Posterboys of today’s game, is still very much in the prime of his career.
2018 Outlook: 8-8
As we harped on in the last segment, 2018 appears to be gearing up towards being a crucial one for the Panthers, who sporting a brand-new look on the offensive side of the football, have already experienced massive change at the top of the franchise, which will eventually trickle down to the playing field. Needless to say, it’s a matter of when that change occurs rather than if. And it’s with that said, that Ron Rivera has begun doing everything in his power to stave off the dreaded winds of change, hiring his old boss Norv Turner to revolutionize a declining Offense and in turn in get the best out of former MVP Quarterback Cam Newton. Newton has been a Rubik’s Cube, inside of a Word Search, inside of a Labyrinth for Carolina’s Coaching Staff over the past two seasons, and it will be up to the venerable Offensive Guru to figure his star pupil out, or else it could have major repercussions for he and his peers. It should be very interesting to see if and how this Offense comes together, for the Panthers made a number of quality signings in Free Agency (Smith, Wright), while adding a potential playmaker in the form of D.J. Moore in the Draft. However, there are still a litany of questions that need to be answered. Will Turner finally be the guy to figure out Cam Newton? Will Newton stay healthy enough for that to even happen? Will the Offensive Line gel quickly? Can all the new pieces in the Passing Game adapt to their roles in Turner’s scheme? Will the Defense continue to perform well on it’s third Defensive Coordinator in as many years? Will a young, inexperienced Secondary be able to survive the potent Passing Attacks of the NFC South? That’s an awful lot of questions, folks, and we’re not sure if Rivera & Co. have all the answers. So with that said, we feel that the Panthers will answer some, but fail to do so with the rest, which will likely leave them hovering around .500, staying true to a consistent theme for a franchise that has remarkably never managed to put together back-to-back winning seasons. Rivera Watch officially begins in three….two…one…