Our 2019 NFL Preview marches through the NFC South, with our next stop being in Carolina, where the Panthers look to pick up the pieces after a disappointing finish to the previous campaign saw them miss the Playoffs for the second time in three years. After a promising 6-2 start, Ron Rivera’s charges spiraled into a seven-game losing streak before saving some face in the season finale. Now the pressure is on the veteran Head Coach, who must now prove that his side’s championship window is very much still open, with a team that despite looking improved on paper, will for all intents and purposes be at the mercy of their Franchise Quarterback, Cam Newton, who is making the long trek back from Offseason Shoulder Surgery. Will a healthy Newton spell success for Carolina? Will the former MVP recapture his form from 2015 when he spearheaded the team to an appearance in Super Bowl L? With a new Ownership Group in charge, is Rivera on the hot seat? Let’s pull back the curtain and take a look at what awaits the Panthers this season…
After nearly guiding the Panthers to what would have been their first Lombardi Trophy in Franchise History, it was hard to envision Cam Newton (67.9%, 3,395 YDS, 6.36 NY/A, 24 TD, 13 INT, 57.4 QBR) outdoing the performance he put together in 2015. In leading Carolina to a franchise-best 15-1 record, and accounting for a staggering Forty-Five Touchdowns en route to earning Most Valuable Player honors, the young Quarterback looked set to reign over the league for years to come. However, that simply hasn’t been the case, for in the three years that have followed, the former Heisman, National Champion, No. Overall Pick, and MVP, has struggled to come close to reaching that level of quality. Granted, a plethora of injuries have certainly had something to do with it, but there is plenty of blame that can be attributed to a declining Supporting Cast coupled with a habitually unimaginative scheme that seemed genuinely unable to maximize his unique talents. In 2016 and 2017, the three-time Pro-Bowler completed just 56.0% of his Attempts for an average of 219.7 Yards per Game on a disappointing 5.86 Net Yards per Attempt, with Forty-One Touchdowns in comparison to Thirty Interceptions. Newton has struggled throughout his career when it comes to consistently making plays from the Pocket, which is why when it came time to find a new mentor for his Quarterback, Rivera tabbed his former boss, Norv Turner, to become the team’s Offensive Coordinator in 2018. Initially, the venerable Playcaller seemed to be the exactly what the doctor ordered for the ailing Newton, who flourished in the new scheme, completing a career-high 67.9% of his Attempts for an average of 242.5 Yards per Game on a much-improved 6.36 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Four Touchdowns opposed to Thirteen Interceptions, posting a QBR of 57.4, his highest since 2015. Of course, he spent much of last season playing through a nagging shoulder injury which required offseason surgery, which in hindsight makes the strides that he made under Turner’s guidance all the more impressive. With that said, Newton enters the 2019 season under a cloud of injury, with Rivera monitoring his newly-repaired shoulder cautiously throughout Training Camp, even keeping him out of the first two Preseason Games altogether. However, when the Signal-Caller finally made his return to the gridiron last week, he coincidentally suffered a sprained foot in Week Three of the Preseason, exiting the affair in a walking boot. While Rivera proclaimed that the injury was not serious, it does leave one to wonder as to whether or not Newton will remain healthy enough to reach his zenith under Turner.
Jack of all Trades
Newton wasn’t the only Panther to benefit from the addition of Norv Turner to the Coaching Staff, for Sophomore Tailback, Christian McCaffrey (219 CAR, 1,098 YDS, 5.0 Y/C, 7 TD), evolved into the playmaker that he was billed to be when the club selected him No. 8 Overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. For all intents and purposes, McCaffrey underwhelmed as a Rookie, particularly as a rusher, averaging just 3.7 Yards per Carry, totaling a meager 435 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns two years ago. However, his production improved exponentially last season, rushing for 1,098 Yards on a very healthy 5.0 Yards per Carry and Seven Touchdowns, while building upon his deadly skill-set as a Receiver out of the Backfield. Versatility is what made this guy such a desirable prospect coming out of Stanford, and he has not disappointed in that regard, hauling in Eighty Receptions on 113 Targets for 651 Yards and Five Touchdowns in 2017, and following that up with 107 Catches on 124 Targets for 867 Yards and Six Touchdowns in 2018. Furthermore, he ranked Third Overall in both Total Touches (326) and Yards from Scrimmage (1,965), serving as the fulcrum of Turner’s Offense. It stands to reason that armed with a healthy Newton, and what should hopefully be an improved Offensive Line, McCaffrey’s growth will continue unabated. Furthermore, Carolina drafted Greg Little, an Offensive Tackle out of Mississippi, with the Thirty-Seventh Overall Pick in this past NFL Draft, with the expectation that he will slide into one of the Tackle positions by Opening Weekend, solidifying what had become a problem area for the club. It remains to be seen though if the Receiving Corps will take the next step in their development, as D.J. Moore (55 REC, 788 YDS, 14.3 Y/R, 2 TD) enters his second year in the league after being selected Twenty-Fourth Overall in 2018. The athletic wideout showed glimpses of his talent last season, reeling in Fifty-Five Receptions on Eighty-Two Targets for 788 Yards, but found the End Zone just twice. If the Sophomore fails to ascend, look for McCaffrey to continue to dominate the passing game as well as the running game; the Tailback was targeted forty-two more times than his closest teammate, with a gulf of Fifty-Two Receptions separating them.
Rivera’s Last Stand?
Though he may not initially come to mind in a discussion of Head Coaches most likely to occupy the hot seat, Ron Rivera could very well see his fortunes swing for either the better or the worse in 2019. By and large, this guy has certainly been a success in comparison to his peers since the Panthers hired him back in 2011; in Eight Seasons in Carolina, Rivera has gone 71-56-1 (.559), with four trips to the Playoffs, including three NFC South Titles to his credit, along with that aforementioned appearance in Super Bowl L. Given the relative youth of the Franchise, which was established back in 1995, he is the most successful skipper they’ve had, bosting just two fewer wins than his predecessor, John Fox, who reigned for nine years. However, there almost always comes a time when a Coach’s message begins to wear thin and he is eventually shown the door, and there is reason to believe that Rivera could be courting this fate. First and foremost, since narrowly meeting defeat in Super Bowl L, his charges have missed the Playoffs twice in three years, going 24-24, underscored by last year’s monumental collapse. Through the first eight games of the season, the Panthers appeared to be legitimate contenders in the NFC, going 6-2 and averaging 27.5 Points per Game while allowing 22.5 Points with a positive Turnover Differential of Plus-8. Matters would delve in a completely different direction following an embarrassing 21-52 thumping at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the club going 1-7 down the stretch, including a seven-game losing streak in which they mustered just 17.6 Points and allowed 26.9, with a dismal Turnover Margin of Minus-8. Needless to say, that isn’t the impression one would like to leave upon their new boss; Carolina changed ownership in 2018, welcoming in David Tepper, who obviously didn’t hire Rivera, and could very well wish to bring in his own regime, including a new Head Coach. While we’re not necessarily proclaiming that he’s coaching for his job in 2019, the possibility exists that Rivera could find himself on the proverbial hot seat if things head south this season, particularly if he oversees another collapse akin to that of it’s predecessor.
2019 Forecast: 10-6
Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the fortunes of yet another team, in this case the Carolina Panthers, rests heavily on the precarious health and ensuing performance of their Franchise Quarterback. Yes, the Panthers rise and fall on the shoulders of Cam Newton, who will be entering 2019 with a surgically-repaired appendage, with the team hoping to avoid yet another biblical collapse in the process. Indeed, their tailspin was really rather remarkable, losing seven straight contests after an inspiring 6-2 start to the campaign. However, even with Newton’s preseason injury (a sprained foot which isn’t deemed serious), there is plenty of reason to be bullish on Carolina. Prior to their second-half swoon, Newton and the Offense were operating with an efficiency under new Offensive Coordinator, Norv Turner, that had previously been unseen during the Ron Rivera Era. Furthermore, Christian McCaffrey emerged as a bonafide superstar following an underwhelming rookie season, leaving many in Charlotte drooling over the prospects of young Receiver, D.J. Moore, making a similar leap in his sophomore year. It also appears that they’ve done a solid job of addressing their needs in the NFL Draft, selecting the aforementioned Greg Little in the Second Round, following uber-athletic Edge Rusher, Brian Burns, with both prospects expected to provide plenty of support in the trenches. If this team can continue on that particular trajectory then they can absolutely be expected to return to the Playoffs, particularly when you take into account a schedule that is far from taxing. However, the major hurdle remains the NFC South, which is arguably the toughest Division in the league. With Atlanta, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay all looking improved, these six contests will ultimately make or break their season, and armed with a healthy Newton in a revolutionized Offense, one would have to like their chances.