What's wrong with the Carolina Panthers?
A season ago at this time, the Carolina Panthers were 4-0, sitting through their bye week and preparing to win another 10 straight games before suffering their only loss of the regular season on their way to the Super Bowl.
This year, the Panthers are 1-4, last season’s MVP, Cam Newton, has suffered a concussion and missed a game—appearing for the first time to be just another mortal man and not the indestructible Superman QB he had been until this point—and the wheels are falling off the wagon.
So, what’s happened?
Well, the first issue is losing Cam Newton for any time at all. Derek Anderson isn’t a bad backup, but he isn’t going to be confused for a league-MVP anytime soon, either. Carolina dropped their most recent game on Monday 17-14 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Derek Anderson’s mistakes were probably the difference. He threw two interceptions, one of which was in the end zone when the Panthers were looking to take the lead late, and also had a critical fumble.
There’s no guarantee that Newton would have done any better, but if I was a gambling man, I’d consider it a pretty safe bet that he would have. That would have put the team at 2-3, two games back from the division lead with work to do—but not dead and buried.
Newton hasn’t been nearly as good this year as he was in 2015, which is perhaps to be expected given the MVP heights he hit during the NFC Championship run. This season, his overall grade is only 79.2, good enough for 14th among QBs, compared to second in 2015 with a grade of 93.9.
It’s difficult to overstate just how much Newton carried that offense a season ago with a makeshift group of receivers and TE Greg Olsen, but this season, he hasn’t been able to do as much of the heavy lifting, and the running game has suffered with the loss of Jonathan Stewart. That being said, they still have one of the better offenses in the league over the first five weeks, ranking eighth in yards per play, third in yards per game, and 11th in points per game. Yards per game and per play are up on their 2015 figures, in fact.
The bigger problem is the defense, which hasn’t been nearly as effective as the 2015 unit.
In 2015, only the Denver Broncos allowed fewer yards per play than Carolina’s 4.9, and the Panthers were sixth in the league in points per game. So far this season, they are allowing 5.5 yards per play, which drops them to 18th in the league in that category, and they are surrendering 27 points per game, just the 22nd-best mark in the NFL.
What made the defense so good a year ago was having an All-Pro standout at each level working back from the line of scrimmage. On the line, Kawann Short was one of the best interior defenders in football, Luke Kuechly at MLB was enjoying a Defensive Player of the Year-level season, and Josh Norman was a legitimate shutdown corner on the back end.
Those three provided the framework around which the rest of the defense could build and perform. Josh Norman signed with the Redskins in the offseason after the team couldn’t get a long-term deal done with him, and Short has been a shadow of the player he was in 2015, leaving just Kuechly performing at a dominant level, and even he has dropped from superhuman levels.
Rather than an All-Pro CB replacing Norman, the Panthers’ No.1 cornerback this season was playing in the FCS at this time a year ago, and their No. 2 was eviscerated so badly by Julio Jones in Week 4 when the team played the Falcons that he was cut the following week.
Up front, Short has just one sack and eight total hurries this season; this time a year ago, he had 12 total pressures in one less game. Short, in fact, had as much output in his first two games last year as he’s managed in five this season. He hasn’t been bad in 2016, necessarily, but we’re talking about a totally different level of impact. A year ago he was a game-changer; now he’s just the best guy in an underperforming defensive front. That’s reflected in his overall grade, which has slumped to 78.1 from 88.9 last season. That season, he was mixing in with names like Geno Atkins and Ndamukong Suh—now he’s ranked behind the Stephen Paeas and Quinton Dials of the world.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Carolina is the play of the Atlanta Falcons, who are suddenly a legitimate force in the NFC, already two games clear at the top of the NFC South, and three ahead of the Panthers with a game to the good in the head-to-head column. Carolina can almost forget about winning the division already, and needs to focus on the prospect of a wildcard spot if they have any hope of defending their NFC championship.
Newton’s return will help, as will the return of Stewart, but the offense hasn’t really been the issue this season. Maybe Kuechly, Short, and Thomas Davis, among others, can rediscover the individual brilliance that allowed everybody else to play better around them a year ago, but the secondary looks to have no obvious healing tonic. It’s stuffed full of young, inexperienced players and others that had been outperforming their career baseline last season.
We need to remember that this Panthers’ team was a significant surprise a year ago, and hadn’t been considered contenders rolling into the season. 2016 may be less of the anomaly than 2015 was, and this Carolina side may be closer to the 7-8-1 team of the season before.