NFL Analysis: The Comeback Effort In Carolina

The 2012 NFL season was a time of great expectations for the Carolina Panthers. It was expected that quarterback Cam Newton would continue to improve and that the Panthers would make the playoffs. Neither came anywhere close to happening. But while expectations are down, they’re not out, on Tobacco Road.

For all of Newton’s problems, he still threw the ball downfield well. Carolina was the third-best team in the league at yards-per-pass. They also ran the ball well, ranking ninth in yards-per-rush. If we flip it over to the defensive side of the ball, Carolina’s talented defensive ends, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, led a good pass rush.

Carolina’s problem was that they were like a golfer who couldn’t chip or putt—the short game was lacking on both sides of the ball. They could not complete a high percentage of throws, and Newton’s erratic play ultimately meant the offense was in the lower half of the league.

Opposing teams didn’t have the same problem—Carolina did not force incompletions, making it easier for quarterbacks to get rid of the ball effectively under pressure, and negating some of Johnson and Hardy’s effectiveness.

Furthermore, Carolina’s defense does not force turnovers, an absolute prerequisite for success in today’s game. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine, but he’s more of an old school middle man, and not the modern-day havoc-wreaker that a defense needs.

Ultimately, Carolina is better suited to be playing in the 1970s. In that era, you wanted to run the ball, throw it deep, have a steady tackling middle linebacker and you could live with some interceptions. In today’s NFL that doesn’t work quite as well.

Somewhere along the line, the front office needs to be asked what exactly they’re trying to do at running back. The Panthers already have DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart is trying to make his way back from ankle surgery. Prior to last season, the Panthers signed fullback Mike Tolbert in free agency, and this year they drafted Oregon burner Kejon Barner.

Does it really make sense, in a league where a salary cap makes efficient allocation of resources so important, to load up at one position? The Panthers need playmakers in the defensive back seven and they need another receiver to help Steve Smith. Maybe over time this will work out for the best, but right now it looks like a roster caught in transition.

Carolina’s expectations, as measured by the Over/Under win total in Las Vegas, is 7.5. TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis is going to very slightly lean to the Over. I think Newton is going to get his career back on track, at least enough that they won’t do worse than 7-9, and could go to 9-7. That gives me a little greater margin of error on the Over.

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