January 15, 2019
Two short months ago, the Carolina Panthers were on a roll. The offense was putting up fantastic numbers, the secondary, bolstered by midseason addition Eric Reid, looked formidable, and the team had notched victories against Baltimore and Philadelphia on their way to a 6-2 record. A playoff appearance seemed inevitable and the Super Bowl seemed possible.
Super Bowl dreams and playoff aspirations were halted after a contest with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who exposed Carolina in a convincing 52-21 win. Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdowns and the Steelers offense averaged an impressive eight yards per play while the Panthers committed costly turnovers and failed to protect Cam Newton, who was sacked five times. It was a day of reckoning for the Panthers.
They never rediscovered the confidence or resiliency that made them so dangerous in the first half of the season. Following the loss to Pittsburgh, the Panthers went on to lose their next six contests, an agonizing downturn made worse in seeing that five of the six losses were one-possession games. A recurring theme in these crushing defeats was the defense’s inability to stop big plays. The Panthers defense ranked second in the league in forcing third-and-long situations, but ranked 22nd in big plays (defined as plays that are 20 yards or more). Too many times in the course of the season would the defense get itself in a favorable third-and-long situation, only to have it undone by allowing a big pass play on third down. These plays flip the field, eliminate momentum, and were difference makers in the Panthers losing an abundance of close games.
The defense is arguably in the worst shape its been since Ron Rivera took over in 2011. The chief concern has to be the lack of a dynamic pass-rusher, which will presumably be a priority in this year’s draft. Carolina lacked a pass-rusher who required a double team, which in turn marginalized the effectiveness of the blitz and put more pressure on their young secondary. The secondary, led by James Bradberry and Donte Jackson, showed a lot of promise, but that was mired by inconsistency. The secondary is a case where patience will be paramount and, as Bradberry and Jackson both show plenty of potential, they will need time and experience to progress and develop chemistry.
Who Bradberry and Jackson’s defensive coordinator will be in the foreseeable future is another source of speculation. Eric Washington wasn’t fired mid-season but, during the team’s seven-game skid, some of the positional coaches were, and Ron Rivera decided to take the responsibility of defensive play calling. Washington is undoubtedly on thin ice, and if the defense fails to get noticeably better in 2019, he’ll likely be fired before the season is over.
Eric Washington was one of two coordinators the Panthers hired in 2018 and for the other hire, Norv Turner, the future looks much more assured. Turner’s offense looked efficient, dynamic, and was the driving force behind the 6-2 record accumulated in the first half of the season. It was aided by solid production from D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, but the headlines belonged to Christian McCaffrey, whose record-breaking sophomore season was the highlight of the Panther’s year. Cam Newton looked solid in the first half of the season, only for a shoulder injury to inhibit him in the second half. While the decision to start a clearly injured Newton (who could not throw the ball far enough for a hail mary) is up to debate, after the Panthers were eliminated from Playoff contention, he was justifiably benched for the last two games of the season. But those two games should be noted because the offense had over 370 yards in both contests. To have such great offensive production without the team’s biggest star should be a testament to Norv Turner.
The Panthers ended up winning their last game of the season and, while it should be noted the Saints were resting most of their starters, it was still a nice note to end a rough season. The Panthers are back to a 7-9 record, a mark that seems to be the default result for the franchise. While the team lacks a quality draft pick and next year‘s schedule looks daunting, the first offseason under new owner David Tepper might bring a sense of optimism heading into next season. In the midst of the losing streak, many fans desired drastic, sweeping changes to the team. That desire is understandable– Greg Olsen and Julius Peppers (if they choose to return) are in the twilight of their careers, while fan favorites Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil have already taken their final snaps as Panthers. The vacancies left by Davis and Kalil, along with the need for a high-caliber pass-rusher and a long term solution at strong safety, will be the focus for the franchise this offseason. But the drastic changes that are called for by a segment of the fanbase shouldn’t be necessary; there is already a solid foundation of young talent and experienced coaches to build around.