Author's Note: Yes, the Texans played the Panthers two weeks ago, but I was unable to finish this until yesterday because of internet issues. As a Texans fan, you won't need to think about the Panthers until 2019, but if you would like to learn more about an interesting football team, continue reading.
Teams operate in a state of either contending, rebuilding, or being stuck in the middle of the two in a wandering aimless daze known as mediocrity. If this was organized into one of the charts we are taught in grade school, it would be three lists, with teams snuggled neatly below these headers. Rarely do these things intermingle, but the Carolina Panthers are one of the rare teams who are better suited for a Venn Diagram than a table. They are the only team in the league I can name that has been able to contend while they rebuild and have had to rebuild as they contend.
Since Dave Gettleman took over as general manager in 2013, he has been spending his time scrounging together a playoff team while suffering from sunk costs, dead money, and salary cap constrictions thanks to the mistakes Marty Hurney made during his administration. Those of us who write about football in any fashion, whether it's for a tiny blimp stuck underneath the shadows of motherships or for one of the click-devouring goliaths themselves, all suffer from a case of "Barnwell Did It." And just like everything else of importance to happen in the league since 2012, Bill Barnwell wrote a column on the Panthers' salary cap woes that Hurney created. The highlight is a summary of the deals Hurney gave out after their 6-10 2011 season. The Panthers signed Jon Beason (5 years/$50 million), Thomas Davis (5 years/$36.5 million), Charles Johnson (6 years/$76 million), Olindo Mare (4 years/$12 million), and DeAngelo Williams (5 years/$43 million).
Davis and Johnson are the only players who remain from Hurney's spending spree. Everyone else has been cut and has haunted the team in the form of dead money. Even though Davis and Johnson are core members of this team, they still signed deals more extravagant than necessary. Johnson had only 21.5 sacks in his first four seasons. Davis tore his ACL twice before signing and tore it again shortly afterwards. As a result, Davis and Johnson both have had bonuses removed and their deals adjusted to kick money down the aisle so Carolina could field a roster of 53 players.
Under this handicap, Gettleman went to work and constructed a team built around the first overall pick of 2011, Cam Newton, and their 2012 first round pick, Luke Kuechly. In his first two drafts, Gettleman spent most of his draft capital to stack the defensive line: Star Lotulei (2013 1st round pick, 14th overall), Kawnan Short (2013 second round pick, 44th overall), and Kony Ealy (2014 second round pick, 60th overall). All three of these players are starters on the Carolina Panthers' defensive line this season. Together, they join one of the insane contracts from the Hurney era, Charles Johnson, to create a pass rush based on getting pressure with just their front four. Carolina rushed only four 71.1% of the time, which was 8th in the NFL last season, and was able to post an adjusted sack rate of 9.2% in 2013 (2nd), and 7.5% in 2014 (7th), all while blitzing sparingly.
This last sentence is so important. The Panthers' ability to generate a pass rush with only their front four without having to blitz allows their All-Pro inside linebackers, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, to sit in zone coverage and cover the center of the field to mask their dumpster-diving secondary. This lets Carolina play a ton of nickel; they were 2nd in the league (78% of the time) in playing five defensive backs, and this craggy bunch can cover smaller chunks of the field. Because of the unique strengths of their front seven, Gettleman has been able to create a liquid secondary with his feet. Since 2012, Carolina has had to resort to UDFAs, late round draft picks, and other team's trash to build a secondary. And you know what? It's worked.
Pass Defense DVOA:
|Year||Pass Defense DVOA||vs. WR #1||vs. WR #2||vs. Other WR||vs. TE||vs. RB|
|2013||-15.6% (3rd)||-2.3% (3rd)||-20% (4th)||-28.1% (2nd)||-4% (12th)||4.8% (18th)|
|2014||0.0% (9th)||15.1% (27th)||-0.6% (16th)||7.9% (23rd)||-11.6% (7th)||-29.5% (2nd)|
Carolina's pass defense in 2013 was a top ten unit that only had problems stopping running backs out of the backfield. It's incredible that a cornerback duo of Josh Thomas and Melvin White could produce like this. The next season the numbers switched. Carolina was great at stopping running backs and tight ends, which is expected with Kuechly and Davis, but had problems with wide receivers, which is expected when you are dumpster-diving. My guess would be a change in scheme is responsible, in that Ron Rivera had the linebackers drop farther back in coverage to allow short throws in 2013, and then had them patrol an area closer to the line of scrimmage in 2014. Why the holes in the defense changed? I don't know for sure. But what I do know is that despite the lack of talent, Carolina was able to piece together a top ten pass defense.
Since the new administration has come in, the Panthers' secondary has better resembled a college campus with a senior class that graduates every year and blasts off into a different colored uniform with extra 00's in their bank account or is simply thrown away like a rediscovered box of VHS tapes .
|RCB||Melvin White||UDFA (2013)||CUT|
|SS||Quintin Mikell||1 year/$1,005,000||Retired|
|FS||Michael Mitchell||1 year/$1,000,000||5 years/$25,000,000 PIT|
|LCB||Josh Thomas||Claimed off waivers||CUT|
||2012 5th Round Pick (143rd)
||2 years/3,525,000 (D.M. $25,000)
||2012 5th Round Pick (143rd)
||5 years/$10,625,000 (D.M. $900,000)
||2 years/$2,800,000 (D.M. $300,000)
D.M. stands for the dead money amount if Carolina cut the player that offseason or in the upcoming 2015 season.
This is a basic representation of the Panthers' secondary. I just looked at their starting lineups via Pro Football Reference and how they gained and lost these players. Now I know Carolina plays a lot of nickel, so the slot corners that have been a big part of this defense are missing, but like most numbers in the NFL, snap counts going back the last few years are nearly impossible to come by. The point is that Carolina does more with little better than nearly every team in the league, doesn't over-commit to these players regardless of the results, and signs these players to short and flexible contracts that sip on the salary cap. Carolina is able to replace this part of the defense every year because of their front seven.
Like the defense, the Panthers' offense too has suffered from Hurney's mistakes. But like the defense, the offense has also been constructed in a fashion to work while exacerbating their strengths and mitigating the lack of talent in certain units with their scheme. Until recently, the receiving corps joined the offensive line and the secondary as the blemishes on this roster, but with draft capital used on Kelvin Benjamin, who was sadly taken away from us this season (2013 1st round, 30th pick) and a trade up for Devin Funchess (2014 2nd round, 41st pick) to bolster the below-average Ted Ginn/Jericho Cotchery/Kevin Norwood combination, the offensive line is now the step-child that Gettleman has been unable to love.
Let's look at the offensive line just like we did with the secondary.
|LT||Jordan Gross||2003 1st round (8th)||Retired|
|LG||Travelle Wharton||1 year/$1,100,000||Retired|
|C||Ryan Kalil||2007 2nd round (59th)||----|
|RG||Chris Scott/Nate Chandler||1 year/$630,000 / UDFA (2012)||CUT / ----|
|RT||Byron Bell||UDFA (2011)||1 year/$1,500,000 TEN|
||UDFA (2011)||1 year/$1,500,000 TEN
||2007 2nd round (59th)||----
||2014 3rd round (92nd)
||2007 2nd round (59th)||----|
||2014 3rd round (92nd)||----|
Both the secondary and offensive line can best be described as ignored. But how Gettleman has addressed these units are completely different. When it comes to the secondary, the Panthers have signed veterans to short-term deals that offer year-to-year flexibility. When it comes to the offensive line, Gettleman has flashed his ability to scout offensive linemen. He's drafted two since he's taken over the team--Trai Turner, who has started eleven games, and the unemployed Edmund Kugbila, who never played a snap in his entire career. The real majesty has come in plugging undrafted free agents into the starting lineup. Andrew Norwell, Byron Bell, and Mike Remmers are all undratfed players who have played significant snaps for this team. Gettleman has combined this strategy with taking a low risk chance on Michael Oher, who looks like a good player again, and throwing it all next to Ryan Kalil to sculpt the 2015 version of the Frankenstein monster that is the Panthers' offensive line.
Like how Carolina has gotten away with ignoring the secondary because of its scheme and personnel around them, the offense has been able to survive the Nate Chandlers of the world. The main cog in this masking machine is Cam Newton. His scrambling ability allows the Panthers to deal with the pass rush better than the stone pocket passing quarterbacks other teams utilize. Frequently, Newton dips and ducks out of the arms of defensive linemen and turns a sack into a first down with his feet. He also has a quick release and slings the ball, which is perfect for the quick passing game Carolina uses, with the occasional shot deep.
When they run the ball, the Panthers have two running backs on every play: Cam Newton and whoever is lined up in the backfield next to him. Whether it's Mike Tolbert, Johnathan Stewart, Fozzy Whitaker or Cameron Artis-Payne, these skill players are all great at making guys miss and have the ability to transcend their offensive line. In the chart below, you can see this in the differences in the league averages in adjusted line yards, a measure of the offensive line's impact on the run game, and yards per carry, which encapsulates the entire run offense.
|Year||Run DVOA||Yards Per Carry||Adjusted Line Yards||Adjusted Sack Rate|
|2013||9% (4th)||4.2 (T-14th)||3.91 (14th)||8.2% (25th)|
|2014||-5.5% (16th)||4.3 (13th)||3.6 (27th)||7.9% (22nd)|
The numbers aren't otherworldly. The Panthers were a great running team in 2013 and dropped to average in 2014. How much of this is because of Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton's retirement or Cam Newton's injuries heading into 2014, I don't know, but like all stats in football the context surrounding the numbers are just as important as the numbers themselves. And when you think about the shoddy talent on the line that has produced this, well, what seems okay is actually remarkable.
Carolina has been able to do this through their scheme by getting double teams everywhere they possibly can to prevent their below-average linemen from getting stuck in one-on-one situations where there their lack of talent can be taken advantage of and by running the zone read.
With nineteen seconds remaining in the first quarter against Jacksonville, Carolina managed to extract three double teams in an off-set I package with two tight ends on the play-side. The Panthers are running an option play with Jonathan Stewart and their second running back, Cam Newton. The defensive back in the alley (the gentleman in the yellow circle) is Newton's read when deciding whether or not to pitch.
On the line of scrimmage, the two tight ends are double teaming to linebacker Dan Skuta (#55). The right guard and tackle have a "deuce" block (double team between the guard an and tackle), the center and left guard have an "ace" block (double team between the center and guard), and left tackle Michael Oher is holding the edge against Chris Smith (#98). The real change here between what most teams do is on the "ace" block. Rather than have the center punch the outside shoulder, stimulate movement until the guard over takes the block, and hurry to the second level, Carolina gets a true hip-to-hip double team on the back side.
Man, this is gorgeous. Three double teams on one play being set up. One-on-one blocks blow. Long live double teams. The back side "ace "is nice and square, hip-to-hip, and working together. In the backfield, Stewart takes two steps towards the back side to fake a lead play. This freezes the linebackers and makes them direct their attention away from where the ball is going.
When Cam Newton turns to run outside, the Jaguars linebackers are stuck. Skuta is even running away from the play.
Because of the play-fake, each lineman peeling off the first level to the second level has an advantage. All three of them aren't square, though. It's fine for the tight end and center because they are hinged and acting like a wall to stop their assignments from chasing play side. The tackle is a different story. He doesn't come off the block square and doesn't have enough space at the angle he's facing to get to #51, Paul Posluszny. The other problem is that the second tight end doesn't help Greg Olsen at all. He doesn't even offer a hand. He scampers up to the second level immediately and turns a double team into a one-on-one block. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, Olsen weighs fifty pounds less than Jared Odrick (#75), who's currently underneath Olsen and driving him back.
Mike Remmers doesn't block his man and instead takes on Skuta. It's incredible for an outside linebacker against this formation and play to be blocked by the tackle. It's a testament to how captivating the play fake was. Not every man will be blocked now and Posluszny will go free. Additionally, Odrick has driven Olsen into the backfield.
The read man, Aaron Colvin (#22), sits still. He's playing outside and covering Stewart. This is the right move with all the trash inside coming after Newton.
When Colvin steps up, Cam cuts up field. Olsen recovers fairly well and cuts Odrick down, but Posluszny is free.
Cam is a elegant man, though. He's able to cut inside of Posluszny, duck underneath the tackle, and then stumble for three yards.
This play epitomizes Carolina's run offense. They scheme for as many double teams as possible to make up for their lack of talent. Rarely is the execution entirely there, and little mistakes derail what should be bigger gains. Things like not sticking on the double team and not leaving the double team square happen way too often. BUT, Carolina employs Cam Newton and Johnathan Stewart, two players who can overcome mistakes like this. As we just saw, Cam turns two blown blocks and a negative play into a positive gain.
Now let's actually dive into the staple of Carolina's offense--the zone read. This play isn't a gimmick or a fad like Digimon or Soulja Boi. It's not the newest thing in football anymore after three years of it tormenting defenses. It's a real play that capitalizes on a quarterback's athleticism.
The Panthers intend to get two strong double teams, an "ace" on the playside, and a "deuce" on the backside. Defensive end Jared Odrick will go unblocked. Newton will read him and let him decide whether he will keep it himself or hand the ball off.
Odrick runs straight up field like a seventh grader who thinks defensive line play is only about getting into the backfield. The biggest thing to see as the blocks develop is how the offensive linemen take on only half a man. Left guard Andrew Norwell (#68) and center Ryan Kalil (#67) each have their head on the number opposite from where the help is coming from. That leaves enough space for their teammate.
The doubles have generated movement, which is a must on strong double teams like this. When Cam decides between keeping and running back side or handing off, he looks at the unblocked end. Because Odrick ran up field, Newton gives the ball. If Odrick played flat down the line of scrimmage, Newton would have run right around him.
The "deuce" gets movement horizontally. This is because of where Michael Oher made his punch. He hit the side of defensive tackle Tyson "He's Still In The League?" Alualu, which moved him sideways. This isn't Oher's fault. Tyson fought inside when he saw the running back come inside for the hand-off. This movement and Odrick running up field gives Tolbert a crocodile's mouth to run through.
Tolbert cuts back. Oher lets the double team take itself to its natural demise. He does a great job of coming off the block at the perfect time to head for the second level.
Tolbert runs behind Oher and comes inside of his block.
The safety comes up to make the tackle.
Tolbert picked up twelve yards here. There was great blocking on this play, but with his vision he turns what would have been a perfectly fine gain into a wad of yards. What's important here are the blocking schemes, the movement on the first level, and the ability of the skill player. This is the foundation of Carolina's offense. Everything else stems from this, like a choose your own adventure novel known for subtle changes instead of drastic turns.
Here's the other option of the previous play with 7:57 left in the first quarter against the Houston Texans. Instead of opening the spooky door, Cam Newton turns and runs down the creaky hall. Again, it's the same play: Let the read man go unblocked, double the other two down lineman to the second level, and play one-on-one on the edge.
The other difference between the plays, aside from the hand-off, is they are running against two of the freakiest freaks who have ever freaked in Jadeveon Clowney, and J.J. Watt. You'll never see Watt be the read man on a zone read. He knows the game too well and is too quick to go unblocked. You don't want to play monkey in the middle against him. Clowney, on the other hand, is a physical specimen who doesn't understand the nuances of the game yet. He's just a BABY like Rahzar from TMNT 2.
Clowney zips out of his stance and wails flat down the line of scrimmage in pursuit of Johnathan Stewart (#28). This is an easy read for Newton. He's going to let Clowney fly by, keep the ball, and run the other way. As a result, the rest of the blocking doesn't really matter. They just need to prevent penetration and make sure they get a hat on a hat on the second level.
Newton sweeps Clowney's leg and keeps the ball. The backside "deuce" block does a great job getting movement. The problem is Michael Oher (#73) isn't square. His shoulders are turned into the defender. Consequently, he can't see where the linebacker is. If he does leave his block at the correct time, his angle allows the linebacker to run over the top of him. Also, I'm pretty sure Ryan Kalil (#67) pooped his pants.
Newton has a 40 yards in front of him. As depicted in the previous image, the double team doesn't get to the linebacker, and Justin Tuggle (#57) will come from behind to take down Newton. Wow, it's another running play where a little mistake changes a highlight reel run into something no one will ever talk about again until the last click is made on this article.
So now after running the zone read twice, both keeping and handing off, the Panthers can run some play-action off of it. The assignments aren't important, so I'll whisk through this one. What is important is how they block and how Cam makes the play-fake look the exact same as the zone read.
At the snap, everyone comes off the ball low and strong. There's no kick-sliding around. Cam sells the fake with his eyes by staring down a phantom unblocked defensive end that keeps the linebackers on guard. The fake also lets Cam gaze into the eyes of his first read, Greg Olsen, who's running a slant towards the middle of the field.
The fake looks identical to the previous one analyzed.
Which one is which?
Newton bounces back quickly to throw.
The play is negated due to Kalil (#67) selling the fake too hard and blocking the inside linebacker before Newton lets go of the ball.
The zone read offers a hydra of options. There are infinite, I'm sorry; that's hyperbole. There are numerous possibilities available for a team to run off this one play. Like the sprouting of new reptilian heads , a team can then run variations off of that variation.
At this moment of time, the Panthers faced a 3rd and 4 with the score tied 3-3 at the end of the second quarter. Mike Shula opted for a draw play with counter elements that look like the previous play-action pass.
The backside blocks big on big, and Ryan Kalil makes sure the left guard can pull without any abrasions. That left guard, Ryan Norwell (#68), is pulling to the inside linebacker. The play side "deuce" must get movement and to the back side linebacker (#51). Greg Olsen seals the edge and Tolbert leads the way to the safety.
When Cam gets the snap, he stares left, just like the previous play, to sell the illusion of the pass.
Poslunzy gets tossed out of whack and runs toward the flat while Newton runs the other way. Poslunzy's movement negates the need of the play side double team to get to him. They can now stick to this double team longer than they should be able to. Furthermore, The "deuce" is perfect. Mike Remmers (RT #74) and Trai Turner (RG #70) are unified and together and working as one being. Norwell pulls without a problem. The hole is already wide open for him.
When Cam hits the hole, he runs into a problem. Norwell lets the linebacker cut across his face. He doesn't hit him square on, and as a result, the drain gets clogged. Tolbert, on the other hand, does a nice job kicking out his man.
Newton lowers his head, makes contact, and rolls forward short of the first.
This play should be a first down and maybe a touchdown. If Norwell clears out the linebacker and Newton gets through unscathed, he is just a free safety miss away from scoring. Instead, the Panthers successfully convert on fourth down and Jericho Cotchery catches a touchdown that never occurred in a reality where Norwell makes his block. These are the types of mistakes Carolina has to live with when they are running behind a UDFA, and an offensive line that has been scrapped together over the years.
The last two components of Carolina's offense to discuss are Cam's athleticism and how the Panthers use max protection to help their offensive linemen.
Here, Carolina is running the zone read with 9:35 left in the second quarter but with the chance to pitch the ball if Newton keeps. It's a variation of a variation. Like the previous play, Clowney is on the edge and Carolina is reading him.
Clowney flies off the ball. This is a nightmare made from a nightmare for nearly every quarterback in the league.
As he runs down the line, he sits at the last moment. His frontal lobe kicks in and tells him that maybe shotgunning five Natural Lights in a row is a bad idea, and that maybe there's a reason why he was unblocked on this play.
His speed takes him directly into Newton, but Cam is a magician, and his athleticism saves him in situations like this. Additionally, he's 6'5" and 245 lbs., so it takes more than a misguided collision to take him down.
He hops backwards, escapes the dreaded tornado, and quickly pitches the ball to Jericho Cotchery (#82).
Despite all of his momentum going the other way and being behind Justin Tuggle (#57), Clowney is able to pursue back to the football and save Rahim Moore (#26) from a possible open field tackle.
Now on this play, the offensive line didn't make any mistakes. They blocked exactly how they are supposed to. Clowney just made a great play, and Cam Newton made an even better one. The important thing is that Newton can make this play. As we have seen earlier, the Panthers' offensive line is perfectly fine in this scheme and doesn't execute across the board. Newton and his playmaking ability make up for the lack of perfection and allows this offense to run like how it does.
The other aspect of offensive line play is pass protection. Last season, the Panthers had an adjusted sack rate of 7.9% (22nd). To fix this, Carolina replaced both offensive tackles and started off the season by doing crazy things like this.
From the left tackle over, they are shifting one gap over towards J.J. Watt. Both running backs in the split back formation come towards the unprotected side to double Clowney. They have seven men in protection. If I know how to count on my fingers correctly, only three players are going out for a route.
Just like the running game the Panthers are trying to create double teams to put their over matched lineman in a positive situation. They have two blockers on Watt, two on Vince Wilfork (#75), two on Clowney, and Norwell alone on Jared Crick.
No matter who the pass rusher is, there isn't enough time to run through two offensive linemae in three seconds, let alone five. Newton gets a pristine pocket even though J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are rushing off the edge.
"Talentless" is an unfair adjective to describe the Panthers' offensive line. Oher has rebounded nicely, Turner is a third round pick who can maul in the run game, Kalil is a second round pick and one of the best centers in the game, and Norwell, and Remmers have been adequate despite how they got into the league. Every one of them has issues in pass protection, and as a whole they lack execution. "Below average" Is a completely fair assessment. Yet it's okay because of the scheme they run and the talent that carries the ball behind them.
After all the work done to cover up the errors of the previous administration, the Panthers are going to get to open their wallets again. In 2016, the Panthers are projected to have only $1,621,003 in dead money with a total cap number $124,250,035, which would put them $19 million under the current salary cap. The days of stop-gap veterans signing one year contracts, UDFA offensive lines, seven man protections, giving Charles Johnson twenty million dollars, and Greg Olsen being the only viable receiver could all be gone in the near future.
Flexibility, gilded free agency, and the chance to resign players all can be a reality after this season. For the rest of the NFC South and the league, this is a scary thought, like a dream where one is carrying a cup filled with their own teeth. A team that has won the division twice the last two seasons and started this year 3-0 could and should be better in the years to come, thanks to a possible influx of talent and the freedom to construct an entire roster, which gives them the ability to open up an entire playbook rather than covering up the scars of a previous disaster. This can be the difference between three and fifteen yards, and the difference between early playoff exits and a Super Bowl run.
As exciting as this thought is, it's speculative and filled with the airy optimism of the future. In the case of the present reality we're tied to, the Panthers should be praised for what they have accomplished. For them to get as close as they did in 2013, scrap out a division title in 2014, and start the year how they have so far, all while operating at a disadvantage, is nothing short of amazing.