So the preseason is finally, mercifully over. Now we get six days that will feel like 60 before the games are real and and the Panthers take the field. We've had four games to watch them go through the motions, and it's time to talk about what we've learned.
The defense is great. That's the beginning and end of that story. No worries, we're happy, healthy, talented, and obviously ready for a great year.
And then there's the offense. Boy, the offense is bad...
No matter who the quarterback is, the only reliable prediction you can make about this unit based on the last four games is that there will be a lot of punting going on in 2010. Just look at the box scores, the only touchdowns scored were by the defense or special teams.
Through four pre-season games, the Panthers averaged a paltry 8.2 points per game. They were also last in the league in passing, total yards, yards per play, and first downs. This was not an effective offensive unit, by any definition.
The play calling was just awful. Where were the power runs on third and short? Instead we got passes to covered receivers, overthrown balls, sweeps, and just plain bad execution. It's no surprise that we averaged only 11.8 first downs a game.
We attempted a league-leading seven fourth down conversions, and made just one. That should say a lot about the effectiveness of our power running game, or it would if we ran on all of them, which we didn't.
When we ran we were average at best; our 3.9 average was 14th among the 32 NFL teams. But we didn't run much at all, we ran the ball only 38.4% of the time. That was more often than only four other NFL teams.
When we passed, we weren't particularly effective either. Our 3.7 yards per attempt was pitiful, good for last in the league. We were last in yards per catch too, at 7.6. When we threw, we threw short, and when we completed the pass, we didn't get much then either. And predictably, our 49.3% completion percentage was also last in the league.
Take it all together, and it looks bad. Then when you put it next to last year's offense, it goes from bad to strange.
Consider Matt Moore. In this collection of highlights from 2009, you see a quarterback who's poised, relaxed, and who scans the field regularly before picking a receiver and delivering the ball.
The Panthers threw for six yards per attempt last year, to go with 10.6 yards per completion. But the story goes a little deeper than that, because the Panthers used two quarterbacks. For Moore alone, he threw for 7.6 yards per attempt, and 12.4 yards per completion. Separate his numbers out in the preseason and you get 4.9 and 10. Better than the rest of the team, but hardly up to his standards.
And even in his highlights this preseason, you can see him locking on early and staring down his receivers (you'll have to go to NFL.com to see them, due to copyright rules). Staring down a receiver is common on screens and slants, but it's a big no-no when you're going vertical. Judging from his 2009 films, Moore obviously knows that.
It gets weirder. In 2009 the Panthers ran the ball 53% of the time--more often than 30 other teams. We were the league's third best rushing team. It's almost as if the Panthers completely forgot that in 2010.
Or maybe they remember it all too well, and used the preseason to work on the rest of the offense. I'm putting on my tin-foil hat and suggesting that yes, there's a conspiracy afoot. I believe that John Fox doesn't care about preseason games.
What else explains the discrepancy between last year and this? It can't be the loss of star receiver Steve Smith, that would almost suggest that you run even more. Instead they ran less.
You can say they don't want to run without Stewart, or Otah, but that flies in the face of what they did last year when one or both were absent.
You can suggest that all the reports out of camp on how well Moore looked were just public relations, designed to boost ticket sales. At the same time, you need to accept that he's getting worse instead of better.
Or you can imagine a scenario that has Jeff Davidson telling Moore that he wants a specific play run, no matter what the defense is. And he wants Moore to hit a specific receiver. What better way to get the film you need in a game situation?
In such a scenario, you can easily see Moore doing something crazy, like throwing into triple coverage. He did that more than once this preseason. You can see him locking on early. Staring down becomes a given. It certainly explains his level of play in 2010.
Maybe Fox isn't interested in converting a third and two by running Williams against an opponent that's fielding six defensive backs. Maybe he doesn't care if a receiver's route is designed for a five yard pickup when we need 10. It could just be that he's interested in how well Jarrett runs after the catch, and that's a good way to find out.
I know it sounds crazy, but it just plain looks like Fox & Co. didn't care if they won or lost. Plays were called to see how different players executed. You wouldn't notice it as much on the defensive side because all we did was play a few vanilla sets, and a read-and-react zone defense can be pretty effective without a game-plan.
You'd notice that attitude on offense though. In that scenario, you would see a lot of interesting decisions made, decisions that don't play to your strengths. You would be missing a lot of the things that you know work. You would see an offense with a terrible conversion rate, one that had trouble consistently moving the ball. Sound familiar?
Next week we'll put the conspiracy theory to the test. If you see the Panthers running the ball more often than they pass it, you'll know it's true. If throws into coverage go to Jarrett instead of LaFell, there may be something there. If LaFell and Gettis instead get the shorter throws that require yards after the catch to get a first down, ditto.
A Carolina offense that pounds the ball to set up the play-action should return. Matt Moore will do the "drop back, look left, then right, then throw" routine he had last year. And his long passes won't just go to Smitty.
It won't be like the preseason at all. Or if it is, it will resemble the preseason in the same way that a game resembles the practice. Because I believe that was the coaching staff's approach; that preseason games are practice and don't count.
Next week you can probably count on a tough defense that gives Eli Manning several looks, and continues the excellent form they showed in the preseason.
And you can probably expect at least one offensive touchdown. The only question is whether it will come in the first quarter or the second. But don't count on it.
In fact, don't count on anything from the offense. After all, we haven't really seen it yet.