Speculating about the Panthers Offense, Part Two

In Part One of the "Guess what the offense will look like next year" article, I made the bold proclamation that we were going to shift to an Air Coryell offense.  I did that based on a hunch, which was brought on by the fact that every single offensive coach we have has direct experience in that system, and many don't have experience in any other.  So maybe I'm going out on a limb, but I don't think so.

I then went over what the offense is about, how it differs from Erhardt-Perkins (That's the offense that Jeff Davidson thought he was running here), and finally I covered the Norv Turner variant of it.  Now all that's left is imagining what it will be, when our players are asked to run it.

So what will it look like, implemented in Carolina?  Will it be like a Dan Henning offense, or a Mike Martz greatest show on (natural) turf?  The answer is Henning, and not just because we don't have a hall of fame QB and all-pro receivers.  But the Henning version isn't a bad thing really.  And it will look like an exciting version of the Henning, one that's very controlled yet chaotic in the number of formations and pre-snap movements.

So where are we?  Well first of all, there's the question of the offensive line, and how it plays.  The Coryell system requires a smash-mouth, in your face style of power running game, and that starts with the line.  Now, it almost goes without saying that if our line stays healthy all year we're likely to win a lot of games.  But given our recent history, that's a really big if.

Figure that Gross, Wharton, Kalil, Schwartz, and Otah are our starters.  They've got a lot of collective talent, and are all still either in the prime of their careers or entering it.  They average 315 pounds, and all of them are decently athletic.  Gross is one of the better Tackles in the NFC, and Kalil ranks among the best Centers.  Wharton has always been a very good Guard, Schwartz played well in that role last year, and Otah was a monster as a rookie right tackle. 

Talent isn't a question.  But style is.  When Davidson arrived, there was a lot of talk about the Panthers adopting more of a zone blocking scheme.  That had it's good points and bad.  The difference between zone blocking and man blocking is pretty simple.  In zone blocking each lineman is responsible for blocking anyone who comes into their zone.  They block towards the running lane and hit the first person they see.

There are two basic rules to zone blocking.  First, you always block towards the point of attack.  Second, never let a man cross your face.  When all the linemen are doing this, what usually happens is the linebackers will follow their flow and the linemen from the opposite side of the play will be in a position to block off the pursuit.  Suddenly you have a cutback lane.  Nice, huh?  This is where you want your back like DeAngelo Williams to make the smart decision and dart through whatever hole emerges.

In man blocking, each lineman is assigned a man to block and the running back is given reads to tell him where to look for a hole.  The linemen will put their helmet on their guy and occupy or move him, and if the play calls for it they'll go to their second assignment, rinse and repeat.  Since the running back knows where the hole is going to be, then can hit it at full speed.  If you have a healthy Jonathan Stewart running behind you, you're getting some nice positive yardage here.

Based on their personnel, and on the general character of the Coryell running game, I would guess that we're going to see both man and zone, but mainly man.  If it was one or the other, for most teams you would think zone, but the Panthers have the size to man block so they're not going to waste time running around.  They'll engage at the snap and try to be more physical than the other guy. 

We're going to be aggressive, that's Rivera's promise.  And that starts at the line, where we will take the play to the defense rather than waiting for the defense to come into an area so we can block them.  Forget that, these guys are going to be doing the hitting themselves.

However, misdirection alone demands that some zone will be run.  And there will also be man blocking assignments that have Kalil or Wharton pulling outside to take on the SAM linebacker.  At times they may look like zone, but the basic style will be lunchpail man on man blocking.  Besides, zone blocking can be unpredictable and chaotic.  Since you don't know where the play is going to be, your back has to have great vision and feel the hole when it appears, or be patient enough to take the cutback. 

We want to know where we're going and what we're doing.  Not that Williams or Goodson will ignore a cutback lane, but those are going to be the plays where the defense ends up asking "What just happened?", not the bread and butter run package.

There's also a ton of lateral movement in zone blocking, and if the defense is really big or really fast then the only way you will get anything done is through misdirection.  Otherwise you'll find yourself in a lot of third and longs.  Didn't we get enough of those in 2010?

And frankly, when you're on the goal line or at fourth and one, you want guys who are used to just making a big push right at the point of attack.  You don't want to have to resort to trickery to get that yard in those situations.  So I know I'm speculating, and some of it may be wishful thinking, but man blocking just seems like the right staple for the Panthers.

Besides, can you really imagine Rivera being happy with anything less?

In sum, our line is a very good fit for the scheme.  Probably better than any that Henning enjoyed while he was here.  And the same can be said about our running backs.

Goodson is a shifty, elusive back with an outstanding burst.  Stewart has an incredible first step and runs with a ton of power.  And Williams combines the best of both.  There's no question that between our line and our backs, we will have the ability to implement the pure smash-mouth running game that the Coryell system demands, as well as big play potential off of the misdirections Turner's variant brings with it.

I can see a lot of interior running with Williams and Stewart, and misdirection plays with Williams and Goodson.  I can even see them mixing it up, where Goodson runs between the tackles and Stewart is chasing the line, looking for cutbacks.  At that position, we're as loaded as any NFL team I can remember.

Another nice thing we have in our backs is that all of them have good hands.  They can block, they can run, and they can catch.  Chud has got to be excited about the possibilities that brings.  For the first time in years we're going to have a lot of designed plays that feature the backs as receivers.  And happily, they have a little more talent than DeShaun Foster and Nick Goings did.

But as happy as Chud will be about our backs, you can count on the talent at Tight End to bring him back down to earth.  Jeff King can block, Dante Rosario can catch, and Gary Barnidge is supposed to be able to do both (but never really has).  Fox loved King because he valued blocking more, but I suspect that Rosario gets the start in Chud's system.  This is a guy who fed the ball to Antonio Gates for years, he likes passing to the Tight End.   Rosario is no Gates though, and to be fair, few people are.  This is an area that we will surely look to improve on.

The Receivers aren't as talented as the backs either, however, they're at least an improvement on our Tight Ends.  Steve Smith looks like he might have lost a step last year, but he still remains dangerous in the open field.  LaFell and Gettis ae both big, physical, and fast.  And there's always the potential that Edwards brings (don't be foolish enough to write him off, yet).

There will be some changes to the receivers' game.  For one, routes will necessarily become more precise than they have been under Davidson.  This system depends on timing, and when the timer in the quarterback's head goes off he has to know exactly where the receiver is going to be.  Throws are made to the spot the receiver is running to, and there's very little room for error.

That's not really going to be a big problem, because in the Coryell system all receivers have simplified pass patterns that they run.  That makes it easier for them to develop timing, and run more deliberate routes.  A Coryell system has a basic route tree, where the receiver runs a route by number, regardless of where they are on the field.  You basically have three break points, each with a distance and type of break.

So, you might have 0 mean stay where you are, 1 runs to the sideline, 2 to the inside, 3 means run five, then turn back, 4 would be run five, then turn outside, etc...  You get the idea.  A route tree could look something like this on paper:

The whole idea is, it's easy to learn, easy to implement, and you don't have to think too much about where you want to go on a given play.  If the quarterback sees something in the defense that suggests a potential hole to be exploited, he just audibles the new route to the receiver.  Consider a basic three receiver set, where the two on the left are set to go deep.  The QB looks at the Free Safety cheating up and then at the Nickel, and thinks that there might be a blitz coming from there.


He can call the slot receiver's number with a 1, telling him to go to the line of scrimmage and break to the sideline. That's all it takes to make a quick change at the line, and since it's a timing pattern everyone knows where the receiver will be, and when he will be there.  Everyone except for the Nickel Back, that is.  It's not a designed play, but it will end up looking like one, and one that caught the defense flat-footed.


The snap comes, the NB doesn't blitz, the play goes on as usual with one less deep option.  Or the snap comes, the NB indeed blitzes, but now the slot receiver is where the NB should be covering, and the FS has to decide whether to cover the running back or the slot receiver.  Either way, you have an open man short.  Pitch and catch, nice gain.

Coryell wants you to have a couple of big receivers that can stretch the field on any play.  Thanks to the 2010 draft class, we have them in Brandon LaFell (6'2", 213lbs), and David Gettis (6'3", 216lbs).  These are two tall receivers with enough speed to stretch the field.  All Clausen has to do is get it to them (ok, stop snickering back there!).

Distribution is another matter of style, and that's almost up in the air (pun intended).  Last year in San Diego, Malcolm Floyd had 37 receptions, Patrick Crayton had 28, Legedu Naanee had 23, Buster Davis had 21, Vincent Jackson had 14, and Seyi Ajirotutu and Kelley Washington each had 13.  Yes, they had injuries, but this is clearly an offense that used all their receivers.  And their receivers caught a total of 151 balls.  Their yards per catch averaged out at 17.

For their running backs and tight ends, they received the ball 128 and 80 times, respectively, for 8 and 14.4 yards per catch.  So the way it breaks down is 36% to the backs, 22% to the Tight Ends,and 42% to the Wide Receivers.

Contrast that with the Panthers, and you get a look at how different it should be for us next year.  In 2010, five receivers caught passes for the Panthers, but the groupings were very top-heavy, concentrated among just three (Smith, LaFell, and Gettis).  The Receivers caught 50% of the passes, the Tight Ends 20%, and the Running Backs 30%.  And you thought Jimmy checked down too much...

"But wait!"  You might say, "That was Davidson's system, and he didn't run Coryell."  Ok, when Henning last ran Coryell in Carolina, the receivers caught 59% of the passes (concentrated among the top two--feed the stud!), Tight Ends 11%, and Running Backs 30%.  And as I said, we're going to see an offense that reminds people of Henning's.  The big change is the Turner variant, which decidedly uses the backs as receivers more often.  And that should make for a happy Jimmy Clausen, or whoever starts at QB next year. 

Of course, you have to consider that Chud has been an offensive coordinator before.  And his Browns were a lot more like Henning's offense than Turner's (ok, so now you know why I think the way I do). 

In Chud's first year there, the Browns went to their receivers 46% of the time for 15.4 yards per catch, but there were only four receivers that caught balls all year.  Two of them caught a staggering 92% of the passes to that unit.  Granted, they really didn't have a lot behind the first two guys (Braylon Edwards and Joe Jurevicius), but that distribution takes feed the stud to an entirely new level.  The Running Back's in Chud's system caught the ball 23% of the time for 4.9 yards per completion, which may be due more to Jamal Lewis' hands of stone than the offensive playcalling.

The number that leaps out at you is at Tight End.  With Chud calling plays, the former Tight End coach had that unit hauling in 31% of all passes for 14.3 yards per attempt.  Part of that has to be because he had Kellen Winslow, Jr., but the way the plays are called has to count for something. 

Another number to consider is 53.  When Chud was in charge in Cleveland, that's how many completions of 20 yards or more they got.  His attack was all about power running, short to mid-range passes, and enough bombs to keep the defense honest.

And if you're curious about Chud's second year, when Braylon Edwards developed a severe case of the dropsies, Joe Jurevicious never came back from injury, and the Browns in general collapsed from the head coach down, his play calling actually changed to a style that favored quarterback safety even more.  He still went to the Tight End 3 out of every ten passes, but he increased the throws to his running backs to 30%, and their yards per catch actually went up to 7.6.  His passing distribution to the receivers stayed the same though, with an inordinate amount of them going to the top two.

So as far as guesswork goes, it's not that big a leap to assume that our fast receivers are going to be deep, our backs are designed outlets, and the Tight Ends will be used to get that first down, and get it a lot.  And that's pretty much what everyone says they want to see, right?  Long time Panther fans have been asking for another Wesley Walls since 2001, and now we're finally going to at least treat the position like we did when he was here.  Whether the talent is there to take advantage is up for debate, but don't be surprised if they address that either this year or next.  Chud likes his Tight Ends.

It would be reasonable to think that he would just use Smitty and Gettis, or  Smitty and LaFell, with maybe a ffew plays called to other options occasionally.  Think of a Henning clone with a Tight End option instead of an F-Back.  But this post is about speculation, and I am guessing that he's going to go with more multiple receiver sets.  That's simple because the talent is there.

SImply put, I think he's going to like his wide receivers here.  Based on the number of players who caught passes in his offense (he spread it around among the backs pretty well), and on what he saw in San Diego for the past couple of years, it's not a leap to believe that Chud will want to spread the ball around a lot the receivers a lot too. 

Consider the talent--Smitty is better than any receiver he ever had in Cleveland, and both Gettis and LaFell give him the kind of potential at number two that is bound to be new to him.  He's also got a nice weapon in Armanti Edwards, and won't resent having to draft him too much to try and see how he can be used.  You even have David Clowney, who's no slouch, and Charly Martin and Wallace Wright will be back from IR.  We should have five guys who can get open and catch the ball, which will give him options like he's never had before.  I just have the crazy idea that he'll use more of them, not only because he has them, but because the variety will also help protect his quarterback.

And that brings us to the big white elephant in the room, Jimmy Clausen.  Well, before going there, there's something to be said for Brady Quinn (other than we're glad he's not on our team).  When he finally got to play under Chud, he performed very, very well.  The defense gave up his first game, despite a 104 rating.  And in the second game (which they won), Quinn broke his finger badly enough that he had almost no accuracy and pretty much had to sit out the rest of the season.  He got two real starts under Chud, looked good, and played well enough to go 1-1.  And despite what you might think of him, Clausen is far better than Quinn.  We all know the potential is there, and the Brady Quinn experience suggests that Chud's system is something that might bring it out.

Another thing to look at is play distribution.  The Panthers were a 53% pass, 47% run team last year.  Our passing game netted 4.2 yards per attempt (which is pretty pathetic).  For comparison, Chud's Browns passed 55% of the time, for 6.6 yards per attempt.  It's reasonable to think that we're going to throw a little more, but based on what Chud has done in the past I think we're going to have more designed short and mid-range passes that depend on timing.  That can't be anything but good for Jimmy Clausen--there's a big difference in throwing the ball to a back as a last resort, and doing it because it's a designed play.

So, you get a sense that the Quarterback play is going to be much better.  Of course, that's almost a gimme, because how could it be worse?  In essence, the offense will be better all around.  The line will be healthy, the backs will be healthy, and the receivers will be more experienced.  And at quarterback, we'll either have a reliable game-managing type of veteran, or a second year Jimmy Clausen.  Either should be a lot better than the first year Jimmy Clausen and whatever we had in Matt Moore.  The offense should improve significantly, and not just because of competent playcalling or a new system.

So, there you have it.  There's your coaches, their system, and how I think it will be run at the unit level.  Put it together, and I think we'll see something like this. 

On your average first down, Clausen will step up to the line and bark out the signals.  And more often than not, it's either going to be a short pass or a power run (and I bet it's passing a LOT more often than it was under Davidson).  Before the ball is snapped, Rosario goes in motion and lines up on the right.  Then Fiametta changes sides.  Then LaFell comes in towards the ball.  Smitty goes in motion.  The line re-sets.  Jimmy keeps jabbering on in some sort of annoying nasal voice, like he's talking to himself or something.  Williams takes a step back.  The line sets again.  The defense starts to wonder if we're ever going to stop all that barking and moving around and snap the damn ball. 

When we do, your guess is as good as mine if it's a hand-off, because most passes are going to be play-action, even the short ones.  If it is a pass, most of the time it's going to be a quick seven step drop and throw to a spot.  During the backpedal, Clausen will have to diagnose which route is going to work, and make a quick decision on who to go to.  If he doesn't find a good option, then he'll either go to Rosario/King/Barnidge or hit the running back as a designed outlet.  There won't be any waiting around for the play to develop like there constantly was under Davidson.  Long plays will only come when Jimmy notices that Gettis has gotten an amazing jump and he decides to try airing it out.  Then the play may stretch out a little, but on most of them he will get the ball out quickly.

When we do run, it's going to look a lot like more of the same thing we've seen for several years.  Which, considering our backs, is a good thing.  The difference is in how we approach it.  In our former system, the running formations were better known as the running formation, because I think we had just one.  Now they're going to have a little more variety, and from a defensive standpoint teams will have to prepare for more looks.

On most plays, there will be at least one deep receiver.  Clausen (ok, ok! Clausen or Whoever) doesn't have to hit him reliably, but will have to attempt to go long often enough to scare the defense into covering deep.  Otherwise we'll be looking at a repeat of 2010. 

To be honest, there's still a risk of that.  I am not expecting an offensive explosion in 2011.  I don't think a journeyman QB is going to make that big a difference, and frankly I think that Clausen will improve enough that he can make training camp a real battle at that position.  In other words, I'm not sure that we will do any better than an improved Jimmy (think Alex Smith, year two).

Once again our running game should be a bright spot.  I love the running game, but Chud and Rivera won't use it like Fox would have.  That's got its advantages and drawbacks.  If the line stays healthy, we should be able to play effective ball-control.  Ball-control can be done with a running game and an effective short passing game--it really just means you're running a lot of long drives and holding on to the ball for a long time.  And the smash-mouth running style will make Chud's passing plays work better.  But don't think that means 50% running, we're going to air it out. 

And like all long-time Panther fans, I love using the Tight Ends more.  But does Jeff King really scare anyone?  How about Rosario?  Neither even makes a poor imitation of Wesley Walls.  If anything, it makes me more nervous about protection if we send the Tight End out every play.  That's especially true if we send the backs out into the flat as receivers.  The NFC South has some fast defensive ends, and planned seven step drops are going to get us in trouble if the ball doesn't go out right away.

I'm very optimistic about our receivers.  This is an area in which I think we'll see huge improvements.  No one is in Fox's doghouse (right, Armanti?), everyone will have a year's experience or better, and hopefully Smitty still scares some people.  I do worry about Gettis more than LaFell though.  His game is all size and speed, where LaFell is more of a physical type with great route-running skills. 

I think that those make him and Smitty the starters (no one ever gives him credit for this, but Smitty has always been an outstanding route runner).  Gettis will come in often though, and when he does Smith will take the slot.  I am also anticipating us using more four receiver sets, with a single back.  I don't think we go empty much, just because it's too big a risk to leave Clausen back there by himself (he'll get killed).

We'll also have more looks, and we'll do a LOT more movement prior to the snap.  That could mean more penalties, hopefully Rivera instills the discipline to keep those at a minimum.  But we won't get too cute once the ball is in play, especially in year one.  We'll probably stay fairly conservative regarding what we do out there.  Since the defense is likely to be very good, it's a fair assumption to make.  John Fox was notorious for his "A punt can be a good play" attitude, but he's right.  When you have a great defense, sometimes it's better to turn the ball over with your punter than to try and get fancy and risk turning it over in a bad way.

The best part will come from Rivera.  I think the biggest difference Panther fans will notice is going to be in our approach.  After we go up by a touchdown in the second half, look for us to try and go up by two.  Yes, this assumes a competent offense, but we should have at least that. 

The point is, it's not likely that we'll let up on anyone.  But sadly, I don't expect us to be good enough for people to really notice, just the bad teams (there won't be a repeat of the Cleveland game, in other words).  Our defense will keep us in a position to win, but our offense won't be anything close to the top of the league, probably not even in the top 50%.

But it will certainly be better.  How could it be worse?  Even with the same cast of characters, we should score more, and look better doing it.  And the best part is that we'll see growth, and promise.

I'll leave you with this thought.  Back in 2009 we had a new defensive coordinator, Ron Meeks.  He ripped out Trgovac's rules based Cover-2 system and replaced it with his read-and-react Tampa-2 defense.  Then we went out and gave up 24.5 points per game in the first half of the season.  I, for one, wanted Trgovac back at that point.  Everyone was angry and frustrated at the defense.

Then something happened.  It started clicking.  Over the next four games we surrendered 16.4 points, and in the last four we gave up only 11.5 points per contest.  Crow never tasted so good.  The defense was finally showing what it could do, once it had things figured out. 

And it gave us something to be excited about--the promise of the next season.  Sure, things didn't work out as planned (no one but JR knew that we would be losing so many leaders on defense).  But it gave us some hope.

And that's where I see our offense going.  I truly believe that the defense will be very, very good.  But the offense will be decent at best. 

Until something clicks. 

Sometime in the second half of the year, as we've resigned ourselves to another January of watching other teams in the playoffs, the offense will start showing signs of what it can become (yes, even Jimmy Clausen will probably start flashing some real potential).  It's going to give the fans something to be excited about. 

And excitement about Carolina Panther football is a long overdue emotion. 

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