So, last night's game (against the lowly Cincinnati Bengals) was supposed to be our dress rehearsal for the upcoming season? Based on what we saw, that's going to be a significant problem. After all, this team looked more like the understudies going through the motions of an NFL game than the star actors primed for a great performance (or even a good performance, or maybe just a mediocre one?). Simply put, this team has way too many problems right now to be very good this year...or even competitive. I realize there's only a handful of training camp practices and preseason games to judge things by so far. But, after prior years of seeing supposedly optimistic outlooks go down the drain after miserable preseason performances, I'm not so certain we can discount what we're seeing right now. I'll get into some of the reasons why, and the challenges the Panthers face after the jump...
I don't mean this to be a "Negative Neil" post. However, I'm not going to sugarcoat anything or allow optimism to drown out common sense. Our new coach Ron Rivera doesn't hold back. So, I'm not going to either. However, once I cycle through the list of problem areas and concerns I have, I'll add a few things I think will ultimately help us overcome some of them. So, let's dive in...
Okay. So, we all wanted to believe this offense would be better than last year. Anyone still sold on that idea? At best, I'm not sure if this year's offense could beat last year's offense. They'd be pushing each other for who could score the least points (and offensive TDs--though the slight edge goes to this year's team). Cam Newton isn't going to turn things around right away (if ever). Jeff Otah hasn't returned to the field (or shown he can stay on it by staying healthy). And, we still don't see any WRs-not-named-Steve-Smith stepping up their game (with the possible exception of Armanti Edwards). Thus, we have problems in the following significant areas on offense:
- Offensive Line - We've got terrible pass protection. And we're not so good at run blocking either, apparently. Jeff Otah might help the latter problem a bit, but he's still a liability against the pass rush. Bernadeau isn't getting it done. Like, at all. Even Jordan Gross is struggling with too many DEs getting pressure around the edges. With as many problems as we have in pass protection, that's why we can't move the ball down the field very well. We have little in the way of a vertical game, but it's not all the O-Line's fault. When it comes to the running game, I don't know what's up. Are we getting manhandled at the line? Are people stacking the box because they know we don't have decent WRs or an accurate QB? Are they running blitzes all the time designed to not only rattle Cam, but stop both the run game and the pass game by getting immediate pressure up field? Maybe all of the above. Either way, the O-Line (and even the veterans) don't seem capable of handling it right now.
- Quarterback - The optimist will say it's a work-in-progress and overlook the negatives to focus on the positives. The plain truth is Cam Newton is helping himself far more with his feet and size right now than his arm. He's too inaccurate (6 for 19?) and, consistently so, to put any kind of fear in an opposing defense. Because everyone knows he can't put the ball on the numbers, they're free to focus on pressuring him into poor throws initially and stopping our run game. That's what sets us up for multiple 3rd and long situations, which are even more difficult to convert. The only good news here right now is that we've got a much stronger (physically-speaking) and mobile QB than in the past. That helps keep some plays alive. But, if the O-Line doesn't get it together, that's not going to matter. And that's why this is a team game and no single player is going to make or break your success.
- Wide Receiver - This is a lingering problem. And a significant one. I don't know if it's the players and their limited skill sets or the coaches and their limited ability to teach these young players. Regardless, we've got a stable of frisbee-catching dogs that can't seem to get separation when they go out on pass routes. Or, they're not running very good pass routes. Either way, when you have an inaccurate QB who needs all the help he can get, these guys aren't bringing anything positive to you. Thank goodness we've got some good (or great) TEs to check down to...and we're doing more check downs and screens to the RBs. Still, once defenses know there's no threat on passing situations other than Steve Smith, they know how to shut us down.
If I compare last year to this year, the offense may have taken a small step forward in some areas (and regressed in others), but the defense is far worse than before. The problems here are staggering. So much so, that, even if the offense does eventually get it together, I'm not convinced the defense can hold up their end any more. And that's concerning. At least in the past, they worked hard to keep us in games even when Jake was melting down or Jimmy was curling up in the fetal position. The defense was something we could still hang our hat on and say, "If we can just improve that offense, we could go places!" That's not true anymore. And it's because we have just as many problems on defense side of the ball as offense now. Here's a few that I've perceived so far:
- Defensive Tackle - To me, this is the biggest problem area. If a team can run on you all day long, it doesn't matter whether you've got problems at CB or LB. The DTs are supposed to your guys that stuff the middle against the run and force RBs to go outside where DEs can hold things up long enough for the LBs and S positions to move up and tackle. But our DTs are clearly not up to the task. And it's been a problem area for a long, long time now. Some of it's been because of injuries (i.e., Kemoeatu and Edwards). Some of it's due to undersized guys (i.e., Hayden and Fua). Some of it's due to underperforming guys (i.e., Irvin). And, some of it's probably been due to poor drafting (i.e., settling for longshot guys instead of taking sure-thing anchors like Marcell Dareus). See, to me, I would have rather seen the Panthers take Dareus in the draft over addressing the QB situation. Why? Because, with a new coach and a new system...and plenty of 2nd year guys coming back to join a bunch of rookies...and the possibility of not being able to retain your entire core nucleus of veterans (though, we managed to still do that by throwing money at guys)...and the toughest schedule in the NFL looming...I'd have made the assumption that we wouldn't be very good this year. Which means, we would have another high draft pick in next year's draft...maybe even the #1 overall pick again. That means Andrew Luck would be on the table. And, even if he wasn't, you could likely grab the second-best QB next year with just as much "upside" as what we have in Cam Newton. Meanwhile, if we'd taken Dareus in this year's draft, our DT problem might not look nearly as dire...not simply for this season, but far into the future, as well. Instead, we settle for Fua and hope for the best...while also "settling" for Cam, who most experts correctly identified would struggle in making NFL throws. So, to me, this has been a problem of our own making. And, until the Panthers get serious about drafting mainstays for the linemen (both on offense and defense), we're not going to have very successful rebuilding years.
- Defensive End - I list these guys, because they're not getting pressure. And that's key if you already suspect your secondary is sub-par. A good pass rush can help those guys out better than anything. But there's just no penetration. No edge rush. No good swim, spin, or club moves from these guys. They're getting manhandled and misdirected right past the opposing QB. And, perhaps worse, they're pushed out of position on running plays, which means the other team doesn't even have to focus on throwing the ball, because they can keep us on our heels all night long chasing RBs across the field. In last night's game, you didn't just see RBs going between the tackles. They just as easily made their cuts and sweeps around the edge. And the DEs need to hold up their end of things or this is going to be a very long year. Beyond that, they have to generate a pass rush. Without one, our CBs are hung out to dry.
- Cornerback - And speaking of the CB position, we're looking really bad here, too. Now, in fairness, they drafted Hogan in an attempt to shore things up here. But we still lack a decent CB with size. Gamble is just that...a "gamble" right now. I don't know if he's lost a step or what. But he's not a shutdown corner. He's not a terrible corner by any means, either. But he's not getting it done for us. Compared to him, everyone else is worse. And that's saying something, considering he got torched pretty badly a couple of times last night. And that's been more of a trend than an anomaly with him in recent years. I'm seeing way too much separation between our CBs and opposing receivers. It's like the exact opposite of how our WRs look against opposing CBs. Uncanny. What are other teams doing so well in these areas that we can't seem to duplicate? Is it a personnel thing? The wrong guys with limited skillsets? Is it a scheme thing? They just don't know their assignments very well in the new system? I don't know. But it's evident we've got serious problems here. It's been a problem for awhile now. I expect it will continue to be until we get serious in the draft (and have it pay off) or get serious about targeting known, veteran free-agents who can deliver for us.
Besides the position breakdown, we've got other problems staring us in the face. Many of these things are compounding the problems I've outlined above. And some of them are to be expected. Nevertheless, they bear mentioning, because they're going to have a significant impact on the season. As such, I think Panther fans need to adjust their expectations about this team. Set down the rose-colored glasses and really examine what we're facing right now.
- Brutal Schedule - Everyone says we've got the hardest schedule in football. Looking through it (and based on what we've seen of our team's peformance so far), it does look that way. Examine some of the RBs our defensive line will be expected to stop. It's a very sobering image when you lay it out that way. The running game controls the clock. Teams are running at will on us right now. Be prepared to see Panther jerseys in a lot of highlights of missed tackles and blown blocking assignments as Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, and LeGarrette Blount run wild on us.
- NFC South Division - Part of the reason our schedule is so hard is because we play in what I believe to be the toughest division in the NFL. Top to bottom, New Orleans, Atlanta, and the resurgent Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to give us a handful. Even if we make strides in improving ourselves, how much will we have improved compared to where those teams are? This is important, because 6 of your 16 games will always be determined by your division rivals. And, if we don't stack up well against them (and we don't), it's going to be a long season no matter how we perform against the rest of the NFL. There's a reason a team like the Miami Dolphins (a team we lost pretty handily to as well) struggles to put together a successful season every year. It's because they run right smack into New England and the New York Jets. When the other teams in your division are excelling, you have to improve yourself that much more to have a chance. I believe the Panthers face this kind of situation to an even greater degree in the NFC South. Right now, we're playing catch-up against our rivals. And, judging by the performance of our veteran, sophomore, and rookie players right now, we're light-years behind everyone.
- New Coach - I love Ron Rivera. I think he'll do a lot to turn this team around and take it places (in terms of offense and defensive schemes) that John Fox's conservative approach never would. But, with a new coach comes a new system. Thus, even our veteran players have to take the extra time to re-learn things. Personally, I think that's good. We needed a shakeup. They need to learn some new ways of doing things. But, for now, they're going to be going through some growing pains right alongside the new guys. Thus, the dividends won't pay out for us until sometime further down the road. And we need to be prepared for that.
- Scouting/Drafting - I still think we have some problems here. The Panthers changed some of their scouting personnel. Hurney does some intriguing things, draft-wise. Sometimes, his gambles seem to pay off. Other times, they seem to hurt our future prospects, either because certain position needs aren't addressed timely enough (e.g., QB, WR2, DT, CB)...or, because we spend a pick trying to address the needs of those positions, but we settle for the wrong guy and it doesn't pay off for us. I'm not going to knock them too hard on this...as we've had some good drafts and good players under Marty Hurney. And, no one knows how some of these players will ultimately pan out. But, to say we don't have any problems or concerns in our scouting and drafting of players would be too optimistic, in my opinion. We could do better here.
- Accelerated Training Camp - The lockout had a profound effect on our team's ability to prepare and install everything. They're cramming stuff in these guys heads as fast as they can. But, no matter what, it's going to affect how well they perform on the field. They're all a work-in-progress. I know Rivera doesn't want to use the abbreviated OTAs and TC practices as an excuse. But, the fact of the matter is that it is an excuse. There's no denying that the Panthers could have used more time in getting ready. And there's no denying (based on what we've seen so far) that they could have greatly benefited from it.
- Injuries/Depth - Are we snakebit at times? Do we need every player's locker to contain a rabbit's foot or something? Seems like every year, we have significant players who go down with significant injuries. More importantly, it doesn't seem like the guys behind them are ready to go when called upon to fill in. For every Thomas Davis we get back, there's a Jeff Otah or Jon Beason with an injury that lingers. Meanwhile, as much as we bring in veteran free agents to address a team need, we see an Edwards go down. It's frustrating. Is it a conditioning thing? Is it a "don't forget to practice smart" thing? Or is it just blind dumb bad luck that situations like this always seem to hold us back. Lots of teams suffer (and endure) injuries to their players...even their core players...but it seems like other teams find ways to address that more quickly and capably than we do. Thus, this is an area of ongoing concern for me. And I suspect it's one for the Panther's front office as well.
Okay. So, enough of the negative crap. Where's the silver lining? What rays of hope are still out there that we need to consider? We've got a few. We'll have to wait and see how many of them work to our favor. It'll be a long, uphill road, regardless, but let's see what we've got...
- Kentwan Balmer - Interesting pick up. He could immediately help our DT situation by adding both size and experience. He's been cut/released by a couple of teams already, though. So, how much motivation does playing for his hometown team do for him? And how much of an impact can he have for us at that position? Hopefully, a lot.
- Roster Cuts - The big trim downs are looming. Surely, the Panthers brass will be watching the waiver wire closely. And we'd better give some serious attention to improving this team with some veteran free agents and hopeful prospects. If not, I'll once again call into question our scouting/drafting/free-agent acquisition team. This bright spot could be the most impactful for us, both this season and for Rivera's long-term plans for rebuilding this team to better fit his football philosophy.
- Free Agents - There are also some major free agents sitting out this year, some of whom opted to retire that might be coaxed back to give us a hand this year. I'd love to see the front office explore some of those options as well. I hate to make it sound like we're desperate for a stop-gap measure. But we are. Based on where this team is right now, we're carrying too many guys who are having to learn on the job, when we really could benefit from some guys who have been in the trenches before and already demonstrated they have what it takes to play at this level. I think our balance of young players vs. veterans skewed a little too much toward the younger guys this past season...and our record reflected it, especially after some of those veteran starters went down with injuries. Our depth is a problem at several key areas on the roster. Free agency is meant to help with that. We should exercise it more often and more prudently.
- Cam Newton - This continues to be a bright spot for me. No, he's not the second-coming of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. But he is the first legitimate size QB with the physical tools and athleticism for the job that we've seen in...well, a long time. More importantly, he has the size to stand in the pocket and take a hit. He doesn't get rattled. He has the feet to escape the rush and eat up massive yards by taking off upfield with it...not just to pick up a first down...but to score! He keeps plays alive. It's what he's known for. Once he can learn the system and practice enough to start really improving his throws, it'll be much better for the long-run of the team. But, he's a work-in-progress. The flashes of what he can are still fun to watch.
- The Next Draft - There's always next year. As pessimistic as that might sound, I think it's important to understand that our prospects for making lots of noise this season don't seem all that good. So, you have to treat this as a rebuilding year...a learning year...and a year in assessing guys at their positions so you know what you want to do in the next draft. We have major needs at a lot of positions on this roster. Everyone knows it. You can also reasonably project that we're going to finish near the bottom of the league again. So, we'll have high draft picks. Might as well get that scouting team going right now. Their work is going to be super-important in these first couple of years under Ron Rivera.
- Time - Quite simply, time is the most helpful thing for this football team right now. Time to install everything. Time to learn everything. Time to pick up experience for all of these guys. Time in the weight room to continue adding weight and muscle for a lot of these young guys. And time to gel, both with the O-Line, the QB and WR relationships, the whole defense. There are a lot relationship-building elements that go into a team's chemistry. Quite frankly, the Panthers are pretty fragile at the moment. They need time to establish and develop new leaders among these guys. And they need to absorb everything they can from the veterans while we still have them.
So, there you go. That's my two cents on what I'm seeing so far in regards to this team, what I think will challenge and hinder them this season, and some of the things I think they have to work on or look forward to. We have a lot of work-in-progress guys, both among the players and the coaching staff trying to get everything in place and shape the kind of team they want to have. The fanbase is going to need a lot of patience to make it through the mistakes and missed assignments from game-to-game. But, hopefully, there'll still be some exciting moments and plays from our new guys like Cam Newton as we go forward. Let's see where we go from here...