Although it is something we have known all year, the importance of special teams took center stage yesterday in the conference championship games. Unfortunately, it was for the wrong reasons.
Don't: Ignore special teams as an important unit.
Do: Sign/draft legitimate punt returner, coverage guys, and kicker or punter if necessary.
Photo via cdn2.sbnation.com(courtesy of FOX Sports and @Poppa_Falcon)
In the AFC Championship Game, Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a seemingly easy kick in the closing seconds of regulation that would have sent the game into overtime. (sound familiar?) In the NFC Championship Game, San Francisco 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams muffed one punt and fumbled another, the latter occurring in overtime and leading to the decisive Giants score.
Coincidence that special teams were important? I think not. All year the Carolina Panthers lost very close games (e.g., Minnesota, New Orleans, Arizona) where a special teams play (punt return TD, missed FG) was perhaps what separated a win from a loss. In yesterday's games, special teams were so important, it separated the Super Bowl contenders from pretenders.
Let us hope the Panthers seriously consider shoring up their special teams this offseason. Yes, it is understandable that they were depleted because of injuries, but more often than not, their performance was unacceptable. If they were even decent in coverage teams and the kicking game, the Panthers would have probably closed the season with a winning record.
If you think about it, the most successful Panther seasons coincide with the ones with amazing special teams. Think John Kasay, Joe Nedney, Todd Sauerbrun, Steve Smith (when he returned kicks), Rod Smart, Michael Bates, etc. Because of this trend, this week's do's and don'ts will be skewed towards special teams.
More do's and don'ts after the jump...
via farm7.staticflickr.com (via PDA.Photo)
Do: Give Olindo Mare some competition in training camp.
Don't: Cut him outright.
I am just as angry as the next guy that the Panther decided to cut Kasay and sign Mare, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Other than Mare's misses in the clutch, Mare's numbers are comparable to Kasay this year:
And Kasay had the benefit of kicking indoors with 0 touchbacks. (of course, he didn't kick off either).
John Kasay, 28-34, 82%, Career FG %: 81.9
Olindo Mare, 22-28, 78%, Career FG %: 81.2
I think Mare is a more than capable kicker who just happened to miss at the worst of times. Remember also that some of his misses occurred because of blocks, a result of poor blocking up front, and not his fault.
My resolution: give him some competition, but Adi Kunalic does not count. (Dare you to research his college stats. Yep, only attempted and made one field goal.) Bring in some veteran kickers to push Mare into the successful kicker we know he can be. Connor Barth may be out of range, but the Panthers should consider Chargers kicker Nick Novak, who will be looking for a job with the return of Nate Kaeding.
Do: Demote Armanti Edwards.
Don't: Release him without a quality replacement.
Let's face it. The Armanti Edwards project (at least in punt returning) is over. He had all year to show us anything, and his only successful return was because of a holding penalty. Look at his stats:
Armanti Edwards, 32 punt returns, 176 yards, 5.5 yds/return, 0 TDs (ranked 58th in the league)
Yikes. However, if we do go another direction, it would be just as terrible to put in just another guy (or JAG, as a former Observer writer would put it). If Kyle Williams is a lesson to be learned, the Panthers need someone with solid hands to return punts. (And one that does not make us hold our breath every time the ball is punted to him.)
The draft has some intriguing prospects, such as Arkansas WR Joe Adams or North Alabama CB Janoris Jenkins. Though I have not seen tape on them, the stats are impressive. If we decide the free agent route is best, the Panthers have to consider Eric Weems. Not only is he from a division rival, but he's also a proven Pro Bowler that would give legitimacy to a sad punt return unit.
Joe Adams, 19 punt returns, 321 yards, 16.89 yds/return, 4 TDs
Janoris Jenkins, 18 punt returns, 390 yards, 21.7 yds/return, 3 TDs
Eric Weems, 32 punt returns, 315 yards, 9.8 yds/return, 2 20+ returns, 1 40+ return
Do: Increase depth on defense.
Don't: Don't go overboard.
I know in this very same blog last week, I stressed the need for a pass rusher (which is still true), but yesterday's turn of events led me to a different conclusion: don't overspend on the defense.
Arguably, Baltimore and San Francisco are the best defenses in the NFL, yet both are watching the big game from home in two weeks. How did that happen? Doesn't defense win championships?
Yes, but to an extent. If you look at the previous Super Bowl matchups in the last few years, they are littered by prolific offenses, and above average defenses. No longer are the Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson led offenses making the Super Bowl.
If the Panthers want to go to the Super Bowl, they need to give Rob Chudzinski and Cam Newton all the weapons and protection up front they need. If it means signing a Vincent Jackson or drafting a Jonathan Martin, then by all means do it. Remember, it's the elite Patriot and Giant offenses going to the Super Bowl.
That does not mean ignore the defense. If you read the blog last week, I said creating a pass rush, by draft or free agency) is a must. (Cliff Avril, anyone?) If the games were any indication, an average secondary (Julian Edelman at nickel cornerback?) and average linebacker corps with a great pass rush can get a team to the big game.