It's no secret that Carolina is having its most disappointing season since 2006. The difference between 2006 and now? Although Carolina was coming off the 2005 NFC Championship game with roughly the same roster along with some big additions like Keyshawn Johnson, it still had less overall talent than this 2012 squad.
Before we get into what this organization needs to do to move forward we need to look at what reasons have brought us here:
1. Incompetent/ill-prepared coaching staff
From calling timeouts when the Saints had none, allowing them to kick a field goal at the end of the first half in 2011, to the belief that a Hail Mary pass was a more viable option at points than a 50 yard field goal against Chicago in 2012. If you were to write a book on Ron Rivera's head coaching ability it would be titled, "An Idiot's Guide to Head Coaching in the NFL." This is not a personal attack on the man. He is a wonderful person, a caring father and he is a very hard worker. With that said, he just isn't ready for this job. He regularly uses timeouts early in the second half, OK's an offensive scheme that looks nothing like the one of 2011 which produced so much promise, and continues to lull himself into the belief that certain players have what it takes to start.
Here's a brief list of some of the decisions made under Rivera in 2012:
- Called for a Hail Mary from the 33 rather than attempting a 50 yard field goal from a kicker who was brought here because of his strong leg. (Final Score: CHI - 23, CAR - 22)
- Repeatedly calls for soft zone coverage to avoid losing rather than calling aggressive plays to try and win.
- Approved an offensive scheme that handcuffs the growth of Cam Newton and limits the abilities of all three running backs.
- Believes that good personality/attitude takes precedence over production/talent. (Starting Nakamura over Martin, starting Norman and Munnerlyn, starting Stewart over Williams, starting Naanee over LaFell, starting Murphy over Pilares/Gettis, keeping Armanti Edwards as a return man over using Joe Adams)
- Refusal to use the correct personnel properly. (I.E.- Rare usage of Williams, Tolbert, Martin and Barnidge. The real mystery is why Rivera and his staff continue to employ a shotgun based offense rather than the two tight end set from 2011)
- Despite having a great history of coordinating top 5 defenses, Rivera appears to be far less hands on than his predecessor, John Fox. Defense is decent but has potential to be great with proper coaching which Rivera, for reasons unknown, doesn't seem to want to takeover the defense and take charge.
- Shows little to no ability in how to develop a young quarterback. (I.E.- Pulling Newton from the end of the New York Giants game rather than allowing him to practice a two-minute drill against a top 10 defense. Also considering pulling Newton from the end of the Denver game rather than allowing Cam to lead a late touchdown drive to pull within 13 late in the 4th quarter)
- Displays no clock management skills. (I.E.- Practically the end of every first half. One example that sticks out is against Atlanta. With multiple timeouts and 1:49 left in the first half, Rivera allowed the clock to run and force the offense to hurry up rather than allowing the team to gather itself and call the correct play for a late game field goal or touchdown. The result? Eight pass plays from shotgun that kept the receivers in the middle of the field and being forced to go to half with zero points gained and a lost chance of gaining some momentum into the second half. The final score of the game ATL - 30, CAR - 28.
2. Lack of talent/production at the defensive back position
In today's NFL a defensive back has to have at least two things on this list: speed, knowledge or height. One out of three just isn't going to cut it. Let's take a look at the primary Panthers DB's and get an idea of who has what it takes:
Chris Gamble: Height: 6-1 Weight: 205. Despite the growing popularity of bashing Gamble and his tackling woes, he continues to be the team's best cornerback. At 29 years old he still has the speed to keep up with most receivers, the height to fight for the ball in the air and he has great knowledge of the game. 3/3, career starter
Captain Munnerlyn: Height: 5-8 Weight: 190. The fact that Munnerlyn was a seventh round pick and is now a starter is impressive. What isn't impressive? Munnerlyn's ability. He lacks the height to cover just about every receiver in the NFL. Typically undersized cornerbacks use speed to overcome this disadvantage, Munnerlyn doesn't fit that type as his speed is average to above-average at best. He displays a decent knowledge for the game but his production shows he just isn't ready to be a starter. With only 4 interceptions in 54 career games (all four coming against subpar QB's throwing inaccurate passes) Munnerlyn clearly shouldn't be lining up against anyone other than a number three WR. 1/3, career backup
Josh Norman: Height: 6-2 Weight: 190. Off the bat Norman's height is an immediate advantage as he will rarely give up too much height to opposing receivers. It's tough to gauge how good he can be as it's only his rookie year and the coaching staff seems to continually call for him to play 10 yards off whoever he covers. However, Norman seems to have decent speed, again though it's hard to tell with this coaching staff since he primarily plays a soft zone coverage. His lone interception came against Chicago which was a mix of decent coverage and a bit of luck as he held his underneath coverage while Charles Godfrey maintained help over the top. Although the ball was slightly under thrown by Jay Cutler, Norman still displayed good concentration to catch the ball in the air in traffic and come down with the pick. With all that said, Norman still isn't ready to start. Another advantage for him? He seems to be a sure tackler. He needs time to be groomed before he's ready to start week in and week out. 1/3, borderline 2/3 with strong upside
Josh Thomas: Height: 5-11 Weight: 190. Thomas is a newcomer to the team and with Gamble being placed on IR he has assumed a regular role in the CB rotation. His height leaves a bit to be desired but he seems to have OK speed. His downfall is he doesn't have too much knowledge of the game to use his physical potential to the best of his abilities. Despite a couple of flashes of big play ability, Thomas doesn't seem like a player on the cusp of being a legitimate starter in this league. 1/3, could be a good nickel corner if he applies himself
Haruki Nakamura: Height: 5-10 Weight: 205. Nakamura came to the team with the anticipation that he might be a diamond in the rough after spending years backing up future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed. He went to training camp and Rivera declared him the starter for the team. The mystery surrounding Nakamura quickly disappeared as his lack of height, speed, and coverage abilities were all exposed by week 4 of the 2012 season. Nakamura's 5'10 frame already puts him at a disadvantage to practically every tight end and wide receiver in the game, add in his average speed and lack of knowledge of covering the passing game Nakamura clearly needs to be relegated back to special teams where he seems to excel at. 0/3 solid special teams player though
Charles Godfrey: Height: 5-11 Weight: 210. Godfrey's height is a slight issue but he seems to have above average speed to make up for it. However, Godfrey is prone to bite on play action fakes and seems to regularly lose track of his assignment. Multiple games Godfrey is in poor position to cover a deep pass. The upside to Godfrey? Great run support. Godfrey is a hard hitter and overall a decent tackler. He sniffs runs out fairly well but could an All-Pro if he could defend the pass like he defends the run. barely 2/3 but still has potential to be a career starter
Sherrod Martin: Height: 6'1 Weight: 200. Martin clearly has the build you want in a safety. He also displays great speed for his position. After a strong rookie campaign in 2009 with 3 interceptions Martin dropped off slightly with only 1 INT in 2010 when the Panthers went 2-14. He seemed to gain back his coverage skills in 2011 by snagging another 3 picks, including a game-sealing interception in the endzone against the Indianapolis Colts, but his tackling went from good to downright atrocious. In the eyes of Rivera, his first two years weren't enough to save him from the doghouse as he was demoted to second string forced to watch Nakamura take over his spot on the depth chart. Despite Rivera's mysterious refusal to play the more talented/productive safety of the two, Martin has still found a way to contribute in 2012 as he's in the games more on passing downs. He seems to have regained his tackling ability and still has a nose for the football as he seems to be one of the first ones to ball when he's on the field. If Rivera gives him the chance, Martin displays all the potential to be a career starter in the NFL. 2/3 with strong potential to be 3/3
3. Lack of depth for the offensive line
At the beginning of the year, Center Ryan Kalil took out an ad promising a Super Bowl to Panther fans. Not only are the Panthers not going to win the Super Bowl this year, they're struggling to keep a competent offensive line on the field just to finish out the year. The first mistake this team made was wasting a 2nd round draft pick on OG Amini Silatolu. At 6'4, 311 lbs. Silatolu looks the part, but at the midpoint of the season it's evident he's not ready to start in the NFL. Silatolu promises at least one penalty a game and regularly is beaten by a basic stunt from the defensive line or linebackers. To add to the misery of this group they also have an inexperienced snare drum playing right tackle in Byron Bell. He is beaten routinely especially against speed rushers. He lacks the discipline and agility to start. At the beginning of the year however the team hoped having Bell and Silatolu added in with savvy veterans like Jordan Gross, Kalil, and Geoff Hangartner would be able to help groom the young players. With Kalil going on injured reserve with a Lis Franc injury and Hangartner being forced to Center and Jeff Byers placed at RG the offensive line went from possible strong point to the team's weakest link. After giving up 35 sacks in 16 games in 2011, this unit has given up 24 sacks in just nine games this year, including seven against the Denver Broncos.
So what does this team need to do to turn it around?
Team owner Jerry Richardson kick started the process by firing long time friend and General Manager Marty Hurney. Hurney's tenure in Carolina is marred with poor contract negotiations and lack of drafting expertise after the first round. With that said though you have to commend the man on his ability to sniff out first round talent. Here's a quick list of the firs rounders drafted by Hurney: Julius Peppers, Jordan Gross, Chris Gamble, Thomas Davis, DeAngelo Williams, Jon Beason, Jonathan Stewart, Jeff Otah, Cam Newton, and Luke Kuechly. Only two of the players on that list are no longer with the team. Pretty impressive, but being able to draft first round picks doesn't win you championships. It's finding later round talent, attracting and signing solid free agents, creating fair and balanced contracts to retain core players and hiring a solid coaching staff that makes you a good GM.
Now that step one is complete, it's on to step two: Firing Rivera and Co.
Is Rivera a good guy? Yes, but no one is giving out the Lombardi Trophy because you're a nice guy to be around. Rivera tried his hardest, but he just can't do it as a head coach yet. Who knows why, but the guy just isn't going to get it done and he doesn't show any signs of improving. Rob Chudzinski seems to have pulled the ultimate Houdini act on Panther fans. Year one in Carolina he's practically proclaimed an offensive god. Year two has become a debacle. Every offensive category is down and the frustration is growing. Chudzinski seems to be under the impression that the only way the Panthers can beat opposing teams is to run a college/pass happy hybrid offense. His inability to know how to effectively use three starting caliber running backs is one of the many reasons he just isn't going to get it done. The last of the three is Sean McDermott. After being run out of town in Philadelphia for turning Jim Johnson's once feared defense into a package of Swiss Cheese, the Panthers thought they would give the guy a chance to run his style of defense. He came to town promising an aggressive, blitz happy defense. Panther fans cheered at the idea of a defense that could rival the great ones they had in 2002 and 2003. What the team got was the exact opposite. Let's go ahead and forgive the 2011 defense because of the load of injuries and only look at 2012. While the Panthers generate one of the better pass rushes in the league they rely too heavily on their front four and offer no consistent support with a blitz of good coverage. Too often the team stays in a zone coverage hoping one of the front four generates a quick pass rush to disrupt the play. When that fails and the opposing quarterback is given time, he easily completes a pass in a large gap in the coverage for at least 6 to 7 yards, usually more. The play calling for the defense is created from a play not to lose mentality. McDermott's recent interview where he goes out of his way to pat himself on the back shows he's afraid to lose his job, the coaches have entered an "every man for himself" mode and that McDermott is attempting to take credit for the performance of individual players rather than acknowledging that his defense doesn't work. It's evident that Richardson and the new GM, whoever that may be, has to let this staff go. Rivera filled his ranks with friends, former coworkers, and coaches desperate for a job rather than pursuing competent, tough minded individuals who have a win first, win now philosophy.
Step three: Restructuring contracts and putting the house in order
Hurney's departure leaves the Panthers house in a financial bind. Hurney overpaid on numerous players without considering the future. His $76 million deal to Charles Johnson is ridiculous. Yes Johnson is proving he's a great player not motivated by money as he continues to produce, but no other team was going to offer him a deal like that. He also dished out over $20 million to both Williams and Stewart while spending $12 million on former Panthers kicker Olindo Mare. He guaranteed $13 million to former quarterback Jake Delhomme who was cut just a year later, add in his extension to Gamble and Godfrey and it becomes easy to see why Hurney had to go. While his heart was in the right place, his checkbook wasn't. Whoever the new GM is has to do a couple of things:
1. Hire a coach with a solid history and aggressive philosophy
2. Sift through the financial mess and shape Carolina's fiscal house in order
3. Fully evaluate each team scout to make sure the team is researching and studying draft prospects properly.
Many Panther fans are already shouting to the mountains with their ideas for the new coach. Bill Cowher is the most popular by far, but if he's been retired this long I think he's staying retired so we'll cross him off the list. There are also grumblings over possibly going after Sean Payton (there's no chance), Andy Reid if he's fired (a nice idea but it's too early to tell) and Marty Schottenheimer has come up a few times as well. My favorite for this job is Mike Holmgren. The man is a great fit for this team for a couple of reasons. First, he's a quarterback's coach. He worked under Bill Walsh in San Francisco with Joe Montana and Steve Young, he was the head coach for the Green Bay Packers and coached Brett Favre and went to two Super Bowls, winning one, and he went to Seattle where he made one Super Bowl appearance and turned a struggling team into a respectable franchise. I like what he brings to the table and what he could do with Cam Newton. He knows how to pick a coaching staff (some of his assistants include Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Dick Jauron and Steve Mariucci). Not only does he have the ability to help the passing game and mold Newton into an NFL star, he also knows how to use the run game. He successfully used Ahman Green in Green Bay for years and turned Shaun Alexander into a household name during his time in Seattle. To put it simply, Holmgren is a great fit for this team.
After hiring a head coach is done, the new GM is going to have to decide what to do with the contracts on this team. The most logical idea is to ask some of these core players to restructure their deals. If he is able to work with some of the larger contracts to work them down or create a system where the team isn't hit all at once with so much money, he could successfully free up certain years to go after free agents to bolster the team without sacrificing the talent we have now. If players don't wish to work with the new GM then trades and releases are in order. Trades will be hard to come by with such hefty contracts but if something can get worked out it's better to gain something then take a large penalty against the salary cap. If handled delicately and thoughtfully this could be an easier task than once thought.
The final step is to make sure Carolina has competent scouts to evaluate the talent for each draft class beyond the first round. A quick look through the Panthers draft history shows a majority of the talent drafted after the first round didn't stay too long in Charlotte. This damaging trend must come to end quickly if the Panthers want a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl run.
So there it is. Much like this article, the road ahead for the Panthers is long and uneasy. If they take their time and think about their decisions logically this is a team that could be a serious contender in the next couple of years. At the same time, if the organization handles it irrationally it could spell disaster for the team and fans hoping for a Super Bowl in the next 10 years or even longer.