There are myriad reasons why teams struggle during the regular season, but sometimes it's purely a case of facing the wrong competition at the wrong time. This is the case of the 2012 Carolina Panthers -- a team who are shown by advanced metrics to be vastly better than their 5-9 record shows. A combination of a front-loaded season, paired with early coaching struggles put the Panthers in a hole, and while they wont dig themselves out, there's plenty to be excited about heading into 2013.
I know what you're thinking -- "I've heard this before". Following a 6-10 season in 2011 optimism was high, and player guarantees put excitement at a fevered pitch. However, dig a little deeper into the numbers and Carolina were a deeply flawed team last year. Based on Football Outsiders 2011 DVOA ratings, the Panthers high-powered offense was the 4th best unit in the NFL, but they were a glass cannon. Carolina's defense was the worst in the league, as were their special teams. Ultimately they were a 6-10 team, rated 20th in overall DVOA -- right where they should be.
In 2012 things are different. The Panthers are still struggling on special teams (32nd in the league), and while the offense has taken a small step back, Carolina are now a complete football team. In FO's week 15 DVOA rankings, Ron Rivera's squad have all the trappings of a top-ten team.
- Offensive DVOA: 8.3% (10th in the NFL)
- Defensive DVOA: -1.3% (11th in the NFL)
- Total DVOA: 3.4% (13th in the NFL)
These shifts from 2011-to-2012 put the Carolina Panthers in a quandary. Where does Ron Rivera fit in, and can the vast gains made on defense make up for the shortcomings on offense? One of the primary arguments against Rivera coming back for 2013 was his inability to correct the early mistakes by Ron Chudzinski that were so glaring, even fans saw that the read-option base offense wasn't going to be effective. It took ten weeks for the Panthers to correct these issues, and that sunk their season.
On the other hand, the defense has has made such huge gains over the last twelve months that it's hard to imagine Ron Rivera didn't play a role. From more closely collaborating with defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, to spending extra effort with players like Greg Hardy -- Rivera has helped his team make huge gains on the defensive side of the ball.
- Weighted DVOA: 8.1% (11th in the NFL)
This metric measures a team's recent games, rather than their season in totality. This puts the Panthers within a earshot of the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens -- they're playing better than ten teams who have a better win/loss record, giving credence to the idea that they simply faced the wrong teams at the wrong time.
No longer a team with an elite offense and nothing else, the Carolina Panthers are a complete football team. It may have taken 26 weeks into Ron Rivera's tenure, but this team are finally playing to their strengths. Whether Carolina's head coach is here in 2013 or not, whoever comes to Charlotte as the team's new general manager will have considerable talents to work with, and many of the hardest team-building questions answered. The Panthers have a quarterback, and have pass rushers -- now they just need the final pieces to glue it all together.