There were many contributing factors to just how and why the Panthers were so bad coming out of the locker room in 2011. As a matter of fact, no single unit can be let off the hook for the way the team gave away several games in the second half after looking like lightning in a bottle during the first 30 minutes of play. If anyone's to blame, it's the coaching staff for failing to adequately prepare a young roster and stay a step ahead of the game by adjusting their plans of attack during the break.
It truly was a tale of two teams from the first half to the second with the Panthers - whether you're talking about the offense's tendency to come out sluggish and get careless with the ball in the third, the defense's habit of playing "on their heels" after intermission and succumb to the big play, the coverage units missing tackles or (my personal pet peeve) the DAG-BLAMMIT kicker sailing one. The Panthers just weren't the same team in the second half of ball games and it cost us, legitimately, four games and a shot to get in the tournament and see what happened.
One or the other unit suffered major breakdowns, to a certain degree going into the half but especially in the third quarter and early fourth, entirely too often. Most of the time it was more than one unit, unfortunately. You take away key mistakes at the end of the first and the beginning of the second during the Arizona, Green Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans at home and both Atlanta games, and one could easily imagine the Panthers having come away with 10 games. Virtually every game on the schedule was in the balance - save for Tennessee, perhaps Chicago and the season-finale in New Orleans - for the Panthers taking. They just didn't take them.
For stark examples of this inability to snatch a win that's hanging in the balance, one need look no farther than the first two games on the regular game schedule, or as I will always fondly recall them, "Flashes of Cam." Carolina took leads into the half at Arizona and against the defending champ Green Bay Packers in Charlotte during the first two weeks of the season, only to be rebuffed by the defense giving up the big play shortly thereafter.
Against Arizona it was a familiar face we let gouge us for a 48-yard touchdown during the Cardinal's second possession of the second half after the team's traded nowhere drives to begin the third quarter. At the time, TE Jeff King erased the Panthers halftime lead of 14-7. I always regarded TE Jeff King as "immovable from the line of scrimmage, either way," but he picked the right time to catch the only long touchdown of his life (and not so coincidentally, the right secondary - ours). At the 10:48 mark of the fourth quarter the defense went ahead and gave up another deep strike, a 70-yarder to Early Doucet this time, and about three minutes later the punt coverage unit went and put a punctuation mark on it by losing track of PR/CB Patrick Peterson, who garnered some consideration to be our first pick in the previous draft. An aside, it may have been the last time we saw RB Mike Goodson do anything of note when he came up short of the endzone at the end of that game, and it could have been won with another play along the way.
In Week 2, when we welcomed the Packers, the Panthers held a 13-7 lead at the half. After the break, the Packers promptly adjusted their protections and routes and struck first at the 12:25 mark with a 49-yarder to WR Greg Jennings. The Packers would go onto add three field goals by K Mason Crosby as they shut the Panthers out in the third quarter. The defense also surrendered an 89-yard strike to WR Jordy Nelson at the 2:14 mark of the fourth quarter, and the game was lost.
Even in games we won, critical lapses in key moments before and after halftime would keep the game in reach for the foe. Remember the defense giving up a hail mary touchdown at the end of the half during a monsoon in Charlotte for Jacksonville QB Blaine Gabbert's first score of his career, or the secondary parting ways for Indianapolis Colts WR Reggie Wayne to almost pride one from us on the road.
In the box score, many of these instances show up as the secondary being susceptible to the big pass. However, as I alluded to in a previous story on Cat Scratch Reader (Where will the pressure come from?) the front seven had a hand in it by failing to sustain their pass rush from the first to the second half (21 sacks in the first half of games, only 10 in the second half of games). Throughout the year, there were other drop-offs on defense going into the second half, though - tackles for loss dropped from 24 to 13 and forced fumbles from nine to three. The secondary actually proved scrappier as the game went on in one respect, taking the ball away. Throughout the season the team got nine second half interceptions compared to five in the first half.
Perhaps more than anything, the adjustment period to the game for Carolina Panthers Franchise Quarterback Cam Newton (I still love saying that), contributed to the team's inability to sustain their success from the first half of games through to the final whistle. To be fair to our young prince, he's executing the game plan and calls he's given, so I wouldn't really hang the blame on him (I'm getting around to that), but the splits from quarter-to-quarter throughout games truly do tell the story of the 2011 Carolina Panthers, as well as the timely miscues he registered during some of those second half stinkers, up to and including some bad interceptions.
During the first and second quarters of games, SuperCam hit on 60+ percent of his passes and had a touchdown percentage of more than 5 percent. Also in those quarters, he had only three interceptions apiece throughout the season and sported his best QB Ratings at 103.2 and 90.3. SuperCam registered his most yards in the fourth quarter of ball games (as we scrambled to get back in it after we blew a lead or one-score deficit in the third quarter at 1,182, but only completed about 52 percent of his passes in the last frame as he was forced to look down the field and sported a quarterback rating of 78.4 while throwing five interceptions. It is the third quarter performance he turned in during several key games that separated us from the contenders, however. In the third quarter, Cam's yardage dropped off considerably, he threw six picks and had the lowest QB Rating of any quarter - 65.5. His touchdown percentage plummeted to 2 percent.
Overall, from the first to the second half, Cam's completion percentage dropped 5 percent, his touchdowns fell from 14 to seven and his interceptions increased from six to 11. His respective QB Ratings - 96.1 and 73.5.
Along the way, this played out ugly several times. It was ugly when Cam forced an interception at the worst time in the third quarter against Green Bay. It was ugly when the o-line turned loose Vikings DE Jared Allen to sack-fumble Cam in the third quarter, which led to AP scoring and taking the lead. It was ugly when Cam threw an interception following a pair of deep passing touchdowns were surrendered to Detroit, then was lassoed by Lions DE Kyle Vandenbosh to stifle our opportunity to get back in the game AND another INT to boot. His interception against the Falcons in the third quarter of the home loss to the Falcons that sticks out to me the most, when he's looking down the field and tries to arm it while wearing a d-lineman to give up a HUGE interception en route to their big comeback.
You could see in the slump in his shoulders, the frustration in his face... if things went wrong in the third quarter, they would inevitably continue to go wrong in the fourth quarter. And we would lose. He is aware of this, and has promised to address it during the offseason. Furthemore, the offensive line helped him out. A lot of those sacks were bang-bang sacks. LT Jordan Gross had a drive-killing holding penalty coming out in the second half of the Detroit game, and then QB Matt Stafford went to work throwing a pair of deep touchdowns in his next chances. I'm rehashing it, but it's the past.
Panthers Kicker Olindo Mare's split from the first half to the second is far worse than Cam's stumbles in the third quarter, however, because he's a veteran who we overpaid. In the first half he was 16 of 18, while he was 6 of 10 in the second half. His make percentage reads in descending order from the first to the fourth quarter, at 100, 82, 67 and 57. Taken a step further, when we had the lead he was 9-9. With the tie on, he was 7-8. With the pressure on, and us at a deficit, he dropped to 6-11. One need look no farther than the "Minnesota Shank" to understand my condescending attitude towards Mr. Mare. He wasn't the only one on special teams, though. the punt coverage surrendered an AVERAGE of 22.5 per punt in the fourth quarter. When we led, they surrendered 9 per, with a tie - 23.6 and when we were behind - 12 per. Not clutch.
As I said there was plenty of blame to go around, and there were also many reasons for us not to assign blame. There was youth at THE key position on the field, nearly an entire first year staff installing new systems during an abbreviated offseason and training camp and injuries were prevalent, forcing the team to bring in back-ups off the street in some instances, that all contributed to the team's decline after halftime of so many contested ball games. In my mind, however, this one's got to be chalked up to the coaching staff.
I feel like the major reason the Panthers suffered such an inordinate amount of susceptibility to the big play on both sides of the ball after halftime lands squarely on the coach's shoulders for not making successful adjustments and counter-punching with the geniuses of the NFL.That means you, Golden Boy Rob Chudzinski, DC Sean McDermott, ST Coach Brian Murphy and even the HC, Ron Rivera. (I have to mask my general affection for this staff as individuals and as a whole for a moment to offer this honest of an assessment of their body of work, I assure you.)
Frankly, and this is a scary thought, I feel like we got out-coached TWICE by Mike Smith's staff in Atlanta. They proved quite inept at pulling the right card at the right time whenever confronted with big-game situations against everybody else. Site, all those fourth down calls they got wrong in the playoffs. Seriously, look at those two ball games:
Week Six at Atlanta: Atlanta held a 14-10 lead at halftime after scoring at the 10 minute mark of the second quarter. Coming out in the third quarter, the Panthers actually had early success, sustaining a long drive capped off by a 14-yard scramble by SuperCam, then forcing an Atlanta punt to hold a 17-14 lead. This is where the tide turned, though. First, DE Ron Edwards had a sack on Newton to force a three-and-out, and then the rain came. Atlanta would score three times unanswered, forcing another three-and-out then picking Cam on our side of the field along the way.
Could Carolina have matched Atlanta's defensive adjustments by moving their own offensive pieces and had one more sustained drive, who knows what would've happened.
The next example, however, doesn't really require the same amount of explanation. It was the more clear-cut failure of our coaching staff to adequately prepare the team for in-game scenarios, perhaps of the entire season. We're at home and take a 23-7 lead in the second quarter after rattling off a safety by Antwon Applewhite, a 74-yard big play by Deangelo Williams on the ensuing a possession and a 23-yard strike from Cam to Greg Olsen. It's a sunny day in Charlotte, in deed.
What happened next was the most mistifying implosion of the season the Falcons come out and force a three-and-out from Newton and the boys, then showed their no-huddle offense, seemingly catching the defense still at their lockers and sustain their momentum to rattle off 24 unanswered, featuring three strikes by the most prolific choker I am aware of in professional sports to have the nickname "Ice," Matt Ryan, as we punted three times and added another fourth quarter miss from our own "most prolific choke artist." The two Ryan-to-Julio Jones connections were things of beauty, I must relent, and served as a coming-out party for our division rival's "King's Ransom" playmaker.
While the coaching staff's failure to at least get the defense looking like they had seen a "No Huddle" package before the third quarter of the season's most important home game made me question why I care so much - the most questionable, and in retrospect painful, coaching gaffe came against the greater of our two division-rival playoff entrants. When Head Coach Ron Rivera called a timeout for New Orleans to get K John Kasay on the field before the half and push their lead to a touchdown (20-13), my heart sank into my shoes, and I knew we wouldn't be able to win that game. I just knew it from there on out. The thing is, we had great momentum at the time after Deangelo vaulted into the end zone (for a breakdown of the play see http://www.catscratchreader.com/2012/2/17/2806899/inside-the-play-deangelo-goes-for-69-against-the-saints)
Coming out in the third quarter, the Panthers balloon appeared to be deflated on defense, as QB Drew Brees and the Saints marched one down on a long drive that led to a field goal. Then, the Panthers answered with their own sustained drive that led to a Cam Rushing TD, and the defense came back to life with an interception by S Sherrod Martin, and the Panthers eventually took another lead. When it mattered, however, the defense was clearly outmatched with Brees, and he led his team to score at the right time to steal one from us, 30-27.
There are reasons for, and reason to believe these nightmare scenarios won't continue to play themselves out in the 2012 season. That said, these are the haunting images we were left with this offseason, just to punctuate the utter futility of draft-watching (haha at myself.) For our optimism for next year, I point to the Houston Texans game as a turnaround for this team and the coaching staff into a franchise that CAN and WILL beat anybody you put in front of them any given Sunday.
That was a tough week for my fantasy football team "The Fake Panthers" as the superstar of both the real and fake Panthers (Newton) came up with moderate passing numbers and even uncharacteristically gave away a rushing touchdown to FB Richie Brockel on a trick play. There was a tight playoff race on in my fantasy. However, my team winning in reality eased my discomfort about all that stuff, and OC Chudzinski's willingness to stick to the run not only allowed us to control the clock and milk the win, but didn't put Cam in position to make huge plays over and over again. Chudzinski went through a progression that is best demonstrated through his eventual mastery of the option run game that signaled his growing comfort with his squad, and knowing how to strike with them.
On defense and on special teams, the team moved to address inconsistency with coaching hires, bringing in Steve Wilks to head up the secondary and install a package friendlier to blitz schemes up front, and Murphy has been brought in a set of new eyes in former Rivera teammate Richie Rodgers, he will co-coach the units.
On offense, we held onto what we've got, and were very fortunate to do so. After seeing where "Golden Boy" brought us along after a shortened offseason, I can't imagine what type of variations of the "Air Coryell" and College Spread homeboy is cooking up in his playbook. This could be fun:)
As for HC Ron Rivera and QB Cam Newton. A year under their belt should prove fruitful in instruction, and these are two individuals who already knew how to win a ballgame elsewhere. Now, we can only hope they'll put it all together here in 2012. YES WE CAM!