Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
It was an up and down season for the Panthers backfield. Over the last few years, the RB position has been de-emphasized in the NFL. This is the same for the Panthers, especially since Cam Newton joined the team. But late in the season proved that Carolina's backfield was as talented as ever.
The Newton Effect
Before we get to the grades, there's something I think we should all really consider. And it's one of those obvious things that is in fact so obvious we tend to forget about. I am, of course, talking about the effect that Cam Newton has had on our run game.
Newton's no running back, but it's obvious that his addition to the team has dramatically changed the way we use our RBs. After two years of this system, the traditional expectation of 1000 yard RBs may need to be altered because at this rate there simply will never be enough carries for anyone to achieve that mark. In 2012, Newton ran the ball 127 times out of a total 462 team attempts. That's more than 27% of the carries for the entire team. In 2011, he ran the ball 155 times out of 445 total team attempts for 28% of the share. Let's think about what that means exactly...
Let's assume Williams and Stewart split Newton's carries instead of Newton. That'd be *60* carries for each of them. For Williams, that would be an extra 258 yards, propelling him over the 1000 yard mark. For Stewart, that's only 216 yards, which would have given him 552 total, but Stewart was injured and didn't play in 7 games last season. Sure there are more fair ways to split the difference, but the fact of the matter remains that Newton's presence dictates that we look at our RBs in a different light. Looking at their totals simply isn't a good measurement of how well they performed. And thus, we need to think more about how we grade out our RBs performance.
Afterall... the Panthers were a top 10 team in rushing again last year.
Williams had one of the most turbulent seasons as a Panther last season. From starting off the first game of the season -1 yards to finishing the season with the franchise record, I can't remember a time where the ground game was more erratic for the Panthers... Now it should be noted that this was true for every Panther not named Cam Newton (who once again put up 700+ rushing yards). And maybe it's on that front that we should really begin to re-evaluate our expectations.
In the first half of the season, the offense simply wasn't clicking. And while I personally didn't buy into the philosophy that Chudzinski was the problem at first, after doing a statistical analysis, I can't really help but think otherwise. If you look at the first game, Williams only had 6 carries. Secondly, he was only given carries on 1st and 10 situations. If you're the defense and 6 times out of 6 on first down, Williams gets the carry while he's in there, what do you think you're going to do? These were the plays where Williams was getting dropped for 2 yards or less. The times where Williams pulled off successful runs of 6+ yards generally came on second down. This sort of predictability really hampered Williams early on, and persisted until he returned to his starting role after Jonathan Stewart was injured.
I can sum Wiliams's season pretty simply. If he was given 10 carries or more per game, he had a respectable game, averaging around 4.5 yards per carry (which is much closer to his career average). When he's not utilized, like the 2 carries he got against Dallas... No, he's not going to be productive and you'd be foolish to expect him to be. His season really heated up at the end, proving that he was still a threat to score any time he touched the ball, scoring for 50 yards out in almost every game (except for against Oakland... where his 60 yard scamper was called back).
Considering the attitudes around here, most people probably think he's on his way out, but as reported by the Associated Press, Williams wants to be back and plans to as long as the Panthers will have him. With Chudzinski gone, we might be able to balance out how we use our RBs.
It was a rough season for Stewart as well. Playing in only 9 games, Stewart had lows in carries, yards, and TDs. He replaced DeAngelo as the starting RB midway through the season, but still couldn't get things going and would end up falling to a high ankle sprain that would keep him sidelined for the rest of the season. It wouldn't be until the second game against Tampa Bay that Stewart would find the endzone on the ground after hooking up with Newton on a TD pass in Week 2 against the Saints.
Where Williams's season was more drastically up and down, Stewart's was simply down. He went over 4 yards per carry only twice the entire season (both in wins, actually) and those would also be the only games where he ran for over 50 yards. His two scores against New Orleans and Tampa Bay would be his only scores. He would add a respectable 157 yards receiving on 17 receptions, but with a season cut short by injury and an ultimately impotent offense when he was healthy, it's hard to really say he had anything more than a bad season.
It's like Chudzinski really had no idea how to manage the Carolina backfield. No one was getting enough carries and no one prospered. But more than that, Stewart was also having an uncommonly poor year. His 3.6 ypc is well below his average and quite frankly is pedestrian compared to what we're used to around here. Maybe with more opportunities he could have shown us more, but his injury prevented that possibility
When Mike Tolbert was acquired, everyone's immediate reaction was excitement mixed with apprehension over what was going to happen with Stewart. From a scoring standpoint, Tolbert probably had the most successful season of anyone on the Panthers team, taking the ball in 7 times on only 54 carries. However, maybe it's just me, but I was expecting a little more from our human refrigerator.
Like with everyone in the backfield, the common refrain is that there just aren't enough balls to go around. This is most evident when you look at Tolbert. He had more than 4 carries in only 4 games, the final 4 following Stewart's injury. He only cracked 4 receptions once, 47 yards in week 3 against the Giants. This type of arrhythmic playcalling crushed any real playmaking potential Tolbert could deliver while Stewart was healthy. His beast game of the season though came against his former team where he took 9 caries for 40 yards and two scores while adding two receptions of 11 and 13 yards each.
Perhaps we expected too much of Tolbert coming in as a fullback. We all thought he would be a dynamic weapon that could provide an outlet to fill the departure of Shockey. In reality though, this experiment didn't work. Again you can chalk it up to lofty expectations or mismanagement of personnel. Either way we can only hope that the backfield will find it's legs after struggling for much of last season.