Carolina Panthers 2012 Special Teams: A Tale of Two Coaches

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers replaced their ST Coordinator midway through the 2012 season. Was the decision the right one, the wrong one, or did it even make a difference? It's time to dive into the numbers and find out.

Editor's note: In the comment section of the second part of my two part review of the 2012 Panthers Special Teams Unit, CSR member criolle asked for a comparison of the ST units during the tenure of each ST Coordinator. Since I'm such a nice guy (and because I also wanted to know how the numbers stacked up), I decided to oblige that request.

When the Panthers announced that ST Coordinator Brian Murphy had been fired on November 12 after an ugly loss to the Denver Broncos at home, many fans weren't surprised by the move. In fact, the decision to part ways with Murphy was largely celebrated by Panthers fans. Whether it was the sour taste that the Broncos game had left in our mouths, or if it was something deeper was uncertain, but the fact that hardly anyone was upset at the coaching change spoke volumes about the status of the Panthers' 2012 ST unit.

When a team makes a coaching change, the first thing that fans want to know is if the move is going to make a positive difference. After watching the Panthers allow Trindon Holliday to return punts like Devin Hester the previous Sunday afternoon, most fans didn't think the replacement for Murphy could possibly be any worse. Well, as it turns out, they were right. Richard Rogers wasn't any worse than Brian Murphy. In fact, he was slightly better, but what you're about to see might fool you. Contrary to popular belief, Murphy's unit wasn't as bad as most people think.

Let's take a look at some numbers, shall we?

Before we get to the numbers, I should probably tell you what you're going to be looking at. I collected information on the amount of punts, returns, return yards, fair catches, downed punts, touchbacks, out of bounds punts, and blocked punts for each game, and then I totaled the results and came up with an average per game for each figure. I did the same thing for kickoff returns by tallying the amount of returns, return yards, touchbacks, and touchdowns.

I did this for both Murphy and Rogers and then compared them head to head against one another to gain a clear picture of how the ST unit did under each coach. And, I must say that I was moderately surprised by the results.

The first chart you will see below has numbers from the first ten weeks of the season, when Murphy was the ST Coordinator:

Coach Murphy (9 games)
Punts 49 (4.44 per game)
Returns 26
Yards 241
Average 9.3 yds
Touchdowns 1 (76 yds)
Fair Catches 11
Downed 6
Touchbacks 2
Out of Bounds 4
Blocked 1
Kickoff Returns 23
Yards 346
Average 15.1 yds
Touchbacks 13
Touchdowns 0

What we essentially see here is that aside from the Denver game when Trindon Holliday looked like he was running past tackling dummies, the ST unit didn't do a bad job overall.

But, before we declare the firing of Murphy to be the worst decision Rivera made last year, let's take a look at how the ST unit fared under Richard Rogers in the last seven weeks of the season.

Coach Rogers (7 games)
Punts 27 (3.85 per game)
Returns 11
Yards 80
Average 7.3 yds
Touchdowns 0
Fair Catches 9
Downed 2
Touchbacks 5
Out of Bounds 0
Blocked 0
Kickoff Returns 16
Yards 393
Average 24.6 yds
Touchbacks 24
Touchdowns 0

A few things that should stand out here: there were fewer punts per game under Rogers than there were under Murphy. That isn't due to the coaching change, but rather the offense finally starting to produce satisfactory results which in turn led to fewer punts.

Return yards per punt dropped by 2 yards under Rogers, helping the Panthers in the field position battle, though the difference isn't enough to jump up and down over. There were also fewer fair catches, downed punts, and more touchbacks; but those things aren't the fault of the coaching staff as they're not the ones punting the football.

Kickoff return coverage was great for the entire year, regardless of the coach. The Panthers ranked #1 in the league in kick return coverage as they allowed an average of 18.9 yards per return, almost a full yard fewer than the second ranked team (Cleveland averaged 19.8 yards against). Under Rogers, the average per return was higher, but that's thanks mostly to fewer returns and two games against the Eagles and Saints where both teams combined for 205 return yards and skewed the average.

While there were more yards given up under Rogers, there were also nearly two times the amount of touchbacks. When Murphy was the ST Coordinator, the kicker was Justin Medlock, and when Murhpy took over Medlock was replaced by Graham Gano after the loss to Tampa Bay. Gano had more touchbacks than Medlock did in fewer games, but it can partially be attributed to more kickoffs as the offense started scoring more consistently during the last six games of the season. Of course, it could also mean that Gano is better at putting the ball in the end zone than Medlock. That's not impossible to believe.

So, after seeing these numbers, it's safe to say that changing ST Coordinators mid-season didn't really change much for the coverage units. But, how did the return units fare after the switch? Let's dive into the numbers and find out.

Coach Murphy (9 games)
Punt Returns 18
Yards 100
Average 5.6 yds
Touchdowns 0
Fair Catches 5
Downed 8
Touchbacks 2
Out of Bounds 2
Kickoff Returns 22
Yards 496
Average 22.6 yds
Touchdowns 0
Touchbacks 29
Out of Bounds 1

As we can see by the chart above, the return unit under Brian Murphy was average at best. Whether this is due to poor return men, poor blocking schemes, good coverage by the opponent, bad luck, [insert deity here] hating the Panthers, or a combination of all those factors; the fact of the matter is the Panthers must improve in this area if they want to be competitive in 2013 and beyond. Averaging 5.6 yards per punt return is simply unacceptable, and something has to be done to change that.

Was firing Murphy the step that needed to be taken? Well, why don't we let the numbers speak for themselves and find out.

Coach Rogers (7 games)
Punt Returns 9
Yards 176
Average 19.6 yds
Touchdowns 0
Fair Catches 13
Downed 2
Touchbacks 3
Out of Bounds 5
Kickoff Returns 17
Yards 371
Average 21.8 yds
Touchdowns 0
Touchbacks 11
Out of Bounds 1

Now, before we get started, let's get one thing out of the way. The punt return average is greatly skewed by Armanti Edwards' 69 yard return against New Orleans. The 19.6 average yards per return is no way close to the production that the punt return unit had under Rogers. In fact, if you remove the 69 yarder from the equation, the average yards per return drops to 13.4 yards. Now, I'm not trying to discard what Edwards did (so please put your pitchforks away). I'm just pointing out that that one return made the unit as a whole look better than they actually were.

What exactly do all these numbers tell us? They tell us that a) the Panthers desperately need help in the return game on all fronts, and b) the coaching change mid-season didn't really have an effect on the production from the ST unit. When Rivera announced that Murphy had been fired, a lot of Panthers fans posited that it was just a case of reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, and based on the numbers it appears that thought is correct.

Going into 2013 the Panthers need to figure out a way to improve in the return game, whether it be better players, better schemes, better coaching, or better luck; something has to be done or we're going to be stuck watching a group produce similar results to the ones they did in 2012, which wouldn't be a good thing at all.

I'm not sure that retaining Rogers was the right thing to do, especially when it's rumored that highly regarded ST Coordinator Dave Toub wanted to come to Carolina. Based on the fact that Toub wasn't offered anything more than a one year contract, it appears that the Panthers MO for 2013 is to retain continuity from 2012. Unfortunately, they're retaining continuity from a ST unit that was mostly crap, and unless a lot of things drastically change during the offseason workouts we're probably going to see the exact same crap next season.

But hey, at least we'll have continuity, right? And, you never know - Rivera might replace Rogers with whoever is brought in to assist him next year, and we can have this conversation all over again next February.

I'm sure you're all like me and can't wait for that.

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