2013 FO Almanac Review: Panthers Offense

Ronald Martinez

Football Outsiders has released their annual almanac on the prior NFL season and they were kind enough to share it with me. This post takes a look at the analysis of the Panthers offense. Overall I found the information in the document to be well worth the $12.50 purchase price and I haven't even read anything on other teams.

Editor's Update: I mistakenly called the document the '2012' Almanac when it's actually the 2013 edition which reviews the 2012 season. Hence my confusion. Carry on...

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The section on the Panthers starts on a positive note for Panther fans:

Every year, there’s a surprise team in our projections, a dark horse that we expect will rise from a losing record to a Super Bowl contender. This year, that team is the Carolina Panthers.

The problem I have is the analysis that follows seems to suggest otherwise. Two paragraphs later they drop this bomb:

For all those positive signs, though, there is one big weakness that can’t be ignored, and for that reason we’re subjectively skeptical of our objective optimism. It’s not the lack of depth at receiver that has us worried, nor the shaky status of the secondary, though those are certainly viable concerns. In fact, it’s not a player that has us worried at all. It’s the head coach. Through two seasons, Ron Rivera has done little to show that he’s capable of managing an NFL team on Sundays, and that will likely be the reason Carolina comes up short again this year.

That hardly sounds like a SB contender to me. In fact the analysis they present sounds very much like the Homer v Hater piece we had a couple weeks ago. The basic premise is the same: Rivera is weak at making in-game decisions and getting his team ready to play when it still matters. The team can only win once the pressure is off and that if he was going to work through it he would have already done it before blowing 15 leads in two seasons.

Backing up this assertion is the Panthers DVOA for the first 11 games versus the last 5 games the past two seasons 'when the pressure of winning was off':

Season/Weeks Total DVOA Offense DVOA Defense DVOA
2011 Weeks 1-11 -16.4 10.4 17.8
2011 Weeks 12-17 17.4 31.9 12.5
2012 Weeks 1-11 -7.1 -5.2 -7.1
2012 Weeks 12-17 24.1 26.1 4.3

Outside of the defense regressing slightly in 2011 the stats backup the assertion. On the positive side FO thinks we have the talent to overcome Rivera's weaknesses, in particular improvement on the defensive side which was the Panthers primary weakness in 2012. So like I said though the piece starts with a big positive statement but I don't think they really meant it. My take is Rivera has faced a tough learning curve but I think he's cerebral enough to make better decisions going forward, which will be easier once he has a tougher defense up the middle.

Moving to the analysis of the offense, the Panthers have posted some impressive stats in 2011 and most of 2012. Those first few games were wildly inconsistent with the Panthers winning when they avoided the bad plays and turnovers. The big question mark is the switch in OCs from Rob Chudzinski to Mike Shula. Will the Panther offense remain just as dynamic?

FO points out the most obvious positive regarding the offense in 2013. Cam Newton returns:

As for the offense, casual fans and fantasy owners may be surprised to learn that Newton’s passing DVOA improved ever so slightly in his second season, from 0.8% to 2.0%. That’s really stagnation more than improvement, but it still defies the popular opinion that Newton suffered a sophomore slump, and it also suggests that Newton will follow the typical quarterback’s career path and take another step forward in his third year.

If Newton’s emotions did get the better of him on the field, it would show up in his numbers somewhere, wouldn’t it? His passing numbers in a variety of quote-unquote clutch situations paint a murky picture. We discussed his red-zone struggles earlier, and his passing DVOA on third downs was -9.2%, significantly lower than his overall average. However, in late and close situations (second half or overtime, score within a touchdown), his passing DVOA soared to 26.8%.

So Newton does appear to raise his game in clutch situations which is huge in my book. More stats from the almanac look at DVOA by personnel grouping. We have long suspected the Panthers play better from a 21 (32.3) personnel set versus the 11 (12.4) which they ran much more though both are good numbers. When in more of a power sets (12: -10.3; 22: -8) the Panthers performed poorly. I'm not sure our offensive line will be any better if at all this season.

At the other end of the spectrum the Panthers were terrible on 2nd down (-6.3) versus 1st (14.4) and 3rd down (13.6). Throw on top of that stats showing the the Panthers perform nicely in red zone performance (15.4) but not so much late in a game and the score is close (-5.6). That is influenced by some of those key mistakes made at the end of the Falcons, Cowboys, Bears and Seahawks games. So close yet so far.

Here's a couple last stat nuggets FO offers up about the offense:

Carolina used the pistol roughly twice per game, but they’ll likely use it more often in 2013. The Panthers averaged 9.0 yards per play from pistol with 67.7% DVOA. That breaks down to 12.7 yards per play on passes and 7.4 yards per play on runs (including option keepers for Cam Newton).

FYI, the pistol formation is Newton roughly four yards back with a RB directly behind him. When you dig into the DVOA by formation you find that rather than the read option hindering the offense the yards per play average is better than the more traditional sets.

One play we need to run 3 or 4 times a game:

The Panthers gained a league-leading 10.3 yards per pass on running back screens, with 63.9% DVOA (third).

I love RB screens and we have just the guys suited to run it in Williams, Tolbert and Stewart.

Overall I found the section on the Panthers very thorough and thought out. The analysis made sense and jived with my impressions of the 2012 season as it unfolded. Check back later as I take a look at the analysis of the defense and special teams.

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