I found the Panthers section very thorough in both its analysis of the 2012 season results and the preview of the coming season. I posted a story specific to the offensive analysis [link here] and have a defensive post planned later this week.
As I mentioned the writers at FO were kind enough to answer a few questions that I had so without further delay here we go. After each of their answers to my five questions is additional commentary I have on the answer they provided.
Question 1: You start by calling Carolina a dark horse Super Bowl contender but then appear to give more reasons why Carolina will fail in 2013 then succeed. In particular you say Carolina may have the talent to overcome Rivera's coaching blunders. Which specific Panther stats or areas of performance do you think the Panthers will excel at in 2013 to make them SB contenders?
Football Outsiders: For starters, let's establish that the Panthers were in all likelihood a better football team in 2012 than their 7-9 record would indicate. We ranked them tenth offensively and 11th defensively in the league. They didn't have a top-ten win total mainly because of a lousy record in close games, and poor special teams play (where we ranked them 29th). It's not likely that a team will go 3-7 in close games two years in a row, and it's not likely that they'll be a bottom-five team in placekicking, kickoffs, and punting either. The caveat here is that the Panthers actually have been lousy in close games twice in a row, going 3-6 in close games in 2011. As our Carolina essay explains, there's ample reason to believe that Ron Rivera is a bad enough coach to screw up any talent roster.
As much as I want to defend Rivera and his job performance they really lay out their case very well. Rivera hasn't been very good at in-game decisions no matter how rosy you try to paint it.
Question 2: Where did Star Lotulelei rank on your draft board and do you think the Panthers got value by selecting him at #14? What about Kawann Short at #43?
Football Outsiders: Before the draft, FO contributor Doug Farrar (then writing for Yahoo! Sports, now writing for Sports Illustrated) ranked Lotulelei the fourth prospect overall and the top defensive player available. Farrar compared Lotulelei to Warren Sapp, saying that while he lacked diverse pass rush moves, he was so physically dominant he made "bad things happen to enemy blockers," and calling him "a potentially franchise-defining defensive player." It's only the irregularity on his cardiogram that pushed Lotulelei out of the top five, and since then he has passed multiple physical examinations.
Lotulelei had questions about his literal heart, but Greg Cosell of NFL Films has questions about the figurative heart of Short. "He was a very frustrating player to watch," Cosell told Farrar in a predraft podcast. "I think he's a splash player with some desirable traits, but a glaring lack of consistent effort and execution. He teased. He has plus attributes, but he did not play to them consistently. I thought effort was a concern, and he did not play with a lot of competitive urgency."
So as you would expect Star was a great value at #14 and Short went about where he was projected. I asked the question about Star because it seemed a lot of pundits actually had Richardson and Floyd rated higher and I want to know who to trust with the evaluations for future drafts.
Question 3: Will the addition of DTs Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short be enough to fix the Panthers run defense?
Football Outsiders: Well, we talked a lot about what Lotulelei can do for the team. It's funny-Carolina's defense ranked 11th in our overall run defense rankings, but they didn't fare particularly well in any one aspect of stopping the run. They were below average in Adjusted Line Yards (a measure of consistency that caps all runs at 10 yards and rewards defenses for getting stuffs in the backfield), short-yardage runs, second-level yards (yards gained 5 to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and open-field yards (yards gained more than 10 yards downfield). They forced six fumbles on running plays, which was middle of the pack. It's not clear why there's a disconnect there, unless they were constantly getting opponents to run when they should have been passing or something weird like that.
Anyway, your question: It's not so much what Lotulelei and Short can do, it's what they can do next to Dwan Edwards, and in front of Luke Kuechly. One of our key defensive stats is simply Plays, which is the sum of everything a player can do to get on a stat sheet (tackle, sack, fumble recovery, tipped pass, interception, etc.). Edwards made 7.1 percent of Carolina's Plays, which was third among defensive tackles. Kuechly, meanwhile, made 20.4 percent of the team's Plays, which was first among all players in the league. We've got this number going back to the mid-90s, and the only other rookie to lead the league since then has been Patrick Willis with San Francisco. The Panthers already have a pair of stars on the defensive interior, and now they're adding another Star on top of that. (Expect 47,000 puns like that this season.) Short's presence is less critical, but it can only help the situation.
So in a word ‘Yes' and it should be a dramatic improvement in my view.
Question 4: The Panthers DVOA game to game was very erratic early in 2012 but then became a little more consistent down the stretch. Panthers fans tend to credit the switch away from the base read option offense. Your stats do not seem to support that theory but instead say the opposite. How would you explain it?
Football Outsiders: We're blaming that on Rivera too. For two seasons now, the Panthers have improved significantly after being eliminated from the playoffs. Whether he's putting too much pressure on them early in the year or failing to motivate them until they believe their jobs are on the line, it's up to the head coach to see that his team is at their best week in and week out.
I have no idea whether the early season failure is due to pressure or a lack thereof but obvious Rivera is in tune with the need for a fast start; hence the emphasis on focus and intensity from day 1 in training camp. Rivera is making sure every player knows the Panthers need to be at the top of their game from the opening snap.
Question 5: Your rushing stats show that the read option was very successful for Carolina but we hated it at times. How much should Carolina use the read option in 2013?
Football Outsiders: We've got Carolina down for 131 plays marked as some kind of option run. Only Washington (133) had more, and Seattle (64) was the only other team over 50. (If you're wondering about San Francisco, even after Colin Kaepernick took over at starter, the 49ers were still fourth behind Washington, Carolina, and Seattle.) They averaged 6.1 yards on option plays (a little bit better than average), and we counted 51 percent of those plays as successful (a little bit worse than average). What's crazy is how the option seemed to appear and disappear from the Carolina playbook. Here's the number of option runs they used in each of the first nine games of the year: 2, 22, 8, 20, 7, 11, 2, 10, 3. What on earth was the strategy there? (It's almost as if Rivera and his staff didn't know what they were doing. I am really, really upset I didn't notice that trend early enough to get it into the book.) After that, they seemed to settle down, calling five to 11 option plays every week. That's probably about how often they should use it in 2013. The NFL remains a passing league, and exposing your quarterback to injury, even a monster like Cam Newton, is still something that should be avoided.
I would be happy with the five to ten read option plays a game. I think that is enough to keep the defense honest while also taking advantage of Newton's natural talents.
So what are your thoughts on these answers Panther fans?