Eyes can lie, DVOA can't. Defense adjusted Value Over Average is the closest thing we have to turning football into science. A near-infallible metric that compares all 32 teams against each other to form a matrix by which we can evaluate teams. The Football Outsiders believe the Panthers are one of the best teams in the NFL, but acknowledge that their failings could come from one angle DVOA can't anticipate -- coaching.
The Carolina Panthers are a strange team to project in 2013. This is a roster brimming with talent, but often feels like a rudderless ship. Cam Newton will be asked to step up and become a leader, as it seems inevitable he'll be made a captain later today, while Luke Kuechly will continue his development into one of the Panthers' most important players, and one of the league's best linebackers.
Talent can only take a team so far. There's no better way to make a mediocre team play well, and a talented team play poorly than install poor coaching around them. This is where the Panthers are poised to struggle.
"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."
Football Outsiders Almanac 2013
'Close but no cigar' is a near-universal projection for the 2013 Panthers. Take Rivera out of the equation and Football Outsiders think this is one of the most talented teams in the league, which is something fans should hold onto if this season blows up. It means there are things to work with and if Rivera is fired it foreshadows an organization ready to make strides with a new head coach.
Their +8.8 percent projection on offense slots the Panthers into the 9th spot, making them more potent than the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions or Houston Texans. There isn't much to disagree with here if the Panthers played to their strengths, but this is a big if.
Any DVOA projection can't account for the shift from Rob Chudzinski to Mike Shula. What made Chud's tenure so infuriating was how effective the Panthers could be when he wanted them to, but so often he was in love with his scheme more than winning -- as Steve Smith so poignantly said "auditioning" for new job.
I have a very hard time agreeing with a top-ten offense purely based on the offensive line and coaching. I think this will be a huge limiting factor for the Panthers in 2013.
At -6.0 percent Carolina is projected to have the 3rd best defense in the league. It's hard to argue with this projection. Some may claim it's a little high, but it has been a long time since fans around the league respected anything the Panthers did, but people are realizing how dangerous this defensive front is following high-profile preseason games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The Panthers will live and die by their defense in 2013. If nothing else it will be fun to watch. Add an elite cornerback and this becomes the most fearsome defense in the league -- that's how much faith I have in them.
This is one area I can't support the projection. Football Outsiders have the Panthers at +0.8 percent, 11th in the NFL. The addition of Ted Ginn was wise, and special teams are getting better by osmosis as depth improves -- but I can't in good conscious support a 20 spot rise over last year.
The kick return game will be markedly improved, but coverage is still an issue. This isn't the kind of thing that will break the Panthers in 2013, but 11th is too high.
Playoff/Super Bowl odds
For all the impressive stat projections the Panthers are pegged to have a tough road. Football Outsiders are giving them a 59.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, and a 5.1 percent chance of making the Super Bowl. This makes them the top team in the NFC South in both regards.
I have the utmost faith in the 53 players suiting up every week (well, except the offensive line) but coaching is poised to let them down again. This is one of those teams I'm convinced could be the league's most dangerous team in the playoffs, but getting there will be tough.