The season is over. For everyone not hoisting a Lombardi trophy the only thing left to do is take stock, reset and count the days until March when Free Agency begins. As we do that, now is a good time to take a last look at the season as a whole and appreciate what 2016 brought to Panthers nation. Let’s be honest, since the post-season was little more than a pipe dream by mid-October, there was a lot to be desired and a lot of what happened on the field was pretty bad but then again ... some of it was pretty good and some of it was legitimately inspiring. So let’s see how it all shook out with clearer eyes.
When Dave Gettleman took three corners in the 2016 draft, you knew there was something going on in the Carolina backfield. Josh Norman had left sure, but wasn’t he a role player? Didn’t that amount to little more than an open roster spot looking for quick DB with a little bravado and a little more team spirit? As it turns out no. What it did was expose a secondary that was already depleted after losing Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan to retirement. It also proved that the role Norman played was one part cheerleader and another part talented position player. What Josh took to Washington with him was the fire of a impassioned player in the vein of Steve Smith and most of the veteran presence the Panthers had at that position. While James Bradberry who inherited the controversial player’s number and Daryl Worley proved they have the potential to become solid additions to the team and Zack Sanchez made his case for another season, the rookies took too many games to adjust to such a huge rule to be any help to the 2016 campaign. It’s not all bad news, we suffered the growing pains but it looks like biting the bullet may have brought stability to the position for a long time.
Ron Rivera said recently that it’s likely Kawann Short is going to be the recipient of this year’s franchise tag (the same designation that was rescinded from Norman last season). Part of this inability to secure a long term deal with the big man, you have to assume, comes from the fact that it took KK a lot longer to reach the backfield this year than it did in years past. This wasn’t limited to one interior rusher though. In 2015 the Panthers racked up 44 sacks on their way to a record setting season with Short registering 11. In 2016 that number actually went up to 47. Short’s numbers dropped to six on the season, while Mario Addison made the splash with 9.5 and Superbowl standout Kony Ealy brought home five. These aren’t terrible numbers, but the timing was inconsistent as was the pass rush. High sack games were paired with high scoring efforts by opposing teams and unexpected comebacks when there should have been shutouts. In short, the defense brought a lot to the table but it’s hard to pin down where exactly the production was coming from.
The biggest difference maker in the Carolina game plan besides Newton’s inability to deliver a ball to a receiver that didn’t immediately drop it faster than the Browns playoff hopes, was the interception ratio, especially when it comes to touchdowns scored. Last season in prime time America watched the Panthers embarrass Tony Romo with a Coleman INT for a TD and back to back Luke Kuechly interceptions, one for a TD in route to a 33-14 victory. In blue footed pajamas no less. In 2015 the Panthers scored 19 total interceptions for 4 touchdowns. More importantly opponents only managed 10 INTs for no touchdowns. Contrasted with 2016 where the defense brought in 17 interceptions for 1 TD and opponents scored a staggering 24 with 4 of those coming all the way back. That kind of shift is what turns games won by two or three scores, into games lost by 3-7 points.
Football is a team game. Nowhere is that more evident than the O-line of the Carolina Panthers and the drastic shift in performance that came when stability up front was challenged. Carolina lost Michael Oher and Ryan Kalil for much of the season. Along with a host of other injuries during the rotation of players that resembled shuffling cards in a short handed deck. Newton had his number one target back in Kelvin Benjamin and less time than ever to make the right decision. The result was a lot of telegraphed throws to a receiver who showed a serious lack of effort around mid season. The regression was pronounced, pushing the league MVP to just over a 50% completion rate and more time on his back than a Serta Mattress quality assurance tester. Big plays took a nose dive from 95 to 75 with BP% dropping from 8.9 to 7.13, numbers that were only as high as they were because of Ted Ginn’s ability to expose a secondary with other worldly speed. Another result was the longest drive in Carolina history, 20 plays, over ten minutes of game time and zero points. Nada. Despite ending in a very makeable punt.
What happens when you put a talented running back behind an elite O-line (or at the least a competent one) ask DeMarco Murray in 2014 or Ezekiel Elliott in 2016. You get record breaking numbers and an unstoppable offense. To that point, just one season ago Jonathan Stewart looked like a Hall of Fame quality RB, tearing up defenses for huge chunks of yardage. He looked rejuvenated, motivated and very tough to bring down. Stewart rushed for 989 yards, with a 4.1 yard per attempt average and six TDs despite Cam Newton being the go to goal line option with 636 yards of his own and ten TDs on the year. This year he regressed but not as far as he could have with the state of affairs. In 2016 Stewart rushed for 826 yards, a 3.8 average and nine TDs. While it was bad, it could have been worse. Newtons numbers dropped to a more manageable 359 yards and 5 TDs. Mostly on the heels of a controversial and potentially season altering (or ending) opening game in Denver. With the addition of a solid number two RB, a healthy O-line and the offseason to get everyone checked for concussions, the running game at least looks to be a strong point going forward.
In short, the season was bad but there were bright spots and there’s a lot to look forward to from here. The majority of Carolina’s issues came in the loss of key players like Luke Kuechly and Michael Oher early in the season and the inability for rookies to fill too many gaps on a depleted roster. Linemen out of position, a gun shy quarterback and a receiver corps with lead hands does not make for a convincing threat anywhere outside of the NFCS. All of these shortcomings are fixable, whether or not management will find a way to do so and bring the team back to its former glory is yet to be seen. Now on to Free Agency!