The 2019 Carolina Panthers season was flat out terrible. There are a lot of reasons why this season went off the rails but one of the excuses we as Panthers fans shouldn’t accept is the blanket notion of “injuries.” Yes, Cam Newton’s individual injury had a major impact on this season’s stinkburger, but even without Cam the Panthers never should’ve been so uncompetitive. Here’s why injuries aren’t the reason for a highly frustrating and often embarrassing 5-11 campaign.
No backup plan for Cam
Yes, Cam Newton got hurt, but Marty Hurney and the front office should receive heavy criticism for entering 2019 with the backup plan at quarterback - the single most important position in football! - as undrafted and unproven Kyle Allen or third round rookie Will Grier. Let’s face it, an injury to Cam Newton should’ve been planned for after his recent shoulder surgeries (plural). Having the Allen-Grier combo as the contingency plan for a Cam Newton injury is as shortsighted as insuring a Ferrari with the cheapest policy you can find on the internet.
The lack of depth behind a surgically-repaired Cam Newton was, in my opinion (and with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight), a terrible mistake from the front office, but that one injury alone shouldn’t have doomed the season.
Good teams can remain competitive with backup quarterbacks. The Tennessee Titans made the postseason by going 7-3 after Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota. The New Orleans Saints went 5-0 behind Teddy Bridgewater. The Pittsburgh Steelers went 8-6 in 14 combined starts from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. The Carolina Panthers lost nine of their last 10 games.
Cam Newton’s injury didn’t sink the Panthers offense. The inability of the front office to plan for Cam’s injury did.
The season was over after Week 15
Injuries happen in football. It’s just a fact. By November there are virtually no healthy teams. Even then, the Panthers were generally healthy in 2019. After Week 15 the Panthers record stood at 5-9 and the season was already over. Ron Rivera had been fired and the team was ready to move on from Kyle Allen to Will Grier.
Let’s see just how healthy both the defensive and offensive units were through the Panthers first 14 games using data taken from this handy spreadsheet from Football Reference. Here are the number of games key players missed due to injury by the time the 5-9 Panthers threw in the towel after Week 15:
Key defensive players games missed, through Week 15
Secondary: Eric Reid (0), Tre Boston (0), James Bradberry (1), Ross Cockrell (2), Donte Jackson (3)
Linebackers: Luke Kuechly (0), Shaq Thompson (0)
Defensive line/EDGE: Gerald McCoy (0), Vernon Butler (0), Brian Burns (0), Kyle Love (0), Mario Addison (1), Dontari Poe (3), Bruce Irvin (3), Kawann Short (12)
Total key defensive players: 15
Players missing 0 or 1 games: 10
Players missing 4+ games: 1 (Kawann Short)
Overall the Panthers defense was very healthy, a fact that is sobering in light of their historically bad performance. The starting secondary and linebackers consist of seven key players who missed a total of just six games through Week 15. Outside of Kawann Short, the defensive line was generally healthy as well. Bruce Irvin missed the first three games of the season but rookie Brian Burns filled in admirably for Irvin and minimized the impact of his absence.
Kawann Short’s injury cannot be minimized. The 2018 Pro Bowler is the team’s second most important defensive player behind Luke Kuechly. That said, the one position where Carolina seemed to have decent depth was at interior defensive lineman with established veterans in Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Kyle Love plus a career year from Vernon Butler. Those four IDLs played a combined 53 of 56 games through Week 15 (Poe missed Weeks 13-15.)
Of the 15 most important defensive players, 10 of them played in every game through Week 15 or missed just one game. The only player to miss more than three games was Kawann. That’s a pretty healthy defensive unit. The historically bad 2019 Panthers defense cannot be blamed on injuries.
Key offensive players games missed, through Week 15
I’ve already addressed the injury to Cam Newton above so let’s shift now to Carolina’s skill players and the offensive line. Just as with the defense, the offense was very healthy through Week 15.
Skill Positions: Christian McCaffrey (0), DJ Moore (0), Curtis Samuel (0), Jarius Wright (0), Ian Thomas (0), Chris Manhertz (1), Greg Olsen (2)
Offensive line: Taylor Moton (0), Matt Paradis (0), Daryl Williams (0), Dennis Daley (1), Trai Turner (3), Greg Van Roten (3), Greg Little (9)
Total offensive players: 13
Players missing 0 or 1 games: 10
Players missing 4+ games: 1 (Greg Little)
The Panthers couldn’t have asked for better health from their skill positions. Through Week 15 Carolina’s seven most important skill players missed a total of three games due to injury.
The offensive line had three key starters who didn’t miss a game through Week 15 (Moton, Paradis, Williams) while both Turner and Van Roten missed three games. That doesn’t seem excessive. Yes, Greg Little’s injury meant the team had to rely way too much on Daryl Williams, but the success or failure of the offensive line cannot rest on the health and/or productivity of a second round rookie being thrown to the wolves at left tackle.
Remarkably, 10 of the Panthers 13 most important offensive players missed either zero games or one game through Week 15. The only player to miss more than three games was Greg Little. The 2019 Panthers had a very healthy offense, minus Cam Newton, of course.
A healthy and flawed team
In the end, as fans we need to overcome the inclination to just shrug our shoulders and blame the vague notion of “injuries” as one of the main reason the Panthers went 5-11. That wasn’t the reason. Remember, 20 of the Panthers 28 most important players missed zero games or one game through Week 15. Only Kawann Short and Greg Little missed more than three games. Yes, Cam got hurt, but the front office’s lack of a backup plan for the most important position in football was simply irresponsible.
Hopefully a new head coach in 2020 and a healthy Cam (fingers crossed) will go a long way in fixing things next year. But as we close the book on the 2019 season the Carolina Panthers were generally healthy, generally bad, and generally unprepared for a fairly predictable Cam Newton injury.
This wasn’t a good football team that got derailed by injuries.
In the end, this was just a bad football team.