NFL Offseason Review: Carolina Panthers
With the 2016/17 NFL season behind us and free agency well under way, fans of professional football have been forced to turn their attention to other sports in order to fill their fan quota. Many fans are finding, as they do every NFL offseason, that nothing quite fills the void like the NFL.
For fans of those teams that had an incredible season in 2016/17, this unfortunate offseason situation makes them inclined to dwell on the season that was, watching highlights and remembering fondly just how well their team performed over the course of the year.
For other teams, reflecting back on last year’s season is more of a nightmare than a dream, and they instead prefer to focus in on the offseason and how their team can improve for next year, hoping desperately to forget about the tragedy that was the 2016/17 NFL season.
The Carolina Panthers are one team that fall more into the latter category than the former.
After climbing the mountain in 2015/16 and making it all the way to Super Bowl 50, the Carolina Panthers suffered not only a heart-wrenching loss to the AFC representative, the Denver Broncos, but they also somehow managed to end up with a Super Bowl hangover, despite losing the game. Instead of repeating their success as hoped and coming back to compete once again for a Super Bowl, the team ended up falling short of the playoffs altogether in 2016/17.
The Panthers made history with this unfortunate fall from grace: They are the only team in NFL history to go 15–1 in one season, and follow that season up by missing the playoffs the following year.
Undoubtedly going in the record books for something so ignominious makes Panthers fans all the more likely to want to forget about last season, and to look forward with greater anticipation to next season, hoping to see the team reverse its fortunes and return to the winning ways of the 2015/16 season.
But for Carolina fans and for fans of the NFL generally, it’s nonetheless important to take a good look at what happened in Carolina over the course of last season. Not only can we learn just what went wrong, but we also stand to gain the opportunity to forecast whether or not the Panthers will be able to return to form next season and compete at a high level, so that the league can know whether there will be a challenger coming out of Carolina next season.
In this edition of our Offseason Review series, we head on down south of the Mason-Dixon Line to the Tar Heel State, stopping off in Charlotte, North Carolina to take on the Carolina Panthers.
Last Season: In Review
To provide a bit of context on the Carolina Panthers organization, it’s important to first remember that the franchise is still very young, comparatively speaking. Having first joined the league as an expansion team in 1995, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Panthers are tied for being the third-youngest team in the league, with only 22 seasons to their name.
However, the amount of postseason success the team has enjoyed during this stretch belies their youth, with the team having made seven appearances in the postseason over the course of its 22 seasons, including an appearance in the NFC Championship game during the franchise’s second season in existence.
Considering the fact that, by comparison, it took the Arizona Cardinals over four decades after the start of the Super Bowl era to compete for a conference championship, hitting that mark on only the second attempt is nothing to sneeze at.
This early success came under the leadership of defensive mastermind Dom Capers, who was the head coach of the franchise for its first four seasons.
Subsequently, there have been two major eras in Carolina Panthers history: The John Fox/Jake Delhomme/Julius Peppers era, which started off with a bang in 2003/04 with a Super Bowl appearance against the New England Patriots that ended up in a 3-point loss, and subsequently the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton/Luke Kuechly era, which nearly came to fruition in 2015/16 in Super Bowl 50 against the Broncos.
After the departure of John Fox following the Panthers’ 2–14 season in 2010, the subsequent drafting by then-general manager Marty Hurney went on to turn around the franchise in short order. Quarterback Cam Newton, drafted in 2011, was voted the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Linebacker Luke Kuechly, drafted in 2012, was voted the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The following year would begin a stretch of three consecutive seasons in which the Panthers would win the NFC South and make it to the playoffs, making it to the first round in 2013/14, the second round in 2014/15, and the Super Bowl in 2015/16. It seemed as though all signs were pointing in the right direction for Carolina.
It was with the hopeful anticipation that the team would be able to return to the Super Bowl in 2016/17 and finally get over the hump that the fan base went into the season, expecting to once again dominate the NFL as it had a year earlier.
Before even mentioning the disastrous beginning portion of the Panthers’ 2016/17 season, it’s important to first talk about what happened before the season even began.
The most significant movement occurring in the offseason that preceded the 2016/17 season (in addition to the retirement of defensive end Jared Allen) was the departure of the Carolina Panthers’ two star corners, Josh Norman, who had been drafted in 2012 by former Panthers’ general manager Marty Hurney, and Charles “Peanut” Tillman, who had been signed on a one-year contract by new GM Dave Gettleman after 12 seasons with the Chicago Bears.
Peanut Tillman’s departure from the team, while sad, was not dramatic at all – he simply retired, releasing a humorous video featuring his patented “Peanut Punch” to accompany the news. At age 35, after 13 seasons in the NFL, it was simply time for Peanut to hang up his cleats.
However, the departure of Josh Norman was not so simple, and very dramatic.
Having been drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, after four productive seasons for the Panthers Norman’s rookie contract was up, placing him in the unfavorable situation of needing to negotiate for a new contract with a general manager (Dave Gettleman) that was not even with the team when the decision to draft Norman had been made.
When negotiations between Gettleman and Norman’s agent started to seem increasingly unlikely to end in a new contract that was mutually satisfactory for both parties involved, the Panthers’ GM designated Norman under the franchise tag before the beginning of free agency, ostensibly to buy himself more time and to keep Norman from hitting the free agency market.
However, in a stunning move, Gettleman then rescinded the franchise tag, essentially cutting all ties to Norman and sending him out the door as a free agent. Apparently, the star cornerback was so surprised when he heard the news that he reportedly pulled his car over to the side of the road while driving and immediately started making phone calls to make sure there wasn’t some mistake.
But there was no mistake: The Panthers’ GM had allowed the Panthers’ two best corners to get away, and to compensate had done little more than sign a practice squad corner in free agency who would later be released and, seemingly in a panic, draft three cornerbacks back-to-back-to-back in the 2016 NFL Draft, in the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th rounds.
Given this context about just how light the Carolina Panthers were on the back end of the defense, it came as little surprise to observant fans when the team started off the season 1–5.
The team had averaged only 323 yards allowed per game the prior season, (ranking them at 6th-best in the league), and in the opening three games they averaged only 273 yards, making fans think that it was a return to form.
Despite going 1–2 to open the year, fans had hope that the team had what it takes to bounce back, especially considering that the Panthers had managed to end these three games at +6 in point differential despite being down -2 in turnover differential. In addition, their season opener against the Denver Broncos – the Super Bowl rematch of the prior year – had been lost in the final seconds with a missed 50-yard field goal, which easily could have gone the other way.
Fans believed that if they could simply tighten things up on offense and lock things down on defense, they could easily turn it around.
However, over the subsequent three games leading into the bye week, things truly fell apart.
The Panthers played each of their three division opponents back-to-back-to-back, with two of those games (against the Falcons in Week 4 and the Saints in Week 6) being played on the road. Each of these three games would end in a loss, and there’s nothing quite so demoralizing as being soundly beaten by each team in your division.
The Carolina defense was torched in both road games, especially, giving up over 520 yards and over 40 points to both Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. The team created only two takeaways in these three games, while turning the ball over eight times. It was becoming abundantly clear that while the loss of the team’s two star cornerbacks was not the only reason for the Panthers’ disastrous start to the season, it was certainly one of the most important reasons.
After such an astonishingly bad start to the season, Ron Rivera told his team heading into their Week 7 bye week to simply “get away from” football, and to take both a mental and a physical rest from the game after such a disheartening and disappointing six-game start.
The Panthers came back from the bye week looking to address the primary deficiencies that the team had demonstrated over the first six games of the season: the allowance of big plays on the defensive side of the ball, and slow starts on offense.
In a true demonstration of mental toughness, the team was able to bounce back from their difficult start and played a complete game against the Arizona Cardinals, starting off the first quarter with a 14–0 lead and ending the game with a 30–20 victory – a dominant performance.
After allowing an average of 470 yards per game in the prior three contests, the Panthers gave up only 340 yards in this Week 8 rematch of the prior year’s NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals. And the success would continue in the subsequent three weeks, in which the Panthers won two out of three games and averaged only 23.3 points allowed and 326.5 yards per game.
In each of these four games, the Panthers managed to score first, addressing their difficulty in starting fast in the beginning portion of the year, and in the opening three games of this four-game stretch the team managed to go into halftime with the lead.
In addition, it’s important to note that the Panthers did not point fingers at each other during this stretch, another indication of mental toughness. Instead of developing an “us against us” mentality, as so many teams do when facing adversity, the Panthers managed to assume an “us against them” posture, in part because players started to rally behind the cause of Cam Newton’s safety in the backfield.
To provide some context, Cam Newton had been sacked 15 times in the opening six games of the season. He was sacked 8 times in the Week 3 game against the Minnesota Vikings alone, and left the subsequent game against Atlanta with a concussion that would hold him out of the Week 5 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Ultimately, Newton would end the season with one out of every 15 dropbacks resulting in a sack.
Feeling persecuted by the officiating, Newton finally voiced his frustrations in his postgame press conference following the Week 9 game against the Arizona Cardinals. The reigning NFL MVP would end up having a phone call with commissioner Roger Goodell concerning whether or not the multi-threat quarterback was receiving equal treatment from league officials when compared to other quarterbacks.
While Newton received some criticism from former players, media personnel, and other sources around the league, the important thing for the Carolina Panthers was that while the issue was minor and not season-defining by any means, it did contribute in a small way to the Panthers maintaining their team unity during the middlemost four games of the season, and it likely helped the team keep from pointing the finger of blame at each other.
The Panthers would win three of their four games coming out of the bye week, and entered into the remaining six games of the season with a record of 4–6 and an outside chance to make the playoffs. If the team was going to make it back to the big dance and have any chance of competing for a Super Bowl for the second consecutive year, they were going to have to go on a run.
The Panthers found themselves fighting for their season in Week 12. Coming off of a mini-bye week after their Thursday Night Football game against the New Orleans Saints, the team was still without defensive leader Luke Kuechly, who had been carted off the field in the game against the Saints after suffering a concussion.
While Kuechly’s reaction to the concussion was certainly alarming for Carolina fans to watch, given the amount of emotion he demonstrated upon realizing that he would almost certainly need to spend time away from the game he loves so much, his being held out of the rest of the season – while important to the team’s fates – was more precautionary than anything.
The team’s first game without Kuechly came against the Oakland Raiders, in which – despite taking an 8-point lead early in the 4th quarter after an explosive 18-point comeback in the 3rd – the Panthers would end up giving up the game late in the 4th quarter after a Cam Newton turnover. The Carolina defense gave up two consecutive 70+ yard drives that brought them down to a record of 4–7 with five games to play.
What was likely the lowest point of the season for Panthers fans came in the subsequent game, on the road against the Seattle Seahawks. On Sunday Night Football in front of a national TV audience, the Panthers laid a goose egg, giving up 40 points and 534 yards in a performance that was reminiscent of the earlier 40-point, 500-yard defensive meltdowns against Atlanta and New Orleans before the bye week.
Despite the fact that the team only ended up at -1 in turnover ratio against the Seahawks, they were quite simply dominated in every facet of the game, managing less than half the number of first downs that the Seahawks produced. Quite simply, the team was demoralized.
While the Panthers did manage to bounce back in the subsequent two games, beating the San Diego Chargers 28–16 at home and the Washington Redskins 26–15 on the road on Monday Night Football, their playoff chances nonetheless continued to diminish, as the team was getting no help from their division rivals. The Falcons and Buccaneers both also continued to win, and so the margin was getting slim for Carolina.
The team’s last shot to keep their playoff hopes alive came in Week 16 against the eventual Super Bowl runner-up Atlanta Falcons, at home on Christmas Eve. After Atlanta scored three times in the first quarter to put the Falcons up 13–0, the game was as good as iced, as Atlanta would never relinquish the lead. The Panthers would go on to lose the game by 17 and were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
In a meaningless game against the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following week, the Panthers would lose once again, with Cam Newton throwing three interceptions and the team failing to convert a two-point conversion attempt that would have given them the lead with only 17 seconds remaining in the game.
With the loss, the Panthers ended the season at 6–10, becoming the first team to ever miss the playoffs after having gone 15–1 the prior season.
After having climbed the mountain in 2015/16, the Panthers had officially fallen from grace.
Carolina’s Strengths and Weaknesses
When we looked back over the Carolina Panthers’ season, and the storylines therein, we found one particularly easy candidate for why the team managed to give up over 520 yards of offense – the departure of star cornerbacks Peanut Tillman and Josh Norman, and the inadequate job done by general manager Dave Gettleman to fill this positional hole.
However, it’s important not to jump to conclusions about why a team’s season turned out the way that it did. The only accurate way to get a complete picture of why the Panthers played so much worse in 2016/17 than it had in 2015/16 is to take an in-depth look at each unit of the team, relying on hard statistics and external evaluations to determine where the team’s areas of strength were and where it needs to improve.
This holistic understanding of the team’s strengths and weaknesses will then give us the ability to forecast what type of roster movement is required in order for the Panthers to improve going into next season.
Last season, the Carolina Panthers’ offense was ranked in the middle of the road in terms of total points scored, with 369 over the course of the season (23.1 per game). Their production in terms of yards lagged slightly behind this, with the team putting up 5499 yards on the season (343.7 per game), good for 19th in the league.
This production wouldn’t be so bad except for the context of the prior season: In 2015/16, the Panthers were first in the league in points scored, with 500 points over the course of the season (31.3 per game), and 11th in the league in yards, with 5871 on the season (366.9 per game).
One thing that remained consistent over this two-year span was the Panthers’ predilection for running the ball, as a disproportionate amount of the offensive production came in the run game compared to the passing game. The Panthers were ranked 7th in rushing attempts and 20th in passing attempts, and correspondingly their production in terms of yards (10th in rushing; 21st in passing) and touchdowns (10th in rushing; 19th in passing) was higher for rush than for pass.
Interestingly, however, the team’s efficiency did not change despite this greater commitment. The Panthers were ranked 20th in both net yards per passing attempt as well as average yards per rushing attempt. Similarly, with 19 interceptions (ranked 28th in the league) and 10 fumbles lost (23rd in the league), the Panthers’ offense was similarly inefficient on both sides of the ball.
Considering the fact that the Panthers led the league in both points and in turnover differential the prior season, this dramatic decrease in performance demands an explanation.
The first place we would look for an explanation, considering the fact that the team seemed to perform considerably worse in the fundamentals (i.e. in turnovers) would be turnover in the coaching staff, leading to a decrease in discipline. However, the organization’s front office and coaching staff underwent no significant changes of any sort between the 2015/16 season and the 2016/17 season.
One potential candidate is the drop-off in play from quarterback Cam Newton, who went from having a career year and earning league MVP honors to returning back to the mark he had set throughout the rest of his career. While this is still a high mark, earning him rankings among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league, the decline in Newton’s decision-making ability as well as the increase in turnover-worthy throws was noticeable in 2016/17 compared to the prior season.
And it’s unlikely that this had very much to do with the composition of the running back group, which while certainly unspectacular (ranked dead center in the middle of the league), nonetheless had only one game missed due to injury out of the 96 combined games for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson as well as wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr., and Corey Brown. Greg Olsen, especially, was a model of consistency, and led the team in targets, receptions, and yards.
A similar story is seen from the running back group for Carolina, in which despite the fact that the unit was ranked only in the middle of the league throughout the season, their performance was simply not quite as inspired as the year before. With Mike Tolbert at 31 years old and Jonathan Stewart at 29 and hampered by injuries throughout the year, the running game simply felt a little stale. It’s also important to note that dual threat quarterback Cam Newton rushed for nearly 300 fewer yards in 2016/17 than he had in 2015/16, perhaps in part due to his concerns about safety.
However, while the quarterback, receiving corps, and running back groups all took a slight step back, it remains puzzling why the team would have taken such a dramatic step back in offensive production.
That is, until one looks at the offensive line unit, which ended the year ranked 17th in the league by the stat gurus at Pro Football Focus despite starting out ranked at #6. A big reason for this was the loss of star left tackle Michael Oher, of “Blind Side” fame, who missed the last five games of the season in the concussion protocol. His replacement, Mike Remmers, was significantly worse, and the team simply failed to cope with the loss of Oher.
In summary, the offensive line for the Carolina Panthers certainly did take a step back in 2016/17 compared to 2015/16, due primarily to the loss of star left tackle Michael Oher.
The fact remains that the Carolina Panthers startling decrease in offensive production was the full responsibility of each player on the unit, who almost unilaterally performed worse in the year following their Super Bowl run.
While the Carolina Panthers’ offense saw a considerable drop-off in production from 2015/16 to 2016/17, falling from the #1 spot in points scored to the #15 spot, the Panthers’ defensive production dropped off even more precipitously, falling from the 6th-fewest points allowed during their Super Bowl season to the 8th-most points allowed during the following season.
Specifically, the Panthers gave up 402 points over the course of the season, which averages out to 25.1 points per game. The team also gave up 5756 yards over the course of the season, (359.8 per game), which ranked out at the 12th-most in the league.
Generally, when we see a team that gives up fewer points, on average, than it does yards (the Panthers gave up the 8th-most points but only the 12th-most yards), this reflects a large number of offensive turnovers; when an opposing offense receives the ball on a short field, they are able to convert shorter drives into points.
And indeed, as we mentioned above, only five teams in the league turned the ball over more than the Panthers last season, explaining why the team managed to give up more points than yards last year.
The reason for the Panthers’ steep decline in defensive production over the course of last season was certainly not due to the production of the front seven, which was ranked in the top five in the league throughout the entire year. Kawann Short ended the season ranked third-highest among interior defensive linemen, and defensive end Mario Addison also had an incredibly productive season, with 9 and a half sacks, 22 tackles, two forced fumbles, and a safety in only 433 snaps.
So if the front seven is not to blame for the Panthers’ defensive woes, then we truly are left with only the secondary, which was ranked in the bottom five in the league all of last season. No Carolina Panthers’ secondary player cracked the top ten in any category last season, and the team’s top cover corner was a rookie, indicating just how young the unit was in the absence of Peanut Tillman and Josh Norman.
The Panthers simply had no depth of any kind in the secondary.
Leonard Johnson, Robert McClain, and Michael Griffin combined for 25 missed tackles over the course of the season, an indication of just how little fundamentally sound football there was to be found in the depths of the Panthers’ secondary.
And while this may be painful for Panthers fans to hear, it’s important to note for reference that Josh Norman, who played last season as a part of a Washington Redskins’ secondary unit that was also ranked among the bottom five in the league, was the highest-ranked secondary player on that unit, taking top honors in coverage, run defense, and overall, as well as playing the most snaps of any player in the Redskins secondary.
While Norman was not rated appreciably higher than the top-rated cornerback on the Panthers, rookie James Bradberry, the former Carolina Panthers 5th-round draft pick intercepted or broke up the highest percentage of balls thrown his way of any cornerback in the league, a statistic that Bradberry certainly did not match.
In sum, the Panthers’ defense took an enormous step backward in 2016/17, and it seems apparent from looking at the rankings and statistics that the brunt of the responsibility lies almost exclusively with the secondary unit. We wouldn’t go so far as to say that Peanut Tillman and Josh Norman were irreplaceable, but it seems clear that Carolina didn’t find replacements for them last season.
Next Season: A Preview
When we looked back at the arc of the Panthers’ season in 2016/17, we saw just how far the team had fallen from grace compared to the prior season, with several different soul-crushing stretches of football occurring over the course of the season.
Subsequently, when we looked at the team unit by unit, we saw that, really, each unit on the team declined significantly, except for the defensive front seven, which played stalwart football all season. The offensive line was hampered by injuries, but the real wrecking ball that destroyed the Panthers’ postseason dreams was the play of the secondary, which went from a top-10 unit with Josh Norman and Peanut Tillman on the roster to a bottom-10 unit without them.
This may be one reason why the Panthers’ Super Bowl odds, listed at the Bovada sportsbook, are currently in limbo, sitting directly in the middle of the pack.
With the New England Patriots currently receiving the lowest odds at +400, the rest of the field leveling out at +1000 with perennial offseason gambling favorites such as the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, and the highest competitive odds sitting at +6600 with teams such as the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints, the Panthers sit squarely in the middle, with odds of +3300.
This could be because the gambling public has yet to see anything from the Panthers the offseason that would indicate that the issues described above, which accounted for their decline in 2016/17, have been adequately addressed. It could also be because the gambling public has all but forgotten about the Panthers, and that they are flying under the radar in the middle of the pack.
Either way, let’s take a look at the roster moves that the Panthers have already made this offseason and the roster moves that they will need to make throughout the rest of free agency and in the draft in order to address their needs and get some love from the odds-makers.
Before we forecast what moves the Panthers will be making throughout the rest of the offseason, it’s important that we first briefly review the team’s front office composition and their general offseason philosophy, in order to have a frame of reference.
When we look at teams that make it to the Super Bowl, in the vast majority of cases we see that the front office team and coaching staff of that franchise has been rock solid for at least a period of several years. It generally takes a team at least three years to draft, acquire, and develop a core group of players that can enact a winning philosophy and sustain a high level of success for a full 19- or 20-game season.
The Panthers, who made it to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, bend this rule ever so slightly.
In 2013, after drafting Luke Keuchly with the Panthers’ first-round draft pick and Josh Norman with their 5th-round draft pick, general manager Marty Hurney – who had been managing the team for over a decade and had been responsible for the drafting of Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, Cam Newton, and other core players on the Panthers’ roster over the years – was fired after the Panthers went 1–5 to start the season.
Subsequently, after a lengthy search process, the Panthers hired Dave Gettleman to be the new general manager, a front office mainstay in the New York Giants organization for over a decade who had never before performed the role of general manager for an NFL team.
To make a long story short, there is an argument to be made – and an argument that many Carolina Panthers fans do make – that the core of the Super Bowl runner up roster of 2015/16 had been drafted and developed by Marty Hurney, and that the subsequent fall from grace during the following year was primarily due to the mismanagement of Dave Gettleman.
The jury is still out on Gettleman, who has certainly demonstrated his ability as a personnel evaluator in his time as Panthers GM through the drafting of players such as Kawann Short, Kelvin Benjamin, and others.
At the same time, though, the way that Gettleman handled the Josh Norman situation, the subsequent decision (which many fans believed to be panicked and reactionary) to draft three cornerbacks – two of which did not even pan out – while neglecting to use the draft to shore up the offensive line, and generally failing to do enough to maintain the championship-caliber core of the roster have all given fans reason to doubt Gettleman’s ability as a general manager.
In this context, the Panthers and Dave Gettleman entered into the current offseason with an average amount of cap space – roughly $34 million, good for the 15th-most in the league. The team also had an estimated 8 draft picks: five at the team’s original #8 pick (in rounds 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6), a 2nd-round draft pick from the Patriots, a 7th-round draft pick from the Colts, as well as a compensatory selection in the 3rd round for the departure of Josh Norman.
However, despite having only an average amount of cap space available, the Panthers simultaneously were well above league average in the amount of players they had on their roster who were set to become free agents at the beginning of the league year. The team had a full 24 players set to hit the open market, 16 of which had played more than 100 snaps for the Panthers in 2016/17 and 8 of which had played more than 400 snaps.
In this context, as of the time of this writing the Carolina Panthers have made the following roster moves, in addition to the customary practice squad maintenance that all teams undergo soon after the season ends.
Before the beginning of the league year, the Panthers made several moves. First, they brought back departed offensive guard Amini Silatolu, whom the team had originally drafted in 2012.
After having a solid rookie campaign, Silatolu would go on to tear both his right ACL and his left ACL in non-consecutive seasons, all during the duration of his 4-year rookie contract. After this rookie contract expired, Silatolu was released by the Panthers and was subsequently signed by the Chicago Bears, though he failed to make their 53-man roster in the end.
It’s likely that the Panthers signed Silatolu primarily to provide depth in the offensive line group, as he is a player who is already intimately familiar with the Panthers system.
Subsequently, the Panthers cut defensive tackle Paul Soliai, who had been signed to a one-year contract the year before to provide depth in the defensive line rotation, helping to compensate for the retirement of Jared Allen. The team also cut halfback Mike Tolbert, who at 31 had become expendable, playing only 322 snaps for the Panthers in 2016/17. Tolbert subsequently signed with the Buffalo Bills.
Following these moves, the Panthers re-signed several of their pending free agents in the two weeks leading up to the start of the league year. These re-signings included defensive end Mario Addison, defensive end Wes Horton, rising superstar defensive tackle Kawann Short (who was given the franchise tag), punter Michael Palardy, offensive guard Tyler Larsen, defensive end Charles Johnson, safety Colin Jones, wide receiver Brenton Bersin, and running back Fozzy Whitaker.
With these re-signings, the Panthers addressed roughly half of their outstanding pending free agents, enabling the front office to head into the new league year and the opening portion of free agency on more level ground, having a clearer sense of who would be staying and who would be going, and which positional groups were in greater need of being addressed through free agent acquisition.
Subsequently, the Panthers leapt into free agency and made a few key transactions in the opening 48 hours of the new league year.
First, Dave Gettleman started to address the issues on the offensive line by signing Vikings free agent offensive tackle Matt Kalil, a serviceable veteran to add depth to the unit. Continuing with the offense, wide receivers Charles Johnson (from the Vikings) and Russell Shepard (from the Buccaneers) were signed.
Next, Gettleman went after the defense, signing 36-year old safety Mike Adams from the Colts and 29-year old cornerback Captain Munnerlyn from the Vikings in order to add some veteran experience to the very young secondary unit. Additionally, in a fan-favorite move, the ageless wonder Julius Peppers was signed, marking his return home to the team that had drafted him after a 7-year hiatus with NFC North teams the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers.
After this initial push in free agency, the following weeks leading up to the time of this writing saw the Panthers make only three additional moves: The team re-signed offensive guard Chris Scott, defensive tackle Kyle Love, and cornerback Teddy Williams.
It’s also important to note, though, that during this same period the Panthers also lost a half-dozen players in free agency. Starting offensive tackle Mike Remmers signed with the Vikings, wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown signed with the Saints and the Bills, respectively, cornerback Leonard Johnson and already-released running back Mike Tolbert both also signed with the Bills, and the Saints also picked up linebacker A. J. Clein.
After all of these various moves, as of the time of this writing the Panthers sit with roughly $14 million remaining in cap space, and very little pressing needs remaining that cannot be adequately addressed in the draft.
With the departure of Mike Remmers and the additions of Matt Kalil and Amini Silatolu, the Panthers could feasibly feel comfortable with their situation on the offensive line, pending the re-signing of offensive guard Andrew Norwell.
In addition, the acquisition of Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Adams certainly goes a long way to shore up the secondary, and bringing in Russell Shepard and Charles Johnson (now the second player by that name on the Panthers roster) helps to offset the departure of Ted Ginn and Corey Brown.
In summary, we believe that thus far in the 2017 offseason, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has done a much better job of keeping together the defensive line unit that was so stellar last year than he did at keeping together the previous year’s secondary unit.
Gettleman has taken strides to address key areas of positional need in free agency, and he would do well to build additional depth in the draft at positions including running back, cornerback, offensive line, wide receiver, and defensive line.
In looking at the roster moves made by Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman and the rest of the Panthers’ front office thus far this offseason, we found that the team has made strides to improve their areas of need, including adding depth on the offensive line and experience in the defensive secondary.
It also can’t be overstated how important it is to bring back veteran pass rush specialist Julius Peppers, who is not only a fan favorite but is also well-positioned to provide a lot of leadership, experience, and guidance to the young core group of defensive line players, and to fill the void left by the retirement of Jared Allen last season.
In looking only at these roster moves that were made, we might be inclined to predict a slight improvement for the Panthers next season. However, there are several other factors that we must factor in before we make this overall determination of whether or not the team is slated to improve or to take another step back in 2017/18.
The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.
Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.
Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.
But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.
The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.
By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.
In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.
In the case of the 2016/17 Panthers, it’s first important to compare their performance against the previous year. The most damning statistic that Panthers fans had to face looking back on last season was the fact that they are the only team in league history ever to go 15–1 in one season and miss the playoffs the subsequent season.
However, with Pythagorean Expectation we see that the Panthers were not truly a 15–1 team in 2015/16. According to the Pythagorean Expectation formula, the Panthers over-performed more than any team in the entire league during their Super Bowl season, and should have won only 12 games according to their Pythagorean Expectation.
Subsequently, the following season, the good luck they had enjoyed in 2015/16 balanced out, and they under-performed by a game. Specifically, despite the fact that the team only won 6 games last season, according to their Pythagorean Expectation they should have won exactly 7.2 games, indicating an under-performance by roughly one game.
So in summary, while going from 15 wins to 6 wins is terrible, in reality, the Panthers played like a 12-win team in 2015/16 and then played like a 7-win team in 2016/17. Still a dramatic difference, but not quite so horrendous.
It makes sense, too, why the Panthers’ Pythagorean Expectation would vary from their actual win total. Astonishingly, Carolina managed to play in a whopping eight games last season that ended up being decided by 3 points or fewer. This statistical anomaly is made all the more amazing by the fact that they also managed to go 2–6 in these games, including losing two games by 1 point.
Undoubtedly, part of this is an inability to close out games or to win in the clutch, but part of it also comes down to just pure bad luck. And indeed, Panthers fans will remember multiple games that came down in the end to a missed field goal or some other miscue, often late in the game.
Pythagorean Expectation accounts for this statistical anomaly by redistributing the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed more evenly throughout the 16 games: In this case, if you take just 16 of the 19 points that the Panthers beat the 49ers by and redistribute them throughout some of their other close losses, the team would just as easily have ended up at 10–6 as 6–10.
And it’s crucially important to put this under-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the Panthers will play next season, and that is the strength of the schedule that Carolina played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.
According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the Panthers played the 6th-most difficult schedule in the entire league in 2016/17, after having played the 4th-easiest schedule during their Super Bowl season.
This dramatic change in strength of schedule certainly helps to explain another part of the team’s dramatic change from 15 wins to 6 wins (or from 12 to 7, according to Pythagorean Expectation). And it also makes sense: The better a team performs and the higher they rank in their division, the more difficult schedule they are assigned the following year. So it’s no surprise that after making it to the Super Bowl in 2015/16 the team would have gotten a more difficult slate of opponents the following year.
But how does this help us predict the Panthers’ performance next season?
Luckily, despite the fact that the week-by-week NFL schedule is generally not released until the middle of April, a team’s slate of opponents is determined by a simple mathematical rotation, that one can piece together immediately following the conclusion of the Super Bowl.
Every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.
For the Panthers, this means the following:
- 3 home games against the Falcons, the Saints, and the Buccaneers
- 3 road games against the Falcons, the Saints, and the Buccaneers
- 4 games against the NFC North: the Packers (home), the Vikings (home), the Lions (away), and the Bears (away)
- 4 games against the AFC East: the Bills (home), the Dolphins (home), the Jets (away), and the Patriots (away)
- 2 games against other NFC last-place teams: the Eagles (home) and the 49ers (away)
When we look at this slate of opponents simply utilizing the eye test, it appears to be a mixed bag. With Carolina playing the AFC East and the Falcons being a member of the Panthers’ division, Carolina gets the questionable distinction of getting to play both of the Super Bowl contenders in their home stadiums – and in the case of the Falcons, this will be the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
However, at the same time, the AFC East is a relatively weak division outside of the Patriots, and finishing fourth in the division last season has the silver lining of yielding easier games against other last-place finishers.
But in order to determine how difficult this slate of opponents really is beyond the eye test, we can consider each of the Panthers’ opponents for next season based on their performance last season. This will give us a proxy of how well we think these opponents will do in 2017/18, as well as how favorably this aggregated performance compares to the opponents of other teams.
When we subject the Panthers’ opponents to this kind of statistical analysis, we see that the Panthers are set to face the 11th-easiest slate in the entire league based on the total number of wins that these opposing teams compiled last season. If you look at these teams’ combined point differential, the rank only increases slightly, to the 14th-easiest slate of opponents.
After playing the 6th-most difficult schedule last season, this should certainly be a welcome relief.
So in summary, having taken an in-depth look at the Carolina Panthers in terms of last season’s story, statistical strengths and weaknesses, roster movement, advanced statistical predictions, and strength of schedule, we are now in a position to make an accurate prediction for what we can expect to see out of the Panthers next season.
Given the fact that the Panthers played like a 7-win team last season despite winning only 6 games, we start next year’s team out at 7 wins for a baseline. Given that their schedule is slated to become significantly easier next season compared to last, we’re inclined to increase that win total by one game.
Looking then at the roster composition, we’re inclined to give the Panthers two additional wins: One to account for the fact that catastrophic injury situations rarely occur two seasons in a row, and thus the offensive line should be much improved next season simply by virtue of being healthier; and two to account for the fact that adding veteran experience to the secondary unit should help tremendously.
So while we’re not exactly predicting a return to the heights of a 15–1 regular season and a Super Bowl run, we are putting the Panthers back on the road to how that Super Bowl team performed in reality, and giving the franchise the opportunity to continue growing and developing in the Dave Gettleman era to try for another Super Bowl run before too much of the clock has run down on the Cam Newton era in Carolina.
Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Carolina Panthers: 10–6
Conclusion: The Story of the Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are a comparatively young franchise in the National Football League, having endured only 22 seasons and three major eras in the team’s history: Initial foundation and growth; the John Fox/Jake Delhomme/Julius Peppers era; and most recently the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton/Luke Kuechly era.
After reaching a true pinnacle in 2015/16 with an incredible 15–1 regular season that was studded with accolades and strewn with broken records, the Panthers fell in the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos, and subsequently saw key players leave in free agency including the team’s top two cornerbacks, Peanut Tillman and Josh Norman.
Along with worsened play from most all position groups on the team (except the defensive line) and injuries (especially on the offensive line), this dramatic change to the defensive secondary was primarily responsible for the team going from 15 wins to 6 wins in the span of a single season. The Panthers became the first team in the history of the league to miss the playoffs after winning 15 games.
Although he remains a bit of a polarizing figure for Panthers fans, general manager Dave Gettleman has adequately addressed a few key areas of positional need already in the offseason, including adding depth on the offensive line and bringing veteran experience to the secondary, and fans should feel good about their ability to shore up essentially all remaining needs through the draft.
Based on this roster improvement, and noting the fact that the Panthers’ played slightly better than a 6-win team last season and are also facing a much easier schedule next season than they did last year, we’re inclined to believe that the Panthers will win 10 games in 2017/18, making them competitive in the division and giving them the opportunity to compete in the postseason once more.
While it may be a while before the franchise sees another season as magical as the Super Bowl season in 2015/16, fans should take solace in the fact that it should also be a while before the franchise sees another season as disaster-stricken as the 6–10 nightmare they endured in 2016/17.