Why You Need to Take the Carolina Panthers Seriously

The Panthers might not seem like contenders, but a look at the numbers reveals a balanced, efficient team ready to make some noise in the NFC.

In October of 2012, Cam Newton told the assembled media at a press conference that he would bring in a suggestion box to get input on how his team could have dominant performances and 35-point games.

I doubt the box is still open for suggestions, as the 2013 Panthers are currently 5-3 after a four-game winning streak (which included a 35-point game). But there are likely still those who doubt that wins over the Falcons, Bucs, Rams, Vikings and Giants are signs of a "good" football team.

So here's a bit of information to drop into the suggestion box of the average NFL fan or media member:

The Panthers are really good.

Here are numberFire, we use NEP data to look at teams and players from a statistical perspective. NEP, or Net Expected Points, are a measurement of how the actions on the field impact the expected amount of points a team will score. You can get a longer explanation by clicking here.

Taking a look behind those numbers for the Panthers, we find that they're not just beating up on bad teams. They're a legitimately good football team that can contend for a playoff spot in the NFC.

The Most Balanced Offense in the NFL

No, that's not hyperbole. The Carolina Panthers have the most well-balanced offense in the NFL, and they run it with great success.

Through Week 9, the Panthers have run 261 passing plays and 260 rushing plays. No other team has a difference between rushing plays and passing plays that's less than 20, and most teams throw the ball at least fifty percent more than they run it.

In fact, all of the top-eight offenses in Adjusted NEP per play (which measures how many expected points per play are added and lost versus a league average team, and is adjusted for strength of schedule) throw the ball at least 20 percent more than they run.

The ninth-best team under this metric is Carolina and their balanced offense. And a balanced offense isn't typically favored by NEP data, because running plays are often unsuccessful at gaining expected points. So how do the Panthers overcome that obstacle?

One very big reason: Cam Newton.

The numbers behind Newton's rushing this season are absolutely mind-boggling. Among all players who have carried the ball at least 40 times this year, no player has contributed more expected points per play than the Carolina quarterback.

And it's not based solely on breaking big runs, as Newton has been consistently successful as a runner. His success rate (which determines the percentage of runs that result in a gain of NEP) on runs this year sits at 70.2 percent, which is more than any other player with at least 40 carries.

That means Newton has been running at the right times and picking up much needed yardage on the majority his scrambles and designed runs.

He's also been very successful through the air, as he has the best passing NEP per play of any of the mobile quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers is the only quarterback with a higher PNEP per play than Newton with more than 15 rushing attempts this year.

So Newton has been extremely efficient in running and passing the football, and that's been a key factor in the team's overall success. But he hasn't done it without help.

Mike Tolbert ranks seventh among running backs with 50 or more carries in rushing NEP per play, and that finds him just behind LeSean McCoy and ahead of such names as Eddie Lacy, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, and Adrian Peterson.

And among pass catchers with at least 30 receptions, Greg Olsen is ahead of Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Victor Cruz in terms of receiving NEP per play. He also has the 12th-best success rate of NFL pass catchers using the same criteria, as over 90 percent of his receptions are considered successful from an NEP standpoint.

Clearly volume plays a big role here, but the fact of the matter is that the Panthers have been incredibly efficient on offense this season.

Dominating Defense

Anyone who has watched the NFL at all this season realizes that the Kansas City Chiefs have the best defense in the league, and numberFire's analytics agree with that sentiment. But the margin between Kansas City and the next best defense isn't quite as big as you'd think, and that next best defense is the Carolina Panthers.

Using the same NEP data and looking at it from a defensive standpoint, the Panthers have an Adjusted Defensive NEP per play of -0.07. That doesn't sound like a lot, but consider that the Chiefs are -.10, and this is the number of points taken away from an offense on each play. (Negative numbers are a good thing here, because defenses want to subtract expected points from the opposing offense.)

The Panthers also have incredible balance on the defensive side of the ball, as they're one of only four teams to have a negative net impact on NEP against both the run and pass.

That can be largely attributed to their incredibly talented front seven, with rookie Star Lotulelei holding down the middle while edge rushers Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson track down opposing quarterbacks. And the prodigy at middle linebacker, Luke Kuelchy, continues to track down runs and throws with the greatest of ease.

They are one of only nine defenses with at least 20 sacks and 10 interceptions, and have allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the league so far this season. There are countless other honors to bestow upon this defense, but suffice it to say they're among the best in the NFL, and they're doing more than enough to set up their offense with a chance to win.

The Road Ahead

The Panthers have rattled off four impressive victories in a row, and a Week 5 loss in Arizona to the Cardinals is the only true "head scratcher" on their schedule so far. But the road before them is full of difficult tests, including two games against NFC South leading New Orleans, along with games against San Francisco and New England.

Don't count them out or doubt their ability to win those games though.

According to numberFire's data, even when adjusted for their seemingly lackluster schedule so far, the Panthers are one of the best teams in the NFL. That means they can go toe-to-toe with the Saints, Patriots and 49ers and expect to compete and win.

And after watching this team multiple times this season, all of these numbers make perfect sense. Cam Newton is running a smart, efficient offense. The defense is swarming and opportunistic. The coaching staff is putting its players in the right positions to succeed.

So the suggestion I have for you is to not sleep on the Panthers. They're more than legitimate contenders for the NFC South title this season.