If you weren’t paying close attention this season, you might have thought the Carolina Panthers’ quick exit from the playoffs was merely further proof that they weren’t as good as their record indicated. Discussion about the “legitimacy” of the Panthers started very early in the season, and continued until the moment they were bounced from the playoffs.
But the truth is that the Panthers were among the best teams in the NFL this season, putting forth strong performances on both offense and defense. They ultimately failed to translate those strengths into a Super Bowl appearance, but did so respectably at the hands of the similarly strong San Francisco 49ers.
So what made the Panthers tick this season, helping bring about their rise to prominence and return to anonymity? Let’s use numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) data (which you can learn more about here) to find out.
The Carolina Panthers had a very strong defense in 2013. Strong enough to rank third in the NFL in Adjusted (for strength of schedule) NEP per play. The Bengals and Seahawks were the only teams to finish higher.
And it was neither the rushing defense or passing defense which stood out for the Panthers, as both Adjusted Rushing and Passing NEP per play totals finished fourth in the league.
That means it wasn’t just the strong play of second-year linebacker Luke Kuechly that made the Panther defense work, but the contributions of a variety of lesser known players who were able to combine to form one of the best defensive units in 2013.
The offense wasn’t bad, either, finishing 10th in Adjusted NEP per play. For reference, the 49ers (who would bounce the Panthers from the playoffs) finished 12th in that same metric. The fifth-ranked running game would be the key to this strong ranking for Carolina.
Mike Tolbert finished 11th among rushers with at least 100 carries with a Rushing NEP per play total of .03. That doesn’t sound like a big number, but for a running back, the job is to grind out a positive play as frequently as possible, so it’s impressive that a short-yardage back like Tolbert was able to make such a big impact and rank so highly in this metric.
Cam Newton also chipped in to help the running game, as he finished with the highest Rushing NEP score among quarterbacks, and the second most on a per play basis (among quarterbacks who ran 40 times or more) behind only Andrew Luck.
But unfortunately, it’s Cam and the passing game which will help us transition to the negative part of this review.
The Carolina passing game ranked 15th in the NFL using Adjusted NEP per play, and that’s mainly due to Cam Newton’s mediocre season as a passer and his lack of weapons to produce big plays.
Newton ended the season 16th among quarterbacks with 200 or more drop backs in Passing NEP per play, and finished 21st in Success Rate (which is a ratio of how often a player earns positive NEP for a play versus his total amount of plays). For some added perspective, Kellen Clemens finished ahead of Newton in Success Rate, while Ryan Fitzpatrick finished ahead of him in both categories.
But is the real problem Newton’s passing, or his lack of weapons?
Newton had none of his receivers finish in the top 40 among pass catchers with at least 40 receptions. When ranked by Reception NEP per target, the highest ranked Panther is Steve Smith, who comes in at 42nd. Greg Olsen, his dependable tight end, is 64th among that qualified group of pass catchers.
The Success Rate for Olsen and receiver Brandon Lafell did barely crack the top 40, but Smith’s Success Rate was 55th in the league.
These numbers tell us that Olsen and Lafell were more consistent, but less productive on the average target, while Smith was a bit more boom or bust. The numbers also tell us that none of Cam Newton’s targets were among the 32 best at their positions, meaning Newton lacked a true number one option in the passing game this season.
What Should They Do?
The defense seems to have what it needs to compete in the future, so this offseason should be spent doing as much work on the offense as possible.
Carolina needs to add a true number one receiver who can command the ball and win against defensive backs to provide Cam Newton with a reliable option on crucial passing downs. They could also use a true tailback, as DeAngelo Williams isn’t suited to carrying a team’s rushing attack.
This will all be a problem for the “salary cap hell” residents in Carolina, but the draft will have options at these positions, and some smart moves in free agency could land some surprising results.
But even if the team remains largely the same heading into 2014, they will still be in the mix for the NFC South and a playoff spot. A solid defense and an efficient offense will always keep a team in contention.