Carolina Panthers 2014 Season Review: A Big Turnaround at the End

The Panthers were 3-8-1 heading in to Week 14 of the 2014 regular season. What led to their surprising turnaround and sustained success?

By all accounts, the 2014 Carolina Panthers had an odd season. After beginning the season 3-2, the Panthers tied the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 6 and then proceeded to lose six straight games and were sitting at 3-8-1 with 4.3% playoff odds heading into Week 14.

Then, by the grace of the second worst division in football, the Panthers won four straight games to finish the season 7-8-1. Carolina beat all three of their NFC South foes en route to the fourth seed and a home playoff game, in which they beat the Ryan Lindley-led Arizona Cardinals before meeting their demise on the road in the Divisional Round against Seattle.

The Panthers season wasn’t just odd because of the unexpected turnaround, either. Quarterback Cam Newton was dealing with ankle and rib injuries and seemingly wasn’t healthy for most of the season. It wasn’t just on-field injuries that slowed Newton down, though. Due to a frightening car accident which resulted in a back injury, he missed the Panthers Week 15 game against the hapless Buccaneers.

In a season during which things looked bleak when it mattered most, Carolina wound up hosting a playoff game and sustaining some success and overcoming incredibly low playoff odds. So, what went right for the Panthers in 2014? Where do they need to improve?

What Went Right in Carolina?

Starting with the aforementioned Cam Newton, he was less than spectacular in the passing game in 2014 and finished 26th out of 39 signal callers with at least 150 drop backs in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back. With his slightly substandard passing in 2014, why is he a big part of what went right for the Panthers offense? Once again, his rushing ability helped Carolina succeed in 2014.

Despite a litany of injuries, Newton finished second only to Russell Wilson among all quarterbacks in Rushing NEP this past season and averaged five yards per carry again in 2014, something he has done every season in his career. While his Passing NEP numbers aren’t great, Newton made up for some of his passing mishaps on the ground.

When Cam Newton was throwing, he had two big receiving targets to throw in tight end Greg Olsen and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

After a hot start and cooling off, production-wise, in the last two weeks of the season, Greg Olsen was a big part of what went well in Carolina in 2014. He finished third in Reception NEP and fourth in Target NEP among all tight ends, and his 1,008 receiving yards was second to only Rob Gronkowski.

Rookie wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, was a bit of a roller-coaster throughout the season but ultimately was a positive for the Panthers in 2014. Benjamin finished 15th in Reception NEP, one spot behind fellow rookie, Mike Evans. Kelvin Benjamin provided a much-needed big receiving threat for Cam Newton, catching nine touchdown passes and posting 1,008 receiving yards on team-leading 145 targets. Benjamin’s contribution, while at times inconsistent, is something that Carolina desperately needed with veteran wide receiver Steve Smith’s departure.

Outside of Cam Newton and pass-catchers, Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers offense lacked explosiveness and was pretty average overall according to our advanced metrics, which we will get to in the section below. Unlike the offense, Carolina’s defense wound up being one of the toughest units in the NFL in 2014 after a really rough start and, frankly, terrible stretch in the middle of the season.

After Week 13, the Panthers defense ranked 21st in Adjusted Defensive NEP but finished 10th overall and cracked the top-10 in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, finishing up ninth. The unit also forced .143 turnovers per drive, the eighth-best best mark in the league last season.

Carolina’s defense played great over the last month of the season and was a major part of the reason the team went to the playoffs in 2014, but the Panthers still have room to improve on in the offseason.

Where The Panthers Need To Improve

Remember when I said our advanced metrics weren’t too high on the Panthers offense as a whole? Well, the Panthers offensive attack finished 19th overall in Adjusted NEP. The team didn’t fare too well in play-call specific metrics either, finishing 18th and 25th in Adjusted Passing NEP and Adjusted Rushing NEP, respectively.

Starting with the Panthers poor rushing attack thanks in large part to a poor offensive line, DeAngelo Williams finished 62nd out of 67 running backs in Rushing NEP per attempt. However, DeAngelo Williams’ counterpart, Jonathan Stewart, fared much better behind Carolina’s offensive line, posting 4.9 yards per carry and finished 40th in Rushing NEP per attempt.

It’s incredibly hard to call Stewart an overall negative because he finished the year strong with three 100-plus-yard rushing performances in his last six games including the playoffs. Maybe if Stewart could have been healthy for the majority of the season and Carolina didn’t have to rely on the terribly inefficient DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers rushing attack would have been much better.

Speaking of terribly inefficient offensive players, beyond Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers receiving core was pretty desolate in 2014. General manager David Gettleman may have found a solid contributor in undrafted free agent Philly Brown, but outside of Benjamin and Brown, Carolina’s receiving core wasn’t anything special. Below is the 2014 Panthers receiving core’s relative Reception NEP per target rankings among the 115 wide receivers with 25 or more targets on the season.

NameRec. NEP/Target Rank
Philly Brown34th of 115
Kelvin Benjamin54th
Jerricho Cotchery82nd
Jason Avant91st

Even with Kelvin Benjamin’s ups and downs, the Panthers really lack impactful wide receivers. Carolina desperately needs a speed wide receiver and a solid slot option because they certainly have the size in the 6-foot-5 studs, Benjamin and Greg Olsen.

Can Carolina Improve in 2015?

As it stands now, the Panthers have a solid overall roster, but there are still some big holes that need to be filled.

Cam Newton is likely set to sign a massive contract extension after the 2015 season, and the Panthers have to find a more stable offensive line. The unit improved down the stretch, but graded last in pass blocking among all NFL teams according to Pro Football Focus. Carolina desperately needs a new left tackle, and they are likely to get one with Byron Bell becoming a free agent.

Of course, the Panthers have aforementioned wide receiver woes and could really afford to add a solid option through free agency. Another big spot of need this offseason is going to be defensive end, with Greg Hardy’s impending departure. The Panthers are going to need to find a pass rusher to play opposite of Charles Johnson and possibly rotate with second year-man, Kony Ealy.

With Cam Newton at the helm and a solid defense, the Panthers are likely going to compete in the NFC South again if general manager David Gettleman continues to draft well and uses their $11.8 million in cap space wisely with some key additions.