Carolina Panthers 2015 Year in Review: What's Next for the NFC Champs?

The Carolina Panthers fell just short in the Super Bowl, but gained defensive stars and a league MVP on the way. What will their offseason look like?

The 2015 season for the Carolina Panthers was a memorable one. Coming off a 7-8-1 season that claimed an NFC South title and a playoff win, there wasn't much buzz surrounding the Panthers entering the season. Expectations dipped even lower when Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the year before the season even started with a torn ACL.

Even as the Panthers started winning during the regular season, they were mostly written off since the Atlanta Falcons started 5-0 along with them in the same division. Carolina eventually broke out, claimed the top seed in the NFC, and represented the conference in the Super Bowl.

And, of course, Cam Newton was named the NFL MVP.

The Panthers ended as one of the most well-rounded teams in the league per our Net Expected Points metric. For those new to numberFire, NEP measures how many points a player adds for his team based on expectation, which stems from historical data. Carolina finished the regular season ranked seventh in schedule-adjusted NEP per play on offense, and second on defense. 

Let’s take a look on what happened with the Panthers during the 2015 season and how they got so close to coming out on top.

What Went Right

The Panthers vastly overachieved, made the Super Bowl and the quarterback won the league MVP award. That’s quite a few things to break right in a season. 

That’s the quick breakdown of what went right -- of course, the reasoning is much deeper than that.

Carolina benefitted much of the season from not playing a tough schedule. Only three opponents on the Panthers’ regular season schedule made the playoffs -- Seattle, Washington and Green Bay. Yes, the Panthers defeated all three of those teams, but the relatively weak schedule was a reason why many did not believe the Panthers were as good as a 15-1 record indicated. Remember that this squad, at 10-0, was an underdog on the road in Vegas to the 3-7 Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

There was reason to be skeptical of this Panthers team, and while our nERD metric had them as one of the better teams in the league, the Panthers never topped the rankings during the regular season. It wasn’t until Week 10 that Carolina broke into the top five, and Week 13 was the first time the Panthers peaked at number-two overall. Once the playoffs began, though, Carolina shot to number-one overall.

It’s one thing to have an easy schedule laid out, but it’s another to actually win the games -- just look at the Falcons' second half. In doing that, just about everything broke right for the Panthers. A makeshift offensive line that featured Michael Oher at left tackle stood strong in both pass and run blocking, an underwhelming group of receivers made just enough big plays to live with drops and other general ineffectiveness, and the defense was among the league’s best units.

We can start with the receivers, a group led by Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn doubled his previous career high in touchdowns with 10, and was targeted over 90 times for just the second time in his nine-year career. That last time he was used in this capacity was his sophomore season with the Miami Dolphins in 2008, which had been Ginn’s best year as a wide receiver. 2015 was a vast improvement versus that season.

Year Receptions Reception NEP Targets RNEP/Target
2008 56 59.25 93 0.64
2015 44 77.39 97 0.80

Ginn, however, wasn't the most targeted player on the team. That was tight end Greg Olsen, who was one of nine tight ends in the NFL to see over 100 targets. Ginn, though, was actually more efficient on a per target basis, with Olsen tallying 0.75 Reception NEP per target. Neither were the most efficient on the team, as 33-year-old Jerricho Cotchery, who saw 54 targets mostly as the team's possession receiver, led within the metric. Among 122 receivers with at least 30 targets in 2015, Cotchery ranked ninth at 0.90.

On the ground, the Panthers were one of the best teams in the league, ranking fifth in Adjusted NEP per play. Much of that was due to the complexity of the run scheme, Jonathan Stewart handling a full work load, and the ability of Newton to run on his own. Newton essentially served as the team’s number-two running back, rushing 119 times and leading all players in Rushing NEP.

There was also the defense, which carried the team through the first part of the season. Newton didn’t really hit his stride until the second half of the year, and the ability of the defense is what kept them in many of the early games. The Panthers finished the regular season second in Adjusted NEP per play on defense behind only the Broncos. They also found a star cornerback in Josh Norman, who evolved into one of the league’s best players.

What Went Wrong

This is going to be a much shorter section, and it basically comes down to many things mentioned in the previous section turning south in the biggest game of the year. The Panthers made it to the Super Bowl after definitive wins against the Seahawks and Cardinals in the playoffs, and entered as nearly a touchdown favorite over the Broncos.

While Carolina held up well defensively against Denver’s offense, there was not much accomplished by the offense against Denver’s top-ranked defense. Denver’s trio of cornerbacks were able to cover Carolina’s receivers, the run game was never able to get going -- including a questionable game planning aversion to using Newton on the ground -- and the offensive line was broken by the pass rush of the Broncos.

There’s two sides of having the worst game of the season in the Super Bowl. On one end, hey, the team got to the Super Bowl, which means it was a hell of a season up to that point and quite an accomplishment to get there. The other side has the worst loss of the year coming in the last game of the year, which allows for a lot of time for that loss to sit before another game of football is played. There’s no “on to the next week” after such a loss.

What’s Next?

Aside from a few key contributors -- Thomas Davis, half of the secondary brought in mid-year -- the Panthers are a relatively young team. There are no guarantees Carolina will continue to be one of the best teams in the league year in and year out, but it should be a safe bet they can be competitive for the foreseeable future.

General manager David Gettleman has spent most of his tenure in Carolina cleaning out the cap mess left from previous GM Marty Hurney. Last year, Gettleman said the Panthers would not have to shop in the bargain bin for free agents, though there were little major moves made. This offseason, the Panthers may be in a little better situation. Per Spotrac, Carolina has an estimated $16.6 million in cap space, and that’s before roster decisions on players like Charles Johnson and Jared Allen are made (releasing those two players would save another $17.5 million). That would leave the Panthers without much of their pass rush, but would create a bigger opportunity for Super Bowl standout Kony Ealy.

The main order of the offseason will be re-signing or franchising Norman, who is set to be a free agent. Carolina will also be getting Kelvin Benjamin back from his torn ACL, which could also be seen as an addition to the current roster that excelled in 2015. The Panthers have the 30th pick in the draft to go along with what could be an ample amount of cap space heading into the offseason.

However the Panthers choose to spend the offseason, be it building up an already dominant defense or putting more weapons around a start quarterback, it would not be surprising to see the team follow up with another run towards the top in 2016.