The Carolina Panthers have a defensive-minded head coach and lost their best wide receiver in training camp to a season-ending ACL injury. And yet, they scored more points than any other team in football this season.
The Panthers' offensive dominance continued in last week's Divisional Round win over the Seattle Seahawks, in which they put up 31 first half points. It was a quintessential Panthers performance: Newton made some impressive throws --including a touchdown pass to an outstretched Greg Olsen -- and the running game took care of the rest.
It seemed as if Carolina's was on the verge of breaking out after the 2013 campaign when it finished 12-4 and won the first of three consecutive NFC South division titles. But then Newton battled injuries throughout 2014, throwing 12 interceptions in 14 games while posting a pedestrian 82.1 quarterback rating.
Everything clicked this season. The Panthers led the NFL with 500 total points and finished 11th in yards. There are a number of reasons for this emergence, starting with Newton's ascension into superstardom.
Cam Newton's Excellence
Newton has always possessed a dynamic skill set, but the 2011 No. 1 overall pick struggled to put it all together on a consistent basis during his first four years in the NFL.
This year, Newton took home PFWA MVP honors after leading the Panthers to a 16-1 record (including the playoffs) and putting up a career-high 99.4 QB rating. He threw for 3,837 yards and rushed for 636 during the regular season, meaning he was responsible for 76 percent of the Panthers' offensive output. Newton is also the only quarterback to ever to throw for 35 touchdown passes and run for 10 TD's in the same season.
The trademark game of Newton's season came Dec. 20, when he became the first player in NFL history to post 340 passing yards, 100 rushing yards and throw for five touchdowns in the same game. At 26 years old, it may have simply been Newton's time to blossom into a superstar. But the continuity of the Panthers' coaching staff over the last five years has likely played a major role as well.
Maintaining the status quo
At the end of the 2012 season, the Panthers reportedly decided to fire Ron Rivera after just two years at the helm. Those stories wound up being false. Newton has largely worked with the same coaching staff throughout his entire career.
The only significant staffing change occurred after the 2012 season when offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was hired away as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Mike Shula was promoted to fill Chudzinski's role and has stayed in place ever since. According to Rivera, this consistency is a big reason for Carolina's three straight playoff berths.
"That has a lot to do with our success," Rivera said, via the Associated Press. "These guys have been together a while and it allowed them to have continuity to develop this offense and have it morph into fitting around the quarterback's skillset as opposed to forcing him into what you want to do."
Newton's familiarity with the coaching staff and vice versa has allowed the Panthers to fine-tune to their offense on a yearly basis instead of a make full-fledged overhauls. Late last season, for example, Shula switched to a mostly no-huddle offense to play to Newton's strengths.
Young quarterbacks are rarely afforded the opportunity to work with the same coaches every season. Just ask Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, both of whom will play under their second head coaches in two years in 2016. There's been stability in Carolina, and Newton has flourished as a result.
Creative Running Game
Despite all of Newton's strengths, he remains a fairly inaccurate passer (59.6 career completion percentage). So in absence of a surgical passing attack, the Panthers have implemented one of the most diverse running games in the league.
The center of the running attack is the 260-pound Newton, who can roll to the outside or barrel between the tackles like a fullback. This diversity is a big reason why Newton scored 10 rushing touchdowns this season.
But credit must also go to running back Jonathan Stewart, who led the team with 989 rushing yards. Big fullback Mike Tolbert chimed in with 256 yards on the ground, as well.
Because opposing defenses zero in on Newton at all times, Stewart has space to gain considerable chunks of yards once he gets into the open field. He was arguably the Panthers' offensive MVP against Seattle, rushing for 106 yards and two scores.
Spreading the ball around
With Kelvin Benjamin sidelined by a torn ACL this season, the Panthers had to spread out his lost production. Five receivers caught 30 or more passes during the regular season.
Tight end Greg Olsen leads the way with 83 receptions through last week's win over Seattle, making him Newton's most reliable option. The nine-year veteran has caught 161 balls over the last two regular seasons.
While Olsen has worked the middle of the field, a number of previously undecorated wideouts have stepped up to fill Benjamin's role on the outside. Jerricho Cotchery, Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess and Corey Brown have all contributed to varying degrees.
"Teams don’t sit there and just focus in on one guy, and I think that’s been the one thing," Rivera said last week, via the Seattle News Tribune. "Because if you go to our box scores, you’ll see Cam has hit five, six, seven, eight, nine different receivers sometimes."