clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How did the Panthers’ promising season turn into this mess?

New, comments

The Panthers have lost five straight. Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz takes a look at what’s gone wrong for Cam Newton and Co.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers have been in the NFL since 1995. They’ve been to two Super Bowls, losing both. They’ve additionally been to another NFC Championship game. They’ve won six division titles, one in the NFC West and five in the NFC South. They’ve been to the playoffs a total of eight times. The one thing they haven’t done in their franchise history is have back-to-back winning seasons.

It’s one of my favorite, and most unbelievable, stats in the NFL. The Panthers were on track to break that streak this season when they started 6-2, but now they sit at 6-7 with five straight losses — and next up is a Monday Night Football game against the New Orleans Saints, their first of two matchups against the NFC South champs. Needlessly to say, things aren’t going well right now.

Let’s explore their first eight games. Five of their wins came at home, while they went 1-2 on the road. Their best victory was a home win against the Ravens. They dominated that game from start to finish. But the Panthers needed a 63-yard field goal to beat the Giants. They were also down 17-0 in the fourth quarter to the Eagles and came back to win the game.

The Panthers’ new-look offense under Norv Turner was making defenses look silly at times and Cam Newton was playing efficiently. I had stated this was the best Cam Newton had looked in his career. It was. Their offense was averaging 27.5 points per game and limiting turnovers. They only had seven in the first eight games. Their offensive line, missing both tackles, only allowed 12 sacks, just a tad more than one a game.

On the flip side, their defense had forced 15 turnovers and 21 quarterback sacks. The Panthers were doing enough to win games and playing complementary football — mostly at home.

Most of the Panthers’ woes during their five-game losing streak have happened on the road

They’ve lost four out of their last five away from home, which turned their road record to 1-6. Nothing has seemed to go well during the losing streak and I can point to all the issues. First and foremost, they aren’t doing what helped them win in the first eight games.

They have only forced three turnovers while giving the ball up nine times during this five-game span. They have allowed 13 sacks and only gotten to the quarterback nine times. Their red zone efficiency has been less than ideal. Their opponents are converting 70 percent of the time while their offense is sitting at just over 50 percent.

That’s not going to win you many games. So what is forcing these issues?

It starts with the Cam Newton’s shoulder

His shoulder hasn’t been the same since the loss in Pittsburgh, the first in this five-game losing streak. Newton has had issues pushing the down the field, something he had previously excelled at during his career. We can see these issues clearly with his yards per completion.

This season, Newton is sitting at 10.7, down almost two yards from his career average. His on-target percent for passes attempted at 10+ yards has dropped five percent over this time, but where we see the biggest difference is pass attempts over 15+ yards. In the first eight games, he was on target for 65 percent of those passes. The past five weeks, it’s only been 50 percent. That’s a big drop off.

When you can’t push the ball down the field, you can’t convert on third downs often or hit big chunk plays. The Panthers are only converting on 38 percent of their third-down attempts during this losing streak.

So why don’t the Panthers just run the football? Well, they are trying, but teams know they can load the box because Newton isn’t throwing the ball well. Also, being behind has limited their run-first offense. In their first eight games, they rushed more than 30 times in five of those games. In the five-game losing streak, they’ve only come close to 30 once, when they ran 27 times.

The Panthers offensive line, which lost both tackles in the preseason and had filled those roles admirably since then, have come back to earth just a bit. And that “just a bit” has been felt by Newton. Their run game hasn’t suffered as much but when you’re passing more often, that will stress the OL.

The Carolina defense hasn’t done its job

We know football is a team game and the Panthers have a defensive-minded head coach in Ron Rivera. We’d assume their defense would lead the way, as it has many years in a row. Not this season. The defense hasn’t been up to par.

The Panthers’ pass defense enters Week 15 just 29th in passing defense DVOA. A poor secondary can be overcome by a pass rush, but the Panthers’ has gone dead during the five-game skid. Overall, they are 22nd in adjusted sack rate. This has led to a big increase in completion percentage against the Panthers, going from 65 to 71 percent.

In turn, the Panthers’ third-down conversion defense has been just awful. The first eight games they only allowed their opponents to convert on 36 percent of their attempts. In the last five, it’s 47.5 percent. Yikes. Lastly, their defense is 26th in points per drive.

One positive: Their rushing defense has improved over the last five weeks, dropping their yards per attempt by almost half a yard.

So what’s the solution for this mess?

There’s no simple solution for the offense. Their offense already runs a variety of screens, reverses, and zone reads. I’m not a fan of having Cam Newton run the ball more often, but it might be time to let his legs do some work and not his shoulder.

You have to put the game on the offensive line and run the football more often. Even if you’re behind, running the football has been successful this season. It also limits the amount of time the opposing offenses can have the ball.

On defense, they need to bring pressure more often to get into the quarterback’s face. Bringing pressure is generally not what the Panthers have done often under Rivera, but it’s time to make a slight change to their approach. If they continue to just rush the passer with their front four, they aren’t getting home, especially against the Saints offensive line. Clearly they need to force turnovers and try to disguise coverages. Pressure also leads to mistakes by the quarterback.

Monday night is a must-win for the Panthers. They’re still alive in the playoff race, even though they’re on the outside looking in. A win would put them just a half-game back of the final wild card spot in the NFC.

They have played well at home this season and even in most of their losses, the games have been close. I think we see a renewed Panthers team and the game is closer than most expect against the Saints.