It’s not that Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera used the word “evolve” incorrectly when describing in January what his offense was going to look like in 2017.
It’s just that we kind of overstated it.
That word, “evolve,” should imply efficient changes over time that create a huge, big-picture impact – like the fins on a fish turning ever so subtly into something that could walk on land, and, well, you know the rest.
“Our offense is what we run, it’s been what we’ve run for the last five, six years,” said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. “We don’t re-invent ourselves every year. There are always little wrinkles, little nuances that we address in the offseason.”
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When a team has had the continuity the Panthers have had, especially at quarterback and head coach, said Olsen, an “overhaul” like the one the outside perspective imagined the Panthers would implement is just not realistic.
“I don’t think you overhaul,” said Olsen. “I think a lot has been made of that this season. Any team that is not constantly moving forward to get better – whether that word is ‘evolve’ or whatever the word is, teams that get stuck doing just what they’ve done in the past, whether they’ve had success or not, are going to fall behind in this league.”
Sounds a little like what happened for Carolina from 2015 to 2016, during which a combination of predicability and injury led to a stagnant offense.
So, Rivera, then-general manager Dave Gettleman and the rest of the staff set about rectifying the backslide. What they did in free agency and the draft, for the offense, could probably be qualified more as “progressive tweaks” than a complete offensive evolution. It’s the same playbook, but based on personnel like rookie running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey, there is more magic written in the margins.
Veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn also admitted last week that this team has “a window” to get back to the Super Bowl, and perhaps win it.
The defensive moves made by Gettleman in free agency to extend key players like defensive tackle Kawann Short and defensive end Mario Addison, alongside the signing of Munnerlyn, veteran safety Mike Adams and veteran sack artist Julius Peppers, implied as much, and Munnerlyn put a voice to it.
So, subtle wrinkles on the offensive side makes sense. If there is indeed a window, a complete offensive overhaul would take too long to process for even the loftiest of NFL teams, and this particular Panthers roster thinks it is built to win in 2017.
Progressive tweaks are more suitable for efficiency, which in turn is more suitable for production.
Right now, in “the window.”
“There will be times when (offensive changes) will be very subtle,” head coach Ron Rivera said to the Observer and live on WFNZ on Tuesday morning. “And you have to pay attention. There will be times when it’s very obvious.”
Countering the trend of mobile, athletic, “floating” hybrid defensive players with players such as McCaffrey, brought in specifically to mismatch with linebackers, certainly qualifies as progressive. When linebackers, nickel backs and defensive backs commit to tracking McCaffrey, playmakers such as Olsen are given more space to, well, make plays.
“If you’re not constantly challenging yourself to get better, if you’re not challenging yourself as an individual and as an offense to progress, do things differently and keep defenses off balance, the defenses in this league are just too good,” said Olsen. “They’ll tee off on you pretty fast. You have to keep those guys on their heels.
“I think that’s just the natural evolution of offensive football in this league.”
Olsen believes he saw this put into action in Tuesday’s practice.
McCaffrey was lined up as an outside receiver, then motioned a few feet inward as the defense’s tone became urgent in calling checks to stay aware of his positioning. Olsen was lined up as a receiver just inside of McCaffrey, and as McCaffrey cut inside, Olsen cut outward.
A linebacker and a defensive back bit on McCaffrey, and by the time the latter realized his man was in the back corner of the end zone, the ball was cradled safely in Olsen’s arms for a touchdown.
The alignment was subtle. But it was clear in the voices and body language of the defenders that keying in on McCaffrey was crucial. The same will be true for second-round pick, receiver Curtis Samuel, once he is healthy.
“I think some of that stuff we did it today in the red zone with (McCaffrey) on the same side ... he’s a guy that is going to attract attention,” said Olsen.
“There’s not a lot of space. We can’t always throw the ball 100 yards. We’ve got to find some levels out there. And he catches a few of those balls out of the backfield, and those (linebackers and defensive backs) have to come up and tackle him, well, next time they’re going to play a little closer. ... That opens up things (downfield).”
Opens them up, and moves them forward.