The Carolina Panthers started the 2017 season with such wild inconsistencies and on-field ticks of potential catastrophe that fans braced themselves for cardiac episodes each week.
But now, Carolina has morphed into a team that looks like it could be on the cusp of a deep postseason run.
Quarterback Cam Newton snapped us to attention against Green Bay with a cackling, confident “Watch this!” followed by a slick touchdown pass to rookie running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey, but it was a third-quarter touchdown that gave Carolina’s dramatic season yet a little more meat.
Newton and Greg Olsen ran an identical play to one they failed to complete against the Green Bay Packers in 2015, during their raucous Super Bowl run.
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Olsen got a free release out of the slot and beat the safety who was, for some reason, matched with him one-on-one. This time the play was a touchdown.
The score gave Carolina the lead and the Panthers never looked back.
It’s hard to imagine this team, getting hot at the perfect time, will look back again this year.
The Panthers started the season struggling to find offensive consistency and stalled week after week in the red zone. They hit rock bottom in a 17-3 loss in Week 7 against a terrible Chicago team that scored two defensive touchdowns and didn’t do a whole lot else.
But since that day, the Panthers have won six of their past seven games. Newton has thrown two interceptions in the past seven weeks, after throwing 10 in the first seven (including two against Chicago). Carolina improved its red zone production from field goals (or worse) to a 70.83 touchdown percentage. The Panthers scored 18.7 points per game in the first seven weeks, and 28.6 since.
In fact, B.C. (Before Chicago), Carolina had averaged 97.3 rushing yards, a number that climbed to 174.4 (and from No. 21 in the league to No. 1).
And interceptions have popped, too. The Panthers had one in the first seven weeks and nine A.C. (After Chicago).
It’s also hard to remember the chaos – Newton’s injury, the mysterious neck injury of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the Kelvin Benjamin trade, the loss and return of Olsen and Damiere Byrd, and the loss of second-round pick Curtis Samuel.
I turned to big-picture thinker Kurt Coleman in the locker room this week to ask: How did the 2017 Carolina Panthers go from discombobulated to dangerous?
“I feel like that’s an onion question,” he said, with a ponderous exhale, “where there are a lot of layers to it.”
Let’s try to peel them back.
The reality is Newton spent half a season playing catch-up, not just with the integration of new players into the offense, but also with his own body.
Newton played one full preseason series while still healing from offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff. To preserve his body, the team’s plan was to run him less and rely on quick layup passes to McCaffrey (we will get to him later).
But without Newton’s legs as a factor, opposing defenses stopped seeing him as a two-dimensional weapon for the Panthers and keyed in on him in the pocket (while taking advantage of injuries to Kalil and new left tackle Matt Kalil). Perhaps the grimmest reality for Newton on the field came when Saints pass-rusher Cam Jordan all but scoffed at Newton following a Week 3 drubbing, saying that the quarterback was “clearly trying to be more of a pocket passer, and I’m OK with that.”
But as Newton got healthier, he factored his legs back in. McCaffrey and Stewart are also sharing the load more efficiently as Carolina has spread out the defenders in front of them (we will also get to that later). And Newton is back to having a blast on the field.
“And now I think he’s feeling himself,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s feeling a lot better and it doesn’t take as much for him to recover. So you see him more engaged as opposed to having him have to work at getting ready for the next day, getting rid of the soreness so he’s ready to go.”
Linebacker Luke Kuechly has a phrase for that.
“Cam is in ‘Cam Mode’ now,” he said, grinning widely, this week. “And we’re pretty excited about that.”
Carolina’s defense will hardly point fingers, but the players knew the task early in the year: Create enough stability to help an offense struggling to find itself.
“There have been some of those games where they keep you in it,” Olsen said. “You get off to a tough start and you struggle. ... We’re very fortunate around here that in some of those early games if you do get off to a slow start, it feels like the defense is getting you the ball back and jump-starting you.”
With 14 takeaways in seven weeks and 53 points off turnovers (third in NFL) during that time, the Panthers are finally playing complementary football.
Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ aggressive style is working, too. He dials up a blitz on more than 40 percent of pass plays, including 50 percent on third down – a risk that leaves more responsibility on linebackers and cornerbacks.
Luckily for Carolina, Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson have largely stayed healthy this year to handle that responsibility.
In fact, Carolina’s defense entered the season as one of the league’s oldest, but has managed to stay mostly healthy down the stretch. That’s perhaps part luck, but it’s also because they have correctly calculated the rest days and treatment plans for veteran players such as Julius Peppers and Mike Adams.
Know the role
McCaffrey entered the season with what offensive coordinator Mike Shula said was the most responsibility given to any rookie he has ever been around. That included a variety of uses in which the dynamic back was not successful, including on punt return and sending him up the gut on first and second downs. And with Olsen out and Samuel struggling to fit in and ultimately getting hurt, McCaffrey was tasked with creating options underneath for the Panthers largely by himself.
When the team pulled back the pressure and started using McCaffrey more efficiently – especially as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and in the slot – McCaffrey began to see more success. He has 73 catches for 592 yards and five touchdowns and 382 rushing yards.
Olsen’s return clarified the roles of the offensive playmakers, as did the Benjamin trade (we will get to that in a moment).
“I think what happened was now, we had a guy that could attack a certain way, we could use him a specific way and we no longer had to try and rely on Christian to create that,” Rivera said. “What’s happening now is Greg is creating for Christian, Christian is creating for Funchess, Christian is creating for Greg, and whoever that other receiver is.
“That’s really what’s happening, if you look at it. Now, you see the interaction when you look at the route combinations.”
The Benjamin effect
Part of Carolina’s problem in 2016 was that the routes Benjamin ran were long-developing and repetitive – both problematic with a tissue-paper line.
Carolina also seemed top-heavy at the position. With the ranks clogged by Funchess and Benjamin, the team was front-loaded with identical threats and without the versatility that holds defenses accountable. The Panthers tried to fix that by drafting McCaffrey and Samuel, but there were not enough receptions to go around. With Benjamin on the outside (and not posing much of a threat) and Samuel struggling, defenses were clogging the middle and leaving very little room for the rest of the offense – especially the run game – to operate.
When Benjamin was traded just minutes before this year’s deadline in late October, it was a shock wave. But in the weeks that followed, it became clear what his departure (combined with Newton’s health and the emergence of vertical threat Damiere Byrd) meant.
Funchess’ yards per game increased from 44.62 (with two touchdowns) before the Benjamin trade to 70 (with four touchdowns) after. He also stretched the field, with his yards-per-catch average increasing from 5.312 to 17.45.
And since trading Benjamin, the Panthers lead the league in red-zone touchdown percentage and scoring offense.
These are the breaks
Lucky breaks are hard to quantify, but what we know for sure is that Carolina is getting them this season where in 2016, they did not. And, they’d rather have them.
It started in Week 2 against Buffalo, when receiver Zay Jones dropped a potential touchdown pass in the final moments.
Against Detroit, tight end Eric Ebron dropped a pass in the end zone.
Then against Atlanta in Week 9, the nearly unthinkable: The league’s best receiver, Julio Jones, let a touchdown catch dribble through his fingers.
The Panthers have gotten by this season with a little help from their enemies.
The best is yet to come?
It’s been a little much, yes?
So, back to Coleman, who says he has the answer to how the team has gathered itself together despite the chaos.
“I think I would say it’s the character of men that we have,” he said. “When you’re staring in the face of adversity, you can either confront it or you can run away from it. I think throughout this whole season, we chose to confront every single thing that we’ve had to deal with on the field.
“And that is what true character is about, is when you’re faced with that much adversity, how are you going to react?”
Oh, and one more thing: With a win this weekend that could put the Panthers at 11-4 and clinch them a playoff spot, Coleman doesn’t think this team has even played its best ball yet. Neither does tight end Ed Dickson, another big-picture thinker, or Olsen. Heck, neither does anyone in that locker room.
“I don’t think we’ve even really picked our head up yet,” Dickson said. “That’s what really makes this team special. We’re not surprised at what we’re doing, but we’re not satisfied. We’re going to continue to work hard, to look at film and study the opponents we’re playing. We’ve got two more games to put it all together, and then the regular season is done.
“Then it’s win or go home.”