The 2017 Carolina Panthers season had its ups and downs, but as a whole, I would judge it as a success. The Panthers made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, rebounded from a 6-10 season in 2016 and won 11 games.
Will the 2018 season have the same sort of success rate?
Ultimately, I don’t think so, and here’s why.
The Panthers’ roster is similar. I’ll get to some specifics in a minute, but I think we can agree that the most important players (Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly) remain in place, as do some of the biggest question marks (offensive line, secondary).
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Here’s where the difference will be, though. Because of that pesky law of averages, I just don’t see Carolina winning as many close games as it did last season.
The Panthers had nine games decided by eight points or fewer in the 2017 regular season — one-score games, in other words, all decided in the fourth quarter.
And do you know what their record was in those close games? They were 8-1, which is pretty incredible. (It became 8-2 when New Orleans edged the Panthers 31-26 in the playoffs.)
Now, you can attribute that winning percentage to clutch play, sure, but some of it also has to be attributed to luck.
There’s nothing wrong with that. The winner of the Super Bowl gets lucky in multiple ways every season and then has enough talent to capitalize on the luck.
The Panthers, though, are probably due for a year in which they go about 4-4 in one-score games, while also getting outright whipped a couple of times and whipping somebody themselves a few times.
So I’m picking them to go 9-7 and to miss the playoffs by a smidgen.
Now you may totally disagree, and that’s your right. To be fair, my Panthers predictions have been uneven the past couple of years. I made a pretty good forecast last season in this space — picking the Panthers to go 10-6 and make the playoffs. They went 11-5 and made the playoffs.
In 2016, however, I picked the Panthers to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they finished 6-10.
This season, I believe linebacker Shaq Thompson, running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive end Mario Addison are all going to have years worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. Kuechly will get there, of course — he looks as good as ever (knocking on nearby wood). Newton may well have a very good season, and I like his corps of mostly new wide receivers. If he’s fantastic, it will be enough to push the Panthers into the playoffs and prove my prediction wrong.
But I think the team’s three main issues will be:
1. The Panthers play in the NFC South. Both New Orleans and Atlanta are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Even going 2-2 in four games against those two will be difficult for Carolina, and 1-3 is more likely.
2. The offensive line scares me. It has been hamstrung with injuries already in August. Left tackle Matt Kalil played poorly in brief preseason action and then went off to have arthroscopic knee surgery. Right tackle Daryl Williams sustained the most significant injury of the preseason. If Taylor Moton shines at tackle, then maybe it works out all right. But there are a whole lot of questionable pieces on that O-line right now, as three assumed starters might well not be ready for Week 1.
3. The secondary — again — could be a problem. This has been a Panthers bugaboo for years, owing in part to the fact that it seems to be facing Drew Brees every third week (the Saints handed Carolina three of its six total losses, including playoffs, in 2017). Rookies Donte Jackson and Rashaan Gaulden might well start against Dallas in the season opener.
Again, there is potential from a unit that has never been the same since former general manager Dave Gettleman let Josh Norman walk. The Panthers have kept investing draft picks in the secondary ever since that decision, in hopes that it will get better. But will it?
Factor it all in and I’m predicting 9-7.
Dave Tepper won’t see his new team have a bad season in his first year in the owner’s box. The team will win more often than it loses.
But it’s not going to be a Super season, either.