The Panthers disappointed in 2016 after a phenomenal 2015 season. What caused their shocking drop-off?
In 2015, the Carolina Panthers seemed unstoppable. They went 15-1 behind eventual MVP award winner Cam Newton; they had the league’s best offense, turnover differential, and point differential; and they were having an incredible season on their way to their second Super Bowl in the franchise’s 22-year history.
However, since a sobering loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers have never looked the same.
They finished the 2016 season dead last in the NFC South for the first time in the Newton era, with a 6-10 record. Recording nine fewer wins than in 2015, the Panthers tied for the second largest single-season decline in NFL history.
So, how did the Panthers go from Super Bowl favorites to last in their division in less than a year?
One major reason was letting First Team All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman walk during free agency. In a shocking series of events, the Panthers rescinded Norman’s franchise tag, effectively making him an unrestricted free agent. Just two days later, Norman signed a monstrous contract with the Redskins.
With Norman’s departure, as well as the retirement of fellow cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman, the Panthers were left with a severe lack of experience in the secondary. Matters were only made worse when cornerback Bené Benwikere allowed Julio Jones an extraordinary performance in a Week 4 matchup. The Falcons’ star receiver tallied the sixth most receiving yards ever by a player in a single game (300). The Panthers were forced to release Benwikere, effectively leaving the starting cornerback roles to a pair of rookies.
As a result, the Panthers allowed the fourth most passing yards in the league in 2016 and ranked 26th in the league in points against. According to Pro Football Focus, the Panthers had the 27th ranked secondary in the league after this season, as opposed to the 10th best after 2015.
On the other side of the ball, injuries hampered the performance of the offensive line. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil played a few weeks through a shoulder injury until he was finally placed on injured reserve after Week 11. Backup Gino Gradkowski filled in but was also injured, forcing practice squad member Tyler Larsen into the starting role.
Following a concussion to starting left tackle Michael Oher, the team was forced to shift personnel. Right tackle Mike Remmers was moved to left tackle, where he simply could not handle the rigors of the position. Then, after right tackle Daryl Williams went down with an injury, right guard Trai Turner moved into the tackle position, where he was equally unimpressive.
Throughout the entire season, left guard Andrew Norwell was the only lineman to start every game at his customary position. A lack of depth can be traced back to their draft history. The Panthers have only selected three offensive linemen in the last four years, and none higher than the late third round. As a result, the second-ranked unit in 2015 became a liability in 2016, ranking 17th in the league at the end of the season.
But the main reason Super Bowl 50 was a turning point was quarterback pressure. The Denver Broncos’ defense, particularly linebacker Von Miller, pressured Newton on 44% of his dropbacks. On those pressured plays, Newton’s QBR was just 2.6. Consider this play from the Super Bowl:
The Broncos’ pass rush brought the heat and there was nowhere for Newton to go. Though he’s seen by many as the best rushing quarterback, a majority of his rushing yards come from designed runs as opposed to scrambles when pressured. Other teams, like the Saints, watched the Broncos suffocate the Panthers in last year’s Super Bowl and copied their strategy this season:
Some quarterbacks, like Aaron Rodgers, perform exceptionally well under pressure. However, Newton does not. While rushing for a quarterback league-leading 636 yards last year, he could only muster 359 this year as opposing defenses brought more pressure. After SuperCam dominated in 2015, teams exploited his kryptonite in 2016.
Ups and downs are nothing new for the Panthers. Following their 12-4 season in 2013, they finished with just seven wins in 2014, but then bounced back for their stellar 2015 season. FiveThirtyEight still rates them as a good team, even better than some of the playoff teams this season. Though they lost defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to a head coaching gig, they still have one of the best front-seven units in the league. The Panthers have the tools to return to the playoffs — they just need to address their weaknesses this offseason.
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