It’s been a rough year for Carolina Panther’s quarterback Cam Newton. The team is 3-8 after his center, Ryan Kalil*, made Super Bowl aspirations public before the season began. The Panthers have blown several 4th quarter leads, including the one two weeks ago against the Bucs that resulted in an overtime loss. He is experiencing the latest case of the infamous sophomore slump – on pace for fewer passing yards, 5 fewer passing TDs and 2 fewer rushing TDs than his rookie campaign** – and his leadership in the locker room and his character on the field has come into question. He’s even had his presence as the future QB in Carolina threatened by an elementary school child.
*Now on Injured Reserve.
**Not to mention all of his rookie records are looking to be broken by Andrew Luck this season.
But in all this chaos surrounding Cam Newton in his second year in the NFL, the best thing he could have done for the Panthers is what he’s probably being the most criticized for. After searching for answers and remarking on the possibility of a suggestion box, Panthers GM, Marty Hurney, was fired from his job after 10 seasons. While many of the Panthers players spoke out against the move, an outsider’s perspective saw this as a necessary move that was long overdue. Hurney is the reason the Panthers has no cap room in which to maneuver, which I will explain later in the post. And after the season the Panthers are having, Hurney might not be the only one looking for a job in January.*
I mentioned Newton’s struggles earlier, but here’s the actual stat line: 189/328 (57.6%), 2,701 yards, 11 TDs, 10 INTs. Newton also offers the duel threat of being able to pass and run, and has rushed for 446 yards and 6 TDs so far this season.
If this 446 number impressed you, it should. Sure, it’s nearly 200 yards less than the rushing yardage Robert Griffin III has collected for the Redskins this season, but it’s also more yards than what Chiefs QB Brady Quinn has passed for this season (431 yards). In addition to leading Quinn’s passing yardage, Newton is also the leading rusher on the Panthers squad.*
Hurney, in all of his infinite wisdom, collected runningbacks like Jon Gruden used to collect quarterbacks. He paid veteran DeAngelo Williams $43 million for 5 years ($16 million signing bonus), and signed Jonathan Stewart to a six year $37.811 million ($9 million signing bonus) in consecutive years. Obviously unsatisfied with his massive running back depth, Hurney went out and signed free agent Mike Tolbert from the San Diego Chargers to a four year $8.4 million contract ($2.7 million guaranteed). That’s $27.7 million alone in guaranteed money going towards backs that can’t even lead the team in rushing (and have only combined for 683 yards). This salary logjam at runningback is part of the reason why Hurney needed to go.
At the wide receiver position, the Panthers seem to have always been able to count on Steve Smith. The veteran hasn’t seemed to have lost a step in his incendiary speed, and has even calmed down from his teammate punching past. This season, he is once again leading the team in receiving with 770 yards, but has inexplicably only caught one TD pass. Brandon LaFell, the Panther’s 2010 3rd round pick from Louisiana State, is the second leading receiver with 563 yards and has 4 TDs.
At tight end is one of the most, in my opinion, underrated players in the NFL. The Chicago Bears 2007 first round pick, Olsen was made expendable by Chicago’s offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, and traded to Carolina in 2011 for a 3rd round pick. Olsen went on to record 540 yards receiving with 5 TDs in 2011 and has added 589 yards and 3 TDs this season.
The Panthers offensive line this season has been a struggle. The team has already lost three offensive linemen to Injured Reserve, the most notable being 3x Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil, and the result has definitely taken a toll. The Panthers are last in Football Outsiders offensive line rankings when it comes to rushing (only 3.29 yards per carry after adjusted stats), and 25th in pass protection. From left to right: Jordan Gross (2003 1st round pick and 2x Pro Bowler), Amini Silatolu (the second Division 2 player taken in the 2012 draft, coming one pick after Janoris Jenkins in the 2nd round), Geoff Hangartner (who is on his second stint with the Panthers), Garry Williams (who might have the shortest Wikipedia page ever), and Bryon Bell (I got nothing).
The Panthers offense is currently 16th in the NFL in passing (231.8 ypg) and 18th in rushing (108 ypg).
I wanted to start talking about the Panthers defense by discussing a rookie linebacker. Luke Kuechly, the Panthers 2012 first round selection with the number 9 overall pick, is the player I wanted the Chiefs to draft. Unlike Scott Pioli, I wasn’t all that high on Dontari Poe (who is putting together a good season at a difficult position), and wanted the MLB out of Boston College. The Panthers took that opportunity away from Kansas City by selecting him before the Chiefs could pick, and it has paid off for Carolina. In a season where Panthers defenders have been lost for the season – DT Ray Edwards, 3x Pro Bowler LB Jon Beason, and CB Chris Gamble – Kuechly has been a star. He currently has 105 tackles, which is good for 4th in the NFL. On either side of Kuechly is veteran James Anderson (who signed another Hurney contract of $22 million for 5 years in 2011) who is 2nd on the team in tackles (35 behind Kuechly) and Thomas Davis, the Panthers 2005 1st round pick, and is 4th on the team in tackles.
On the defensive front, its four defensive linemen establish the Panthers 4-3 defense. On the left end is Greg Hardy, a 6th round pick in 2010 whose draft stock fell after he decided to return to Ole Miss for his senior season and suffered an injury. He is second on the team with 8 sacks. In the middle are Dwan Edwards (5 sacks) and Sione Fua (coming in for the injured former Chief Ron Edwards). On the right end is Charles Johnson, the 2007 3rd round pick, who leads the team in sacks with 8.5.
With the injury to Gamble, the defensive backfield has had to do a little of reshuffling. Josh Norman, the 2012 5th round pick out of Coastal Carolina, has started all 11 games at corneback for the Panthers this year, but filling in the place of Gamble is 2009 7th round pick Captain Munnerlyn.* Norman has 1 INT on the year and is third on the team in tackles (not a great sign for a CB) while Munnerlyn has seven pass deflections and two interceptions resulting in touchdowns. At the safety positions, the Panthers have Charles Godfrey, 5th on the team in tackles, and Haruki Nakamura, 6th on the team in tackles. The two safeties have combined for eight pass deflections, three interceptions, and one touchdown.
The Panthers defense is currently 11th in opponent passing yards per game (220.9) and 25th in opponent rushing yards per game (126.2).*
*Which plays to the Chiefs strengths strength.
Graham Gano: Kicker* – 1/1 on the year
*Starting the season for the Panthers was former Chief 5th round pick, Justin Medlock*, but was waived on Nov. 20th to make room for Gano.
**Featured mentally falling apart in the Chiefs Hard Knocks. Remember when he was one of the best kickers ever coming out of the draft?
Brad Nortman: Punter – 36.6 yards net average