It may be hard to believe but it is a little over three years since the Panthers were hot favourites to win the Super Bowl against the Broncos. Since then they have been to the playoffs just once, as a wildcard, with a .500 record over the following three years.
Following their run to the playoffs in 2017, the Panthers replaced Mike Shula with Norv Turner to make the Panthers a force once again in the NFC. Midway through last season, the move looked to have worked a treat, with the Panthers at 6-2, averaging 28 points a game and having dominated against the Buccaneers and Ravens, scoring 10 touchdowns in the process.
From there, it was very much downhill as a blowout loss against the Steelers started a seven game losing streak that saw the Panthers tumble out of the playoff race. Suddenly Carolina were scoring just 17 points a game and were unable to score crucial touchdowns such as in their 12-9 loss at home to the Saints. Part of the downturn was due to an injury to Cam Newton, while he played in 14 games, symptoms of the injury were there from November onwards.
Newton still managed 3400 passing yards in 14 games, though he did post fewer than 500 rushing yards for only the second time. This all left the Panthers with a league average passing attack and Christian McCaffrey partnering well with Newton to lead the league’s fourth best rushing attack. The Panthers were average in terms of turnovers and in the top ten for third down efficiency. The Panthers ranked 13th in scoring touchdowns in the redzone, something that has been a big improvement under Norv Turner offence (up from 52%to 62%), most impressively the conversion rate was strong, in fact better, on the road.
So what can Norv Turner do to carry on the development in 2019? Well a simple answer would be to maintain the form of early 2018. Beyond that it has to be making minor changes to go from average to good. Outside of rushing stats, Carolina are fairly average offensively but if they can get Newton to pass for 4000 yards (something he hasn’t done since he was a rookie) and develop third down efficiency so that they are top ten in a few areas, making them a more well rounded attack. The Panthers defence is solid and with the addition of pass rushers like Brian Burns & Christian Miller, the Panthers shouldn’t need to score 28 points a game.
In terms of the players at their disposal, the Panthers are still without big pass-catching threats, excluding McCaffrey, and need DJ Moore to be a number one threat, with Torrey Smith stretching the field, forcing Safeties back and giving the running game more room to operate. Plus, can the Panthers really rely on Greg Olsen as their primary Tight End or can Ian Thomas step into that role? Perhaps most important is the role of Cameron Artis-Payne and rookie Jordan Scarlett; both of whom need to be more versatile and less of a tell that the Panthers will run when they are on the field. The player who can operate in the backfield with McCaffrey as either a runner or receiver, not to mention a blocker, will see the field more often and make Carolina’s offence far more dynamic and unpredictable.
So, with the Panthers a 7-9 team a year ago, they need marginal gains. Small improvements across the board and maximising the potential of their current roster. With far more talent in the running game than passing, you have to assume they will be run-first but equally a key priority has to be keeping Newton clean and healthy for 16 games and beyond, which would suggest staying in the pocket more. The Panthers proved what they are capable of in 2018 and have had a good offseason, but instead of performing for eight games, it has to 19 or 20 this season.