Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers were near the top of the world in 2015, going 15 wins and only 1 loss during the regular season. They defeated the Seattle Seahawks 31-24, in the divisional round, and then obliterated the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Title Game, 49-15. Winning the Super Bowl against a fading Peyton Manning seemed like a cinch, but it wasn’t. The Panthers lost 24-10 to the Denver Broncos and Cam looked pretty anemic against the vaunted Denver Defense, fumbling twice and getting picked off once. Newton threw 41 passes completing only 18 for 265 yards. It was the start of a huge decline that carried over to the 2016 season.
The Panthers started off 2015, 14-0, they would only go on to win 6 games in 2016, which leads many to believe that Cam Newton’s MVP season in 2015 was a fluke. However, the 2017 season is months away, and the Panthers may be able to get back on their paws. Here are some ways that they just might be able to get back to the playoffs.
Protect the QB
One of the biggest weaknesses that the Panthers had last year was that Newton got sacked on a consistent basis. Last season he was sacked 36 times, that’s a little over 2 sacks per game, Newton has always been sacked 30 times or more throughout his career. The total amount of times Newton’s been sacked (211) over his 7-year career has led to a lot of injuries, not to mention the fact that the Panthers do a lot of the read option plays which puts Cam at risk more often. The Panthers have retooled the offensive line and Head Coach Ron Rivera is decreasing the amount of QB run plays in the playbook, so perhaps this trend will change in a positive way.
Another thing that’ll protect Cam Newton is a good running game, and drafting Stanford Running Back Christian McCaffrey will certainly help. McCaffrey ran for 3922 yards throughout his collegiate career, including a 2019 yard performance during his sophomore year and averaged 6.2 yards a carry over his career. So perhaps McCaffrey can help give the Panthers their traditionally strong running game back.
Another part of the problematic 2016 season, was the fact that Carolina had to deal with several injuries that held them back. 30 players were injured, including Cam Newton, Offensive Lineman Michael Oher, and Linebacker Luke Kuechly. Wide Receivers Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn Jr further exacerbated the problems and keeping these players healthy will at least help the Panthers get a few more wins.
Michael Oher, whose life was famously portrayed in the 2009 film, ‘The Blind Side’, hasn’t been playing as well either, so it’s going to be a year of potential redemption for the Panthers, Oher was out most of the season, missing 13 games and being a few years removed from winning a Super Bowl with the 2012-2013 Baltimore Ravens certainly has that veteran presence that the Panthers need to get back on their feet.
One of the other key members of the Carolina offense that needs to get into shape in order to help his team win is fourth year wideout Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin caught 63 passes, for 941 yards, and found the endzone 7 times. During Benjamin’s time at OTAs, it seems that he’s gained a bit of weight and will have to work hard to get to that 4.61 speed he ran at the combine 4 years ago.
Benjamin’s normal playing weight was 245lbs, but now he looks as though he’s 10-15lbs, and the good news is that he has 3-4 months to get back into better shape. This is not, (As many other speculators have claimed) an attempt at childishly making fat man jokes, but Benjamin needs to get back into shape if he’s going to make a splash at the end of his rookie contract this year.
Benjamin’s rookie season in 2014 was a smash hit, he gained 1008 yards on 73 catches during the 2014 season for 9 touchdowns, missing the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL injury. Considering that this is a few months before training camp and the start of the season, Benjamin should have enough time to get back into shape, or at least, better shape.
Despite my positivity in several parts of this story, I don’t think the Panthers will get back to their 2015 season, but I think they’ll at least be 8-8 during 2017. They’re in a division that isn’t being clearly dominated by ONE team like the Packers in the NFC North, or the Patriots in the AFC East, but the Saints are always dangerous, the Falcons are looking to redeem themselves this season, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking to climb up the ranks a bit this season.
If the Panthers can fix these problems I mentioned in this article, I think they should at least be able to be in playoff contention much longer this season than last year. But expecting them to go 15 and 1 again, or get somewhere near that, is a bit unrealistic for me to accept. That 2015 season captured a moment where the Panthers were nearly unbeatable, but now, I think they’d be better served trying to make the playoffs, instead of trying desperately to hit that mark again.