The Panthers 13th-ranked offense performed fairly well overall in 2020 against a tough slate of defenses. But they struggled to convert in the red zone and played poorly down the stretch, leading to an impression that the offense was not good. The team moved on from Teddy Bridgewater and brought in Sam Darnold to replace him, which I’m not sure is an upgrade (or downgrade). I think they’ll need to do much more than that to improve in 2021.
New Head Coach Matt Rhule and Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady did some things well in their inaugural season but missed the mark in other ways. They smartly applied analytics to their coaching decisions, which often meant going for it on 4th down where more traditional and conservative coaches would have kicked the ball. They tied for the 4th-most fourth down conversion attempts and the 7th-most fourth down conversions on the season, which helped them keep drives alive despite being near the bottom of the league in third down conversion rate. Their aggressive (and smart) tendencies were on full display in a narrow 33-31 loss to the Chiefs that would not have been close if they did not convert two big fourth downs, including one for a touchdown.
But in terms of scheming, I think they fell short. There was nothing they could have done about losing McCaffery to injury, but the way they used their weapons in the passing game made no sense to me. D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Curtis Samuel comprised one of the better receiving trios in the NFL. Moore is electric with the ball and can turn small receptions or end-arounds into huge gains with his speed and elusiveness. Anderson is very thin but fast and makes a great downfield threat, but cannot escape tackles. And Samuel can use his elite speed in motion to manipulate a defense and open up running lanes and coverage gaps. But this was not how Brady and Bridgewater ran the offense. The Panthers instead used Moore as a deep threat, Anderson as a possession receiver, and Samuel as a weird RB/WR hybrid.
CAR WR Usage
|Air Yards/Rec. (Prior Career)||8.2||11.3||9.2|
|Air Yards/Rec. (2020)||12.3||6.3||6.9|
|Rushes (Prior Career)||19||9||31|
I was not a fan of this usage. I don’t think they maximized the talent of any of the three players, and their passing attack was mediocre as a result. Perhaps Bridgewater deserves much of the blame, but I don’t think the offensive scheme put him in a position to reach this offense’s potential.
With a passing game that was moderately successful and a tendency to go for it on fourth down, the Panthers’ game-to-game offensive success often came down to whether they were able to run the ball successfully. They struggled on third down, but faced fewer (and shorter) third downs when they were able to consistently gain yards on the ground.
This chart shows the Panthers’ offensive Adjusted Rating in games ranking each opponent by the yards per carry each team allowed on the season. Their performance trended positively and they actually played above-average football (positive Adjusted Rating) against every defense in the bottom-15 against the run. Meanwhile, they played below-average football against 8 of the 10 teams that were top-17 against the run. This divergence of performance showed that grinding out yards on first and second down was essential to their success.
McCaffery obviously will help in this department if he stays healthy. But it’s worth noting that he only averaged 3.8 yards per carry while healthy in 2020. He will need to improve on that number to move the needle for this offense. Perhaps this number reflects that he was not fully healthy when active, or perhaps it’s just a small sample size. But if it portends future performance, that could be a problem for this offense.
Bridgewater received most of the blame for the Panthers’ offensive performance (particularly in the red zone), but I struggle to see how Darnold will solve all their problems. The Panthers converted only 50.9% of their red zone trips to touchdowns in 2020, which ranked 28th in the NFL. But the Jets converted an abysmal 42.1%, which wad dead last. Granted, Darnold will have the best receiving corps, coaching, and running back of his career. Maybe he can step it up in a new environment. But they will also have to do a better job running the ball and utilizing their weapons effectively, particularly in the red zone. It’s to be determined whether this can or will happen.
The Panthers 23rd-ranked defense lacked star power in 2020 and as a result performed fairly poorly throughout the season. Rookie Jeremy Chinn showed some real promise but outside of him they were beatable at every level. The one thing they did well – generate turnovers – is not particularly repeatable, especially the way they did it.
They created turnovers primarily through fumbles. They led the NFL with 15 recovered fumbles and they returned 3 of these for touchdowns. The only way to replicate that kind of performance is to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback.
CAR Pressure and Turnovers
They tried to get to the quarterback consistently but finished bottom-half in pressure rate and sack rate. The number of fumbles they generated will likely revert down in 2021 unless they can increase their pressure.
The biggest weakness for Carolina was stopping the run. On a per-play basis, they performed significantly better against the pass than the run. They limited big plays with a new defensive scheme that focused on getting to the quarterback and forcing quick throws. As noted above, they weren’t particularly successful getting pressure but they also faced a lot of experienced quarterbacks who excel at avoiding or overcoming pressure (Brady twice, Ryan twice, Brees twice, Rodgers, Mahomes, and Stafford). But they were just not tough up front and got beat routinely by running backs.
CAR Defensive Performance
|Yards Per Pass Play Allowed||6.2||11th|
|Yards Per Carry Allowed||4.7||28th|
As as result, the Panthers simply could not get off the field on third down. They gave up too many yards on first and second downs and then could not make stops on third and short. They allowed conversions on 49.2% of third downs, which was 2nd-worst in the NFL.
This led to long drives by opposing offenses. This also limited their offensive opportunities and wore down their defense over the course of a game. They lost a lot of close games in which either the offense could not finish or the defense just wore out. To improve in 2021 they will need to tighten up on third down and put themselves in better situations by stopping the run.
The Panthers will likely suffer turnover regression in 2021 unless their playmakers can continue to step up in big moments. But that is not a formula for consistent success. They are building pieces to improve on defense, with Chinn entering his second year and rookie Jaycee Horn stepping in at cornerback. If Horn can play well from the get-go, that will help Carolina turn pressures into sacks with better coverage downfield. But cornerbacks usually take a year or two to catch up to NFL speed, so this may be a defense that spends another year in mediocrity.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, the Panthers are overrated. The coaches – and particularly Joe Brady – get a lot of credit and hype but I really do not understand why. They have not proven they can implement an effective offense and I fear blaming Bridgewater was a cop-out for coaching failures. So I’m not convinced they will be any better with Darnold. Yet this team is getting a lot of buzz.
- Carolina typically grinds out long drives and prevents big plays on defense. Despite being a better offensive than defensive team, expect many Carolina games to go Under the total.
- Relatedly, big underdogs are always in play in Panthers games because of the pace of play and their ability to grind out long drives.
- Expect the offense to outperform against teams that are vulnerable to running backs, particularly with McCaffery healthy.
- Expect the defense to outperform against the pass, particularly if Horn can play well in his rookie year. But expect them to underperform against the run without toughness up front.
- Teams that apply analytics and go for it more often on 4th down create some built-in variance. The upside and downside has a wider gap when teams routinely go for it. Therefore, do not overplay small angles in Panthers games.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- McCaffery is the consensus number 1 pick in fantasy, but I’m not sure I see him as having his own tier. It’s largely academic because I likely would still take him #1, but there are plenty of red flags, from his uncertain QB situation, his 3.8 yards per carry last year, and his injury risk. I’d likely be looking to trade out of the number one pick and I would not be paying top dollar for him in salary cap leagues.
- I was high on D.J. Moore last year because I thought Teddy Bridgewater would unlock his ability and he’s a very talented player. He performed okay but definitely did not reach his potential. I’m not sure if they change up the game plan with Darnold, but if they get him the ball more in easy run-after-the-catch opportunities he could take a step forward in 2022. Either way, both he and Robby Anderson are clear focal points and should be solid WRs with typical ups and downs that come with the position.
- If the Panthers play slowly like in 2020, consider playing Unders on opposing player props when you have another angle to go with it. Stats were fairly low in Panthers games even when the offenses played well due to a limited number of drives.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
I did not put a lot of money on or against Carolina in 2020. They were a tough team for me to read. But in Week 1, I leaned into two different angles that I really liked and came away with the win. They were 3-point underdogs at home against the Raiders. Without an off-season, I predicted the continuity at quarterback and head coach for Las Vegas would lead to a major advantage over a team with a new head coach and new quarterback. In addition, fantasy studs tend to skew perception of teams and everyone was excited for Christian McCaffery, D.J. Moore, and Robby Anderson to tear it up. I thought the Raiders were clearly the better team and liked these angles enough to put 2 Units on LV -3. The Raiders strongly outplayed Carolina and came away with a deceptive 4-point win that could have easily been more.