At one point in the 2013 season the knives were out for coach Ron Rivera, as the Panthers fell to a 1-3 start. By the end of the year he was at the forefront of Coach of the Year discussions as his side rebounded in style, winning 11 of their next 12 games to finish top of the NFC South at 12-4. Cam Newton had a solid year and the defence was very effective in ensuring that the Panthers were almost always in games and able to be competitive. Eventually the team came up short against a more experienced and highly drilled San Francisco side in the playoffs. Whether or not they can rebound from the disappointment and cope with an always improving New Orleans will be the keys to the success (or lack of it) in 2014.
Carolina’s offence was governed and dominated by a matured and improved Cam Newton. The third year quarterback bounced back from a disappointing 2012 to marshal his troops effectively and ensure that they took advantage of the excellent opportunities provided to them by their dominant defensive unit. Newton improved his passer rating to 88.8 thanks to 3379 yards and a 24-13 touchdown to interception ratio. Tight end Greg Olsen was his favoured target, with 73 catches for 816 yards and six scores. Aside from his, the main threat came from veteran Steve Smith, whose 64 catches, 745 yards and four scores will be missed in 2014 following his departure for Baltimore. On the ground, DeAngelo Williams lead the team with just 843 yards, whilst Newton chipped in with 585 of his own. Increased production from the running game will be needed in 2014 to take pressure off a passing game that is currently lacking weapons.
Defensively the Panthers allowed 20 points or less in 13 of their 16 regular season games. They ranked second in the NFL in allowing just 15.1 points and 301.2 yards per game on average and trailed only the insanely impressive Seahawks’ ‘Legion of Boom’. Greg Hardy (15) and Charles Johnson (11) recorded multiple quarterback sacks and rookie Star Lotulelei made an instant impact in the middle of the defensive line, whilst linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis excelled with high energy and influential performances. Both recorded comfortably more than 100 tackles (156 and 123 respectively) and combined for six sacks and six interceptions between them. In the secondary both Captain Munnerlyn (Minnesota) and Mike Mitchell (Pittsburgh) are high profile departures that will need to be replaced for the defence to maintain its effectiveness.
Ted Gin handled all returning duties effectively if unspectacularly, managing a longest run back of just 41 yards. Kicker Graham Gano hit all six of his Field Goal attempts from over 50 yards, but missed three times from shorter distances. Brad Nortman managed a NET 41.6 yards per punt, helping the defence to provide a solid starting position for their offence to put up points.
Ron Rivera responded to criticism last season in style by galvanising a sensational run of victories, but the playoff defeat will hurt him and the team. With a weakened roster due to salary cap issues the pressure is on Rivera to repeat the heroics of last season and challenge the Saints for the division title again. But with stronger Tampa Bay and Atlanta sides to confront in 2014, it will be a very tough task for the Panthers.
DRAFT/FREE AGENCY NEEDS
The retention of Greg Hardy via the Franchise tag was the major offseason positive in Carolina, but salary cap issues has meant that the team were not as active in Free Agency as they would have ideally wanted to be. As mentioned, both Munnerlyn and Mitchell depart the secondary and Steve Smith absence form the passing game will be keenly felt. Jerricho Cotchery’s arrival from Pittsburgh gives Newton a new target to look for, but do not be surprised to see the Panthers target further additions to their receiving corps in the draft, especially with Ginn’s departure to the Cardinals further weakening their pool.
Thomas DeCloud and Roman Harper have arrived from Atlanta and New Orleans respectively to help out in the secondary, but the team will also be looking for help at the cornerback position in the draft.
The offensive line also needs some new blood, especially at the tackle position. With a heavily altered roster for 2014, the draft is taking on increasing importance for the Panthers as they look to pick up the necessary talent needed to fill some big holes on their roster. The 2014 season could live or die based on how successful their class of this year’s draft turns out to be…