North Carolina. Known for barbecue, country music and hard-nosed football. Don’t look now, but the Carolina Panthers are bringing back an old-school style of play and they are really good at it.
Everything you hear about NFL offenses these days revolves around passing. In fact, the league is on pace to beat the record set in 2013 for most pass attempts per game across the entire league. At the same time, NFL teams are running the ball at a record-low rate. 2015 is on pace to be the fewest rushing attempts per game, breaking the previous low set in 2014, which beat the low mark set in 2013 before that. In short, passing is trending upwards and running is trending downwards.
That doesn’t seem to bother the Panthers though, who are determined to win by running the football. They have more rush attempts per game than anyone else in the league through the first eight weeks of the season. And they are pretty successful too as they lead the league in ground yards per game. This team has the look of the 2013 Seahawks, with a mobile quarterback and strong defense, except they rely even more heavily on the run.
On the other hand, Carolina seems pretty adverse to throwing the ball. The Panthers are attempting the fifth fewest passes per game and have the third fewest passing yards per game. Usually that is a recipe for disaster but these boys from Charlotte seem intent on bucking the trend.
Oh and did I mention that Carolina is undefeated. This is a winning brand of football.
At the helm of the offense is Cam Newton. The Auburn product has taken a little while to get to this point. Not so long ago, pundits criticized his maturity and questioned if he had the right tools to be an NFL quarterback. “Super Cam” is far from conventional but he is effective nonetheless.
Strictly looking at Newton’s stats without taking into consideration all sides of his game limits the understanding of how important a piece he has been this year for the Carolina offense. His completion percentage ranks second to last among qualified passers, only above Ryan Mallet’s. However, the Panthers rank seventh in the league in drop percentage, which certainly hurts Newton’s completion percentage.
Newton also ranks 28th out of 33 quarterbacks in yards per game average, which is far from stellar. However, his total yardage per game is much better. Cam has always been good with his legs and he leads all quarterbacks with 40.9 rushing yards per game. He also ranks 13th in the league in terms of rushing first downs. That’s right. In the league.
When you factor in Newton’s ability to use his athleticism to extend plays and drives, his short comings as a passer become a little more excusable, especially when he is punching in points. Newton has 11 touchdown passes on the year so far. He also has four rushing touchdowns, which ranks him fourth among all players. For passing and running touchdowns, Newton ranks tied for sixth in combined scores among quarterbacks. Clearly, the Panthers are doing something right because they are scoring the fourth most points per game.
While Carolina might be denying convention on offense, the defense is truly the unit to watch. They rank ninth in yards per game allowed and tenth in points per game allowed. They have played three games though without captain Luke Kuechly, who is still somehow in the top 50 for tackles, even though he has only played four games. Mario Addison, Shaq Thompson and Dwon Edwards have all missed time as well. Carolina has been one of the better defensive teams in the league despite all the injuries to its front seven. For a pass rush that already stacks up well with 20 sacks in seven games, getting healthy is bound to make it even better.
That defense is good at giving the ball back to the offense. Carolina is third in turnovers generated per game. This Panthers defensive unit is gritty and seems to be getting better as the year goes on.
It is far from perfect but it has worked thus far. It is scary to think that the Panthers have room to improve as well if Cam can improve on his accuracy and the receivers stop dropping the ball. With all of that room to improve, it is ridiculous that the Panthers have won 12 of their last 13 games dating back to last year without being seen as a complete team. This team has the mental toughness to be a true contender, as shown in a fourth quarter road comeback victory against Seattle and a tense overtime win against the Colts.
Carolina has officially put the rest of the league on alert with their gritty and old fashioned play so far. The question now is can anyone stop them.