It is clear that the running game is of no serious issue. Cam, Tolbert, and Stewart are the majority of the conversions on the ground. In fact, the 3 of them rank among the top 3 in the league over the past 3 seasons when it comes to rushing 1st downs. I attribute the decline in production from 2011 to the injuries along the OL that kept an entire unit from staying together for a series of weeks, and the injuries to Stewart the past 2 seasons. On the NFL level pass blocking is about the individual talent along the OL, run blocking is about the longevity of an OL unit.
The Panthers glaring need is to balance their threat of the pass with their run when converting 1st downs. This especially rings true in the Panthers red zone production. Coaches fall into the hole of balancing all of their play calls. They fail to realize they should focus attention on balancing successful/productive play calls only.
Let me present this critical view of the running game like this:
When it is 3rd and 2 and you have no choice but to run it, when it is anything - 3rd and 1, 3rd and a half... anything. When everyone on the field, in the stadium and the world know the Carolina Panthers are going to run it how much faith do you have that the team will be able to convert that play to a first down where it matters?
Take Cam Newton out of your thoughts and just put it on the RB's and team - no Newton carrying the ball. Can the RB's carry it? Can they truly carry it? Can they carry the load, haul the rock, and bring home the baby when the pressure is on the line?
I have a hard time believing that even with a top 5 OL unit that the Panthers RB's could get this done. Maybe I am a bit spoiled from what I am accustomed to over the last 15-20 years from the Bills - but I just do not sit comfortable with the stall of RB's in Carolina. I really hope this can change, I really hope durability and reliability improve, and I hope that it is a result of the RB's finding their own success without having bailouts from Cam and the passing game, as well.