Thank God, I was getting tired of all this positive press. We need doubters all the way through holding the Lombardi.
This has been a season of ascension for the Carolina Panthers. After three straight losing campaigns and a playoff drought extending back to 2008, the Panthers are now the owners of the longest win streak in the NFL (eight games) and have a 98.4 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to Football Outsiders. They are headed into a Week 14 matchup with the New Orleans Saints to determine first place in the NFC South division.
But as great as this streak has been for the Panthers, it is something of a mirage. A closer look at the metrics and game tape indicates that Carolina has a slew of weaknesses that make this team a potential playoff paper tiger.
Anemic downfield passing game
Prior to this season, Cam Newton could be viewed as a modern-day Brett Favre, a quarterback who seemed to go all out for the reward of downfield passes while throwing caution to the wind. This led to some prolific vertical totals such as when he ranked tied for third in vertical attempts in 2011, but it also led to a 4.2 percent bad decision rate (BDR) that ranked 31st in the league in that same campaign. BDR is a gauge of how often a QB makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team, and that level is simply too high for most teams to overcome.
Since Newton's BDR was still an issue in 2012 (3.1 percent, ranked tied for 35th), new offensive coordinator Mike Shula seemed to make correcting this part of Newton's game a top priority.
At one level this approach has worked like a champ, as Newton's 2.1 percent BDR is easily the lowest of his career, but that improvement has come at a significant cost in vertical productivity.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton is averaging 8.71 yards per vertical pass attempt (VYPA). This ranks 35th in the league and only one qualifying quarterback has a lower VYPA (Jake Locker, 7.72).
The numbers get even worse when looking at stretch vertical passes (SVYPA, a production measure of aerials 20 or more yards downfield). It is bad enough that Newton's 7.81 SVYPA ranks 34th, but it is even worse when noting there are six quarterbacks whose SVYPA is more than double Newton's mark.
Shula's changes have taken a huge risk element out of this offense but also have hamstrung the vertical passing game and turned Newton into one of least productive downfield passers in the NFL.
A low-upside rushing attack
Carolina has built a reputation over the years as having a strong ground game, but this season the Panthers' rushing attack is solid at best.
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsDeAngelo Williams has had a good year when he's been healthy.
The team does rank in the top 10 in rush yards (1,552, ranked ninth), but it has a low yards-per-carry average (4.12, ranked 17th). Carolina also fares quite poorly in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric that tracks a running back's productivity on rushing plays with good blocking (which is very roughly defined as when the offense doesn't allow the defense to do anything to disrupt a rush attempt). The Panthers' 6.7 GBYPA mark is more than half a yard lower than the 7.4 GBYPA level that serves as the approximate league-wide midpoint in this category.
Compounding the lack of breakaway carries is the Panthers' 43.0 percent mark in the good blocking rate (GBR) metric that measures how often an offense gives its ball carriers good run-blocking. This is a couple of percentage points below the 45 percent mark that is the league-wide mean in this statistic.
The combination of the anemic passing game and low-upside rushing attack is directly responsible for the Panthers ranking dead last in the NFL in yards per play on plays that gain 10 or more yards (17.10). This means that even when this offense does make a big-yardage impact, it is for fewer yards than any other offense in the league.
Mediocre special teams
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Carolina's special teams has tallied negative 8.13 points in their special teams expected points added (StEPA) metric that calculates how many points this platoon added to the team's bottom line based a wide variety of factors. That total ranks 23rd in the league and indicates Carolina's special teams are costing this team about three-quarters of a point per game.
Weak regular-season schedule
All of the above figures are bad enough on their own, but they seem even worse once the Panthers' weak schedule strength is taken into account.
Only two of Carolina's nine wins have come against a team that currently has a winning record, and four victories were against clubs that currently have three wins on the season.
Six of the Panthers' opponents currently rank 22nd or worse in offensive yards per play and five of them rank 19th or worse in defensive yards per play. Eight of Carolina's games occurred against teams that rank 20th or worse in offensive Total QBR and five opponents rank 24th or lower in defensive Total QBR. Pretty much any way you want to angle this part of the review, it comes up showing the Panthers have faced a very weak slate of opponents.
The competition level is certainly about to get a lot tougher, especially taking into account the teams that Carolina could see in the NFC playoffs. If this list is limited to those contenders with records better than .500 (Seattle, New Orleans, Detroit, Dallas, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Arizona), it will include five of the top 11 clubs in yards per play and three of the top five teams in defensive yards per play.
Carolina does have an elite defense that is allowing a league-low 13.1 points per game, but this stretch run will test the Panthers far more than they've been tested so far this year, especially if they fall behind early against an elite offense like New Orleans'. Barring a big step up in performance, especially on the offensive side of the ball, the final stretch of the season will show the world that Carolina is a playoff paper tiger.