2017 NFL Preview: A Super Bowl hangover hit the Panthers hard

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only two teams have experienced a 10-loss drop from the previous season: 1994 Houston Oilers and 2013 Houston Texans.

The Carolina Panthers avoided joining that list last season. Barely. They won nine fewer games than they did in 2015. As great as the 2015 season was for the Panthers – at least until Von Miller ruined Super Bowl 50 for them – that’s how rough 2016 was.

The Panthers went from 15-1 to 6-10. Every other team in NFL history that won at least 15 games in a season had double-digit wins the following year. The Panthers posted a double-digit loss season. Even if you thought the 2015 record was a bit of a fluke fueled by a friendly schedule and Carolina was in for the time-honored Super Bowl hangover, it was still hard to predict a nine-win dip.

We go into 2017 not really knowing if the Panthers are closer to that 15-win NFC championship team or last season’s team that suffered close losses early on and was an injury-riddled mess by the end. I think the Panthers are better than their 2016 record. They won’t go 15-1 again anytime soon, but it’s still a team capable of being a contender.

A rebound rests heavily on the Panthers’ two best players being healthy and playing like they did a couple of seasons ago.

Quarterback Cam Newton’s MVP encore didn’t go as planned. His passer rating dropped from 99.4 to 75.8. His rushing total went from 636 yards to 359. He went from 40 total touchdowns to 24. In every meaningful stat Newton declined, sometimes to a startling degree. It was Newton’s worst season as a pro.

It was a weird season for Newton. In the opener against the Denver Broncos he took a lot of punishment, often on illegal hits. That continued through the season, causing Newton to complain he didn’t get calls other quarterbacks usually get (which is true) and he talked to commissioner Roger Goodell about it. He suffered a concussion as he slowed up before crossing the goal line on a two-point conversion against the Atlanta Falcons. He was benched for the first series of a game against the Seattle Seahawks because he didn’t wear a necktie on the team flight (I’m still baffled by Ron Rivera’s decision there). He finished it out by playing through a shoulder injury, which he had surgery on after the season. It was a total nightmare.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly is just as important to the defense as Newton is to the offense, and he had his own nightmare season. After suffering a scary concussion against the New Orleans Saints, Kuechly missed the final six games of the season. His concussion history is such a constant concern around the Panthers that Kuechly said he wasn’t talking about it with the media anymore. Hopefully Kuechly never experiences another concussion and the 26-year-old linebacker never has another issue in what looks like a Hall-of-Fame career. But the concussion concern will never go away.

In a perfect world Newton’s shoulder is healthy and he rebounds to his 2015 level, Kuechly never has another concussion and the Panthers make us forget about 2016. They won’t go 15-1 again, but it’s hard to believe a team that good could completely disappear from relevance so quickly.

After winning an MVP award in 2015, Cam Newton suffered through his worst season in 2016. (AP)

We’ll talk more about first-round pick Christian McCaffrey later on, because he deserves a larger discussion. But the highlight of the Panthers’ offseason was that pick. The Panthers’ biggest addition in free agency was former Minnesota Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil, who got a five-year, $55 million deal. The Panthers needed offensive line help, but Kalil has struggled the past few years. He has talent, but that’s a risky signing. Carolina also got some veteran secondary help with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Adams. Mostly the Panthers’ budget was used on a long-term extension for defensive tackle Kawann Short, which had to be done. The biggest loss might have been receiver Ted Ginn, but second-round pick Curtis Samuel could replace some of Ginn’s big-play ability. It’s hard to say the Panthers got a lot better, though McCaffrey is intriguing. Grade: C

At his best, Cam Newton is one of the league’s best players. He’s not without flaws, but he can carry a team. He was underrated for a long time, then got more than enough attention two seasons ago. Last season was so far off Newton’s career norms (he had never posted a rating lower than 84.5 before last season’s 75.8) that you have to discount it and move on. Newton doesn’t necessarily have to repeat 2015. If he’s at his 2011-14 form, the Panthers are a dangerous team again.

The offensive line, which was a mess last season, would be a fine answer here. But let’s look at the other side of the ball. The Panthers’ pass defense wasn’t very good last season. That was apparent by Week 4, when Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards and Julio Jones had 300 yards receiving. The Panthers gave up 4,291 yards and 27 passing touchdowns. They had too much youth at cornerback (Carolina shouldn’t have dumped Josh Norman for no benefit whatsoever, but that’s last year’s discussion) and there’s a good chance those corners are better with a year experience. Veteran additions to the secondary should bolster depth. The return of Luke Kuechly, a tremendous cover linebacker, will help too. In a division with some very good quarterbacks, the Panthers need to find some way to improve against the pass.

Cam Newton played the final four games last season with a partially torn rotator cuff in his right throwing shoulder. It was a bad decision by the team to let its banged-up quarterback keep playing in a lost season, but what’s done is done. Newton had surgery and didn’t resume throwing until late June. Let’s assume he’ll be fully healthy by the season opener, though it’s worth monitoring through August.

Will the Panthers use Newton differently? Everyone knows a shift away from using Newton as a dual-threat player has to happen. Newton can’t get 100 rushing attempts per season and have a long career. He had at least 100 rushing attempts in each of his first five seasons, and 90 last season in an injury-filled 15 games. Drafting a running back eighth overall seems to indicate the Panthers know they have to ease back on Newton’s workload. However, part of what has made the Panthers’ offense so dangerous is Newton’s ability to run. It makes them very tough to defend. Ron Rivera has said he wants to get the ball out of Newton’s hands quicker – that’s why the team drafted lightning-fast playmakers Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel – and not have him run as often. We’ll see.

There weren’t many moves this NFL offseason more interesting than the Panthers drafting running back Christian McCaffrey eighth overall. The Panthers have generally been an old-school team, and McCaffrey is about the opposite of an old-school player. McCaffrey is the NFL in 2017: He’s able to line up anywhere in the formation and do about anything asked of him. He’s not the prototypical 20-carry-per-game back, but can be a great gadget player for the Panthers. There’s good talent on offense, including tight end Greg Olsen and receiver Kelvin Benjamin (assuming he’s in shape), but McCaffrey could give the Panthers a dimension they haven’t had. Also, being able to get rid of the ball fast to a playmaker like McCaffrey could help Cam Newton avoid punishment. While McCaffrey has obvious talent, he’s still a rookie. He still needs to learn what is sure to be a complicated role in the offense. The Panthers didn’t draft McCaffrey that high to line him up next to Newton every play and take simple handoffs; his value is in his versatility. There’s a wide range of outcomes for McCaffrey his rookie season. If he’s great right away, the Panthers offense should be too.

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “If the Kelvin Scale is used to measure heat then Benjamin is close to zero. More telling than the addition of dynamic pass-catching weapons Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to the offense is that fact that Benjamin’s snap share decreased by over 11 percent in 2016. Averaging fewer than 1 red zone look per outing, the team’s perceived WR1 struggled with efficiency, as evidenced by his catch rate (53.8 percent). Between jabs about his conditioning to the team’s new look, Benjamin’s stock is trending downward. Heavily reliant on touchdowns, he’s just outside of my top-thirty-six WRs.”

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Throughout the previews, I often note if a team had an extreme record in close games. Well, the Panthers lost six games by a field goal or less last season. They won two three-point games as well, but losing six such games is rare. The Panthers’ luck changed for the worse from two seasons ago. In 2015 they were 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, counting playoffs. Then that over-corrected and they were really unlucky in 2016. One reason I like the Panthers’ record to improve this season is I doubt they lose that many coin-flip games again.

IS THE FIRING OF GENERAL MANAGER DAVE GETTLEMAN SOMETHING TO BE WORRIED ABOUT?

The Panthers firing Gettleman one season removed from an NFC championship was strange, but teams make unexpected changes like that, especially when the win total drops by nine games. The weird part is they waited until mid-July. The Panthers watched Brandon Beane leave for the Buffalo Bills’ general manager job in May, then fired their own general manager two months later. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s the kind of move impulsive, shaky franchises make. For this season, I don’t think it makes a big difference. Most of the front office’s work on this season’s roster is done, and former Panthers GM Marty Hurney (what a strange reunion that is) can guide the team through the next few months. But it’s a weird 180 that good organizations don’t usually make. Was it a power move by coach Ron Rivera? He denied that’s the case. It’s confusing, especially because Gettleman did a good job aside from the Josh Norman fiasco. It probably won’t affect the Panthers this season, but it will be interesting to see what the team’s next move is.

Many of the pieces from the 2015 team that made a Super Bowl still remain. Is isn’t crazy to believe the Panthers could make another run like that. If Christian McCaffrey plays at an offensive rookie of the year level, Kelvin Benjamin dedicates himself, the offensive line isn’t in shambles again and veterans like Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short, Greg Olsen and Cam Newton play like we’ve seen them play, this can be a really good team. Winning the NFC South is a realistic goal, especially if you assume a Super Bowl hangover for the Falcons (the Panthers can tell you all about it). And if the Panthers win the division, it’s not like there’s an unbeatable team elsewhere in the NFC.

While “15-1” has been mentioned often in this preview, if you want to point out the Panthers have had losing records two of the last three seasons – and five of the last seven – that’s accurate too. Newton has been a good quarterback since his rookie year, and basically since he was at Blinn Junior College, but he might never repeat his MVP season. I don’t anticipate Newton being as bad as he was last season, but if he’s not great and other things like Luke Kuechly’s health don’t cooperate, the Panthers could post another losing record.

The NFC South race will be a lot of fun. I’m still picking the Falcons to win it, Super Bowl hangover and all, but I think the Panthers will be much better than last season. I have a hard time believing 2015 was a fluke. Every other NFL team that has won 15 or more games remained a contender for a while. The division is tough and the NFC is deep, so a return to the playoffs won’t be easy. However, the Panthers will look much more like the NFC championship team than last season’s disappointment.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!