As teams get mathematically eliminated from the NFL playoffs, we’ll give you a jump on their offseason by examining what went right, what went wrong and what needs to change before next season.
The Panthers dipped in 2016 after a magical 2015 season, but bounced back well. They made the playoffs and had a hard-fought loss to the Saints in the wild-card round. Nobody there is satisfied with a first-round playoff loss, but the Panthers proved again they’re one of the NFL’s best teams.
What went right: The Panthers were good across the board. They didn’t stand out in any one area, but were pretty good in all areas. Their star players — quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive tackle Kawann Short and you might be able to include running back Christian McCaffrey — played like stars. They’re really well coached by Ron Rivera. There are adjustments that need to be made (and they started right away) but the foundation is strong.
What went wrong: Obviously Ron Rivera didn’t like the direction the offense was headed, because he fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula right after the season ended and hired Norv Turner. It was surprising because Shula had a great 2015 and the Panthers were one of the NFL’s best teams this season. It’s also fair to ask if Shula was put in a bad situation, considering the lack of talent around Newton — especially when tight end Greg Olsen was out with a foot injury. Turner has been a fine coordinator and should be a good fit with strong-armed Cam Newton. He’ll need to figure out if this is finally the time the Panthers cut back on Newton as a runner, something that seems to be an annual promise that is forgotten once the season starts.
Will the coach be back?: Ron Rivera is clearly one of the best coaches in the NFL. The Panthers are in great hands, especially as the organization enters an uncertain time as owner Jerry Richardson sells the team under fire.
Do they have a quarterback?: I worry we’ll never see Cam Newton truly get a great supporting cast. The receiving group he was throwing to this season was among the thinnest in the NFL (although Devin Funchess had a nice breakout). It would just take one great draft or a big signing or both to give Newton the type of receivers other quarterbacks enjoy, and hopefully that happens soon. Because Newton is a fantastic player.
Quick free agent fix: The Panthers are among the bottom 10 teams in projected cap space, so a big signing isn’t likely to happen. The big question the Panthers have is whether they can resign guard Andrew Norwell, who earned All-Pro honors this season in a contract year. It would be nice for the Panthers to invest in an upgrade at running back, and that shouldn’t cost much. Jonathan Stewart has had a nice career, but he averaged 3.4 yards per carry this season. The Panthers need a better back to pair with Christian McCaffrey.
Quick draft fix: The Panthers will have to look at receiver in the draft, though that’s not their only need. Mario Addison and Julius Peppers each had 11 sacks for the Panthers, but they were 30 and 37 years old respectively. The Panthers don’t want to wait to address the pass rush until it’s too late. Guard becomes an issue if Andrew Norwell walks. Also, Greg Olsen is a marvel and still a great player, but he’s 32 and the Panthers need to find his replacement soon. This is a big draft for Carolina.
Give it to me straight, can my team make the playoffs in 2018?: The NFC South is tough, but it’s tough to count the Panthers out. They have a fantastic coach and a very good quarterback. The have blue-chip stars on defense. Of the 24 NFL teams that didn’t win a division title this season, I think it’s reasonable to call the Panthers the best of that group. It’ll be tough to make it back to the playoffs in a difficult division, but they’ll be in the mix again.
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