It seems thereâ€™s very little middle ground with the baby-blue Panthers. One year theyâ€™re the new kid on the block. They next year theyâ€™re playing in the NFC title game. One year theyâ€™re 1-15. Two years later theyâ€™re playing in the Super Bowl. One year they have a great ground game and a dominant pass defense, they did in 2009, and appear ready to make the Big Leap. They next year theyâ€™re a statistical wrecking ball with a stone-age passing game in need of a total makeover.
And, well, the team is already in total makeover mode: coach John Fox was dumped after nine tantalizing but mostly frustrating seasons. Enter Ron Rivera, a guy with a great rep but no head coaching experience.
The quarterback of the future, Jimmy Clausen, struggled badly in 2010, even by the lowly standards of rookie passers. The team is already looking elsewhere.
It's a toxic mess right now.
The 2010 storyline: The Panthers were a curious study in contrasts: they had a playoff-caliber defense, at least in terms of pass defense. They were 12th in Defensive Passer Rating (80.96) and even fairly stout against the run (3.94 YPA).
But the team finished 26th in scoring defense â€“ a fact largely attributed to the utterly dysfunctional passing attack on offense.
And there were other problems, too: a brutally tough schedule against which the Panthers were helpless: an NFL-worst 0-10 vs. Quality Opponents, and outscored in those games nearly 3 to 1.
It all adds up to the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft â€“ assuming there is one.
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 2-14 (12.3 PPG â€“ 25.5 PPG)
Last five seasons overall: 37-43 (.463)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Defensive Passer Rating (12th); Defensive Hog Index (12th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Pretty much anything to do with offense. Scoreability (32nd); Passing YPA (32nd); Offensive Passer Rating (32nd); even dead last in Passer Rating Differential (32nd)
All Quality StatsÂ
Defensive Passing YPA (new Quality Stat for 2011): 17th
Quarterback Rating (new Quality Stat for 2011): 31st
Defensive Quarterback Rating (new Quality Stat for 2011): 14th
Relativity Index (once-proud Quality Stat being reintroduced for 2011): 32nd
Statistical curiosity of 2010
Carolina ended the year with justÂ nineÂ touchdown passes all season, the fewest by any team since the 2007 Titans (nine). The 2010 Panthers ranked last in both scoring offense and total offense, they scored the fewest points in franchise history (196) and did not score more than two touchdowns in a game even once all season. Other than those numbers, they looked just like the 2007 Patriots.
Best game of 2010
23-20 win vs. San Francisco (Week 7). The Panthers actually looked something like a legitimate NFL team as they earned their first victory of the year after an 0-5 start. Matt Moore did his best imitation of an actual pro quarterback (28 of 41, 308 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT), highlighted by a 23-yard fourth-quarter TD toss to David Gettis that tied the game at 20-20. Of course, in true 2010 Panthers form, he needed to throw that TD to make up for a pick-six he threw earlier in the quarter.
Cornerback Richard Marshall picked off a David Carr pass with just over 1 minute to play, setting up the 37-yard game-winning figgie by trusty old John Kasay with 39 seconds to play.
Worst game of 2010
27-3 loss at Pittsburgh (Week 16). Plenty of games on the Carolina schedule vied for the title of worst fo the year. But the Panthers looked at their punchless worst against the leagueâ€™s best defense in late December. Carolina mounted 74 yards on the ground and an anemic 45 yards through the air and were outgained almost 4 to 1 in total offense (408 to 119).
Pass defense. Led by Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason, and safety Charles Godfrey, who you could argue had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, Carolinaâ€™s pass defenders kept the team more competitive in many games than perhaps it should have been.
Passing game. Ball control. You canâ€™t win in the NFL if you canâ€™t pass the ball. And the Panthers in 2010 simply could not pass the ball.
It was truly impressive how bad the Carolina passing game was in 2010: Dead last in the league in Passing YPA; Offensive Passer Rating and Passer Rating Differential. Carolina was also dead last in Scoreability, our measure of offensive efficiency, and in our Relativity Index, a measure of how well you perform relative to the average output of your opponents.
Carolina also scraped near the bottom, at 31st, in Bendability, our measure of defensive efficiency, and the Offensive Hog Index. And only Buffalo ranked worse across the board in all our Quality Stats.
Hell, itâ€™s a miracle this team won even two games, given those numbers.
Matt Moore was the starting quarterback out of the gates, and he did so amid great hopes: he was downright impressive when starting the final five games of the 2009 season. But 2010 did not go very well. In fact, it was a disaster.
He quickly ceded the gig to rookie Clausen, he was an even bigger disaster: three touchdown passes in 10 starts and 13 appearances.
Turnovers absolutely devastated the team: they coughed up the ball five times in the first game of the year, a 31-18 loss at the Giants, and the die had been set. Carolina suffered at least one turnover in every game, two or more in 11 games and three or more in six games. By the way, those six three-turnover-plus games were all in the first half ot the year. So things did get slightly better on the turnover front. The teamâ€™s 21Â INTsÂ was compounded by 16 lost fumbles, among the most in the NFL.
Only solid play on defense â€“ including 17 picks â€“ kept the team from being worse than -8 in turnover differential.
Â Â Â
General off-season strategy/overview
It seems Carolina has already given up on Jimmy Clausen. In one respect, we understand: there was little positive to come out of his performances in 2010. But on the other hand, itâ€™s indicative of the modern MO in the Not For Long League. The history of the NFL is filled with quarterbacks who took several years to come into their own. Hall of Famers Len Dawson and Terry Bradshaw are two that come immediately to mind.
But the NFL no longer works that way. The Panthers have already had workouts for QB prospects Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert, and nobody will be surprised if they expendÂ the first pick of the draftÂ on the position after using a mid-second last year to land Clausen. Carolina also signed tight end Jeremy Shockey in an effort to give their quarterback of 2011 â€“ whoever it might be â€“ another weapon.
The other big area of need is offensive line. Carolina finished No. 31 on our Offensive Hog Index last year, despite the presence of young star and two-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil anchoring the middle. So look for plenty of help in that department, too.
Carolina still ran the ball effectively last year (4.31 YPA), but they were among the worst in the league at protecting the passer, allowing a Negative Pass Play on 13.3 percent of dropbacks. Sure, itâ€™s a symbiotic releationship. Bad, inexperienced and indecisive quarterbacks make offensive lines look poor; but bad offensive lines have the same impact on young quarterbacks.
So a big boost to the OL will go a long way toward improving the future.
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis
Rookie head coach Ron Rivera enters the 2011 season with a great rep as a defensive coordinator in both Chicago and San Diego. He inherits some talent on defense. And, as noted above, Carolina, as much as any team in the NFL, has proven how quickly fortunes can change in pro football.
But Carolina needs a lot of things to change fast to become a competitive football team. Add in the fact that the Panthers play in the top-heavy NFC South, in which Atlanta and New Orleans are both legit Super Bowl contenders and Tampa is knocking on the postseason door, and it sounds like 6-10 would be cause for excitement about the future in Carolina. But don't hold your breath, either.