Reinventing the Carolina Panthers Passing Offense
Quick passing has never been Cam Newton’s calling card. He is one of the worst passers in the league when throwing to the 1-5 yard range, according to Cian Fahey and his Pre-Snaps Reads Quarterback Catalogue 2017, ranking 32nd out of 33 eligible quarterbacks with a passing percentage of 76.9 percent. Only Matt Barkley at 71.9 percent was worse (Sam Bradford was tops at 93.33 percent). Beyond five yards, however, Newton is impeccable, and he can mask his poor accuracy in the short game with his downfield passing and athleticism. But that isn’t to say that short-passing shouldn’t be apart of his arsenal. Picking up quick yards can keep defenses honest and help move the sticks when defenses are blockading the run game.
The lack of effective quick passing from the Carolina Panthers isn’t all Newton’s fault. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula regularly forces Newton to push the ball beyond ten yards. Newton threw within five yards of the line of scrimmage fewer than any quarterback in the NFL, per Fahey, and even when the Panthers tried to play the quick game, the skill players failed their quarterback. There is more than enough blame to go around the building for previous seasons, but the Panthers offense has potential to improve in the quick game in 2017.
The Panthers set out to acquire a new, more versatile talent base this offseason. With the eighth-overall pick, the Panthers drafted running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey is an efficient, patient runner who has the ability to pop off long runs. McCaffrey can also line up as a receiver, both out wide and in the slot, in addition to running routes out of the backfield. He can be whatever the Panthers want him to be.
Second-rounder Curtis Samuel, a running back/slot receiver hybrid, also adds a spark to the offense. Samuel, like McCaffrey, can be moved all around the formation and be the type of player that haunts defensive coordinators. He is a blur with the ball in his hands.
Now, with fresh skill players to work with, Shula has to be smarter in conducting the offense than he was a year ago. The Panthers can not roll out the same personnel packages that failed them in 2016. Far too often the Panthers either looked archaic with their heavy personnel or outsmarted themselves by running plays with heavy personnel that were doomed from the start. Take the play below, for example.
The situation is 3rd-and-3. The Panthers come out with six offensive linemen, two tight ends, a fullback, and a lone receiver split out left. Cornerback Desmond Trufant goes toe-to-toe with wide receiver Devin Funchess, a single-high safety plays over the top, and the rest of the Atlanta Falcons defense crowds the box. The Falcons have a defender for every gap along the line of scrimmage, meaning the Panthers are going to trust their blockers to win every one-on-one if they run the ball.
Shula calls for a pass, though, and it’s a poorly thought-out concept. Funchess runs a ‘comeback’ route in his solo effort versus Trufant, while the two tight ends run vertical routes to the right side of the field. Newton looks off Funchess, likely not feeling comfortable about that matchup versus an elite cornerback such as Trufant. The two tight ends are matched up without hesitation and fail to generate any vertical separation.
Through it all, the Panthers offensive line gets dismantled. Left tackle Mike Remmers gets put on spin cycle by Brooks Reed, and the right guard and right tackle get walked back into Newton’s lap. Newton has a rapidly collapsing pocket and no quick option to throw to, nor is there a checkdown option. It was a downfield-only call on 3rd-and-3 with a mediocre wide receiver and two tight ends. That can’t be the way a drive ends, especially in enemy territory.
Shula has to do a better job of spreading teams out and giving Newton safety valves. McCaffrey and Samuel should push that transition along in 2017. McCaffrey is technically a running back and Curtis Samuel is listed as a slot receiver, but both players are versatile pieces who can be used in and out of the backfield interchangeably.
Concepts like the one above should be used more often and would be far more effective with McCaffrey and Samuel on the field. The blue dot is Kelvin Benjamin, and he should remain. The green dot is Corey Brown and the red dot is Devin Funchess, and they ought to be replaced in this concept. If Samuel were to replace Brown (green dot) and McCaffrey took Funchess’ spot (red dot), this concept is trickier for opposing defenses to handle and poses a better explosive play threat.
With the theoretical personnel set on the field, the Panthers could still pose a run threat with Newton and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield, while the trio out wide coaxes defenses to spread out and be ready for the pass. Explosive ball carriers like McCaffrey and Samuel have the explosiveness to take off for 20, 30, or 40 yards following a short reception, where as guys like Funchess and Brown don’t provide that potential.
Formations like the one above should be more effective in 2017, too. Instead of Mike Tolbert and Corey Brown, the Panthers can put McCaffrey and Samuel in the backfield, or mix-and-match one of the rookies with Stewart. McCaffrey and/or Samuel would not only provide the same pass catching possibilities out of the backfield that Brown would, but they can also be legitimate running backs, giving the Panthers the flexibility to run a myriad of option plays or quick passes.
Samuel, in particular, ought to be lined up everywhere the Panthers can find room for him. While at Ohio State, Samuel regularly motioned in or out of the backfield, flip-flopping between being a running back and a slot receiver. Defenses were never able to get a feel for where he would end up by the time the ball was snapped and, as a result, had issues containing him. Below are two plays from the same drive during Ohio State’s victory over Oklahoma early on last season.
In both plays, Samuel is shifted out of his initial position. The first play shows Samuel moving out of the backfield in favor of the slot, giving him a matchup versus a safety that he was able to exploit. On the second play, Samuel begins in the slot and is shifted to a traditional running back spot. Samuel takes a carry directed to the outside, bounces to the perimeter, and flies down the sideline for a touchdown. Samuel’s unpredictability paired with his explosive athleticism makes for a devilish playmaker — the type of player that the Panthers have been missing for years.
McCaffrey, on the other hand, will assume a true running back role, sprinkled in with some slot and wideout snaps. McCaffrey’s role should look similar to that of Le’Veon Bell’s with the Pittsburgh Steelers or David Johnson’s with the Arizona Cardinals, though McCaffrey won’t receive that type of volume immediately. McCaffrey will be a receiving threat both in and out of the backfield.
Stanford was in a tough spot in the play above. Down 30-0 to Washington, Stanford needed to convert on 4th-and-10 to salvage any hope in that game. McCaffrey came to the rescue. Quarterback Ryan Burns tries to find a receiver beyond the sticks, but no dice. He then checks the ball down to McCaffrey, who just released out of his pass protection check into a short route. McCaffrey catches the pass a couple yards past the line of scrimmage and dodges two defenders on his way to a first down.
McCaffrey has the vision and agility to pick up yards as a checkdown option in a way that most other running backs aren’t capable of. Given that Whittaker and Stewart were Carolina’s only options out of the backfield a year ago, someone with the pass-catching ability and explosiveness of McCaffrey will reinvent the way Carolina can use and trust running backs to generate easy yards, as opposed to constantly having to attack down the field.
The Panthers can’t afford to misuse the quick game the way they did a year ago. Shula has to be more creative and effective with his personnel groupings and play calls, while Newton needs to improve his accuracy in the short game. All parties have to come together to take advantage of the easy yards that defenses are more willing to surrender. Improving to simply average in the quick game would do wonders for Carolina’s offense. With McCaffrey and Samuel now in the mix, there’s no excuse for Shula and Newton to misuse the quick passing game.