The Carolina Panthers were virtually a playoff lock midway through the 2018 season. They finished the back half with a 1-7 record, their only win coming against a Teddy Bridgewater-led, resting New Orleans team.
There are many things to point to when considering this great collapse. Cam Newton’s injury, a horrible pass rush/secondary combo, and continued abysmal offensive line play to name a few. Regardless, the Panthers have the pieces in place to not only make the playoffs, but contend for their first title.
Here are three things that need to happen in the 2019 season for the Carolina Panthers to make the NFL Playoffs.
3. Cam Newton must return to full health and stay there with help from the offensive line
Cam Newton was putting up career numbers while leading his team to a 6-2 record in the first half of 2018. Under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Newton looked like he was returning to MVP form. Then the Panthers made a trip to Pittsburgh on Thursday Night Football.
On that cold Pittsburgh night, Carolina endured its worst loss in franchise history. A final score of 52-21 and a quietly injured Cam Newton spelled doom for the rest of the Panthers season. Newton struggled through his shoulder injury as the Panthers spiraled out of control on their way to a six-game losing streak.
Since 2011, the Panthers have gone as their first overall draft pick and franchise quarterback Cam Newton has gone. There is no doubt about it. The team feeds off his ups and struggles with his downs. If the Panthers want to compete in 2019, they absolutely must return Cam Newton to 100% health, while doing everything in their power to keep him there.
Keeping your quarterback healthy starts with the offensive line. Cam Newton hasn’t had a reliable left tackle throughout his eight-year tender in Carolina. The lack of continuity on the blind side (and on the offensive line in general) has really handcuffed this team and put a beating on their franchise quarterback. The Panthers took steps this offseason to fix that.
Former Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis was brought in to replace the retiring, all-pro center Ryan Kalil and should provide an instant upgrade in play at the position. Carolina also spent a second round draft pick on Greg Little, a left tackle out of Ole Miss and someone they considered selecting in the first round. Little is fully expected take the reigns at left tackle, where he’s specialized throughout his football career as a stellar pass protector.
The additions to the offensive line will be indirectly critical to the Panthers success, as they need their franchise quarterback upright and strong. If Newton has to miss time, it’ll be another long and frustrating season for Ron Rivera and company.
2. Complementary defense must improve
In 2018, the Carolina Panthers fielded what seemed to be the worst defense during the Luke Kuechly era. The Panthers were among the leagues worst in sacks and turnovers. An abysmal and aging pass rush made a weak secondary zone scheme look even softer. The Panthers were also keen to give up massive plays on 3rd and long situations throughout the season. It was frustrating football to watch, and the coaching staff was put on notice following an ugly loss at Tampa Bay in December.
In his second tenure as the general manager in Carolina, Marty Hurney seems to have a much better grip on what he needed to do to improve his roster. Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera seemed to be on the same page this offseason in addressing the Panthers’ top needs and admitting that major changes would be necessary on the defensive side of the ball.
Following the loss in Tampa Bay, Rivera decided to take over defensive play-calling from first year defensive coordinator Eric Washington. In the offseason, he hinted at a potential shift from a base 4-3 to more of a mixed hybrid defense, implementing 3-4 looks. The more the offseason has trudged along, the more clear it seems to be that the Panthers will be fully changing their defensive look in 2019.
The Panthers brought in veteran 3-4 outside linebacker Bruce Irvin in the latter waves of free agency. They followed that move up by drafting two versatile edge rushers in Florida State’s Brian Burns and Alabama’s Christian Miller. Those two were known in college to have the ability to play outside linebacker flexibly in a 3-4 defense.
The Panthers truly struggled up front in 2018, allowing quarterbacks to gain confidence in their comfort ability in the pocket as the hapless secondary was shredded game to game. Rivera kept mentioning a lack of “complimentary football” being played through their losing streak. This could have been considered to involve complements of offense and defense, but it’s become clear that Rivera was referring to his pass rush complementing his secondary play. It just never came together at the same time for the Panthers.
This will need to change in 2019 if the Panthers want to lock up a playoff spot in one of the most fearsome quarterback divisions in football history. Luckily, Rivera and Hurney have taken major steps forward to shift this side of the ball dramatically.
1. There must be a breakout pass catcher offensively
Wide receiver Curtis Samuel had somewhat of a coming out party in 2018, making electric plays and scoring on an insane ratio of his touches in the first half of the year. Rookie DJ Moore also flashed major potential, specifically in his ability to run after the catch like an absolute bulldog. They had nice seasons, but the Panthers will need one or both to majorly break out in 2019 to help balance the offense and take the load off running back Christian McCaffrey.
As Cam Newton works to regain his health, he will need to lean on his playmakers early in the season. DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel show potential to be those guys. If the Panthers are able to develop this tandem into something fearsome, they will have a fantastic shot at the playoffs in 2019.