The story going into 2017 for the Carolina Panthers was getting Cam Newton the tools he needed to get the offense running. He already had the reliable Greg Olsen at tight end and two big receivers in Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin. Jonathan Stewart in the backfield had been good but a bit injury-prone, and their offensive line has been a big questions. They paid big money for Matt Kalil, brother of center Ryan Kalil, to sure up the left tackle spot. And they drafted Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to add speed and versatility, as both could play running back or wide receiver. They were coming off an underachieving season after having reached the Super Bowl the year before, so the team wanted to get back on track.
An 11-5 record, losing out on the division title by a tie-breaker, and making the playoffs as a wildcard team is not a bad season. There are plenty of teams that would’ve taken that. Even their losses came against almost all good teams… except their loss to the Chicago Bears, where they really beat themselves. But they lost to the New Orleans Saints three times in the same season. Turning one of those games around would’ve changed everything.
The defense continues to improve, getting the most out of the ageless Julius Peppers and their young cornerbacks getting more experience. The problem was inconsistency on the offensive side of the ball. Olsen and Ryan Kalil were injured for a chunk of the season. Samuel also had injury issues that landed him on injured reserve and the team traded away Benjamin, the idea being the team was best in 2015 when Benjamin was on IR. But the bottom line was that Newton was sluggish at times as the team tried to cut down his running, but did better when he was let loose and got into the flow of the game.
In a move to get the most out of Newton, McCaffrey, and the rest of the offense, the team fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who had been with Newton since he was drafted starting as his quarterback’s coach. His replacement is Rivera’s former boss and offensive guru Norv Turner, who has worked with quarterbacks like Troy Aikman and Phillip Rivers. He’s even gotten the best out of guys like Gus Frerotte and Brad Johnson.
Turner is expected to get the best out of Newton and has no delusions that he will make the big quarterback stop running. But Turner’s offense usually focuses on an aggressive mid-to-long range passing attack, and Newton hasn’t been consistent with his passing. How good the Panthers are next season will depend on Turner crafting an offense to Newton’s strengths and help develop his areas of weakness. Kind of weird to say about a quarterback who has been the league’s MVP only three seasons back.
The team needs to look over their receiving corps and see what they truly have, and Matt Kalil may not be the answer at left tackle. Improvements on the offensive line should be a big concern for the team going forward.
The biggest thing will be who ends up owning the team. After allegations of inappropriate behavior against Jerry Richardson, the only owner the team has ever had, he has put the team up for sale. Rivera is under contract and so is his staff, but general manager Marty Hurney is still interim after the preseason firing of Dave Gettleman. How the front office plays out will also determine the team’s 2018 season.