Cam Newton had a strong second half in 2012 (USA Today Sports Images)
Over the next few weeks, "Shutdown Corner" will pay homage to "Office Space" (TPS reports) as we take a quick look back at each team's 2012 season and a look at what lies ahead for the 2013 offseason. We head to the NFC South and begin with the Carolina Panthers.
2012 record: 7-9
What went wrong: The Panthers had one win entering November and were 2-8 by the time they carved their Thanksgiving turkeys.
Part of the reason for the early-season struggles were on offense, as the Panthers scored 14 points or less five times, including one game where the offense was outscored 9-3 by the defense and special teams in a 16-12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 7. The Panthers also struggled on third downs in many of their losses, going a combined six-of-43 in losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos.
The Panthers took a step back on offense, averaging 30 fewer yards per game on offense, including rushing for 20 yards less per game in 2012 than they did in a 2011 season where DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton had 700 or more rushing yards. According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, the Panthers dropped from fourth in offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) to 10th last season.
The Panthers once again ranked near the bottom of the league in special teams, ranking 29th in Football Outsider' special teams DVOA. The Panthers released kicker Olindo Mare and went with the inexperienced Justin Medlock, who would miss three straight field goals and be replaced by Graham Gano. Among qualifying punters, rookie Brad Nortman was last in the league in 2012 with a net punting average of 36.5 yards.
What went right: The Panthers finished strong, winning five of their last six games, saving Ron Rivera's job. A tangible reason to keep Rivera around was the improvement the team made on both sides of the ball during the season.
Newton, the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, struggled for the first part of his sophomore season, but finished the season on a high note. In his final nine games, Newton passed for 2,168 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions with 431 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
Carolina's gave up a lot of big plays, but improved significantly in 2012. After ranking 28th in 2011, and 27th in scoring defense, the Panthers ranked 10th in total defense and were 18th in scoring defense. According to Football Outsiders, the Panthers ranked 32nd in defensive DVOA in 2011, but improved to 11th in 2012. Spearheading the defensive improvement was first-round linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had 164 tackles, including 12 for a loss, one sack, with two interceptions, eight passes defensed and recovered three fumbles. Defensive end Greg Hardy had a breakout season with 11 sacks, which was second behind defensive end Charles Johnson's 12.5 sacks.
Coaching/front office changes: The Panthers fired Marty Hurney early on in the 2012 season. To replace Hurney, the Panthers hired David Gettleman, who had been a senior personnel executive with the New York Giants. After a strong finish, the Panthers are giving head coach Ron Rivera a third season on the sidelines. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left the team to accept the head coaching position with the Cleveland Browns and was replaced by Mike Shula.
Estimated 2013 cap space: $9.3 million over the cap
DeAngelo Williams will likely have a new team in 2013 (USA Today Sports Images)
Possible cap casualties: With Stewart injured in 2012, DeAngelo Williams finished second on the team behind Cam Newton in rushing with 737 yards with five touchdowns. The Panthers are financially committed to Stewart, which means Williams and his $5 million cash compensation ($4.75 million base salary, $250,000 workout bonus) and $8.2 million cap number will be let go this offseason. The Panthers are likely to use a "post-June 1" designation on Williams, which frees up $5 million in cap space. Otherwise, Williams would count $9.6 million against the cap this season, a $1.4 million bump over his current number.
The Panthers have already freed up $3.4 million in cap space by renegotiating the contract of center Ryan Kalil and are also expected to renegotiate the contract of linebacker Thomas Davis, who overcame three torn ACLs in three years to start 12 of 15 games and post 105 tackles in 2012. Davis, who turns 30 in March, is scheduled to earn $5.5 million from the Panthers, a sum largely comprised of "per game" roster bonuses totaling $3 million.
Veteran Chris Gamble landed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury and the 30-year-old cornerback has a $10.9 million cap number this season. Releasing Gamble would save $7.9 million in cash and cap space. More big savings could be had if the Panthers released left tackle Jordan Gross, who is due $8.7 million in cash with an $11.7 million cap number. A renegotiation is more likely, but releasing Gross would save $6.7 million in cap space.
Unrestricted free agents
Derek Anderson, QB
Antwan Applewhite, DE/LB
Gary Barnidge, TE
Dwan Edwards, DT
Ben Hartsock, TE
Sherrod Martin, S
Captain Munnerlyn, CB
Louis Murphy, WR
Jason Phillips, LB
Mike Pollak, C/G
Jordan Senn, LB
Restricted free agents
Andre Neblett, DT
Nate Ness, CB
RFA tender amounts in 2013 are:
• $1.323 million for right of first refusal and/or original draft round compensation
• $2.023 for right of first refusal and second round draft selection
• $2.879 for right of first refusal and first round draft selection
Franchise Tag candidates: The Panthers lack the cap space to use the franchise tag this offseason. Fortunately, they do not have an unrestricted or restricted free agent who would warrant the use of the franchise tag.
Previous installments of the "Offseason TPS Reports" series:
AFC East: New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers
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