Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
It wasn’t a move that got as much attention as a head coaching change, or a splashy free-agent signing, but the Carolina Panthers made a switch that is as important as any other in the NFL.
Head coach Ron Rivera fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula, citing the desire to bring in some new ideas to an offense that had gone into a funk since a tremendous 2015 season. Immediately, Turner was rumored to be the preferred replacement, and it was no surprise when he was hired. Theoretically, Turner could be so good he gets another shot at a head-coaching job, or so bad he’s fired in a year or two. Realistically, the Panthers’ new offensive coordinator will be guiding Newton well into his 30s.
What would Newton’s legacy be right now, as he heads into his age-29 season? His college legacy is set for his amazing 2010 season at Auburn. His pro legacy isn’t as well established. His NFL story probably starts with his 2015 MVP, when he led the Panthers to the Super Bowl. He has undeniably had a good career, but a great one? As a passer he has only one 4,000-yard season (as a rookie), has exceeded 24 touchdowns only once and has thrown double-digit interceptions each season. His ability as a runner is a huge plus on his resume. Only Michael Vick (6,109) and Randall Cunningham (4,928) have more rushing yards among quarterbacks than Newton, who has 4,320 yards in 109 games. Vick played in 143 games and Cunningham 161. Newton already holds the NFL record for a quarterback with 54 rushing touchdowns.
There’s a lot to like, but it feels like there could be another level for Newton. Maybe that place could take Newton back to the Super Bowl, and perhaps to the Hall of Fame. It’s now on Turner to help unlock it.
Turner has been a good offensive coordinator for decades, though it is troubling how his time with the Minnesota Vikings ended. He quit midseason, saying he thought he was holding the offense back, though there also seemed to be differences with head coach Mike Zimmer. While Turner is mostly known for work with Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers – big, strong-armed quarterbacks who could throw it downfield, just like Newton – he also adjusted to have success with Teddy Bridgewater, who isn’t like Aikman, Rivers or Newton. Turner can adapt to fit his personnel’s strengths. Newton, however, seems to fit what he prefers. Newton has never been the type of quarterback who will work a defense underneath with precise short passes that generate a huge completion percentage. And Turner mostly hasn’t been that kind of coordinator.
As a passer, Newton should be comfortable throwing deep to Devin Funchess, first-round pick D.J. Moore and tight end Greg Olsen off play-action (Turner’s offenses have had six running backs lead the league in rushing, so a strong run game is always a foundation). Also, Turner understands what makes Newton special and won’t change that.
“He’s incredible as a runner. He’s just an amazing player at that position,” Turner said, according to the Panthers’ transcripts. “There’s two ways that he ends up carrying the ball, obviously: It’s designed runs, and then he’s made a lot of plays where he’s kept the ball in passing situations or when he drops back to throw it and the opportunity to run opens up. I think that’s a real threat to defenses. Defenses, they’re really bothered by that. He’s always got to have that as part of his game. He’s always got to have the threat to run. Depending on who we’re playing, how we’re playing and things that are going, I think it’s always going to be a part of what we do.”
The Panthers have done very well with Newton. He helped turn around a franchise that took him with the first overall pick. Carolina is 49-26-1 over the past five years when Newton starts. Had the Panthers finished a dream season in 2015 with a Super Bowl win, that would be Newton’s legacy. Ask Eli Manning or Joe Flacco how Super Bowls can carry a reputation. Instead, Newton is entering a key point in his career in which he’ll define how we remember him.
However Newton’s legacy ends up, it will be a big part of Turner’s football legacy too.
Only one 2017 first-team All-Pro player changed teams this offseason: guard Andrew Norwell, who left the Panthers for Jacksonville. The Panthers also lost some familiar veterans: defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, safety Kurt Coleman, tight end Ed Dickson and running back Jonathan Stewart. While teams don’t want to get stuck hanging onto old veterans too long, that’s a lot of experience and production out the door. Among acquisitions, the largest contract by far went to defensive tackle Dontari Poe (three years, $28 million). The other additions were low-priced contributors: receiver Jarius Wright, cornerback Ross Cockrell, safety Da’Norris Searcy, running back C.J. Anderson. I like the first-round pick of receiver D.J. Moore, and third-round cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Rashaan Gaulden could contribute right away. Norwell was a big loss, and that knocks down the grade a bit.
The Panthers, as usual, have a lot of talent in the front seven. Tackle Dontari Poe replaces Star Lotulelei, and he should form a really good duo with Kawann Short. End Mario Addison has 20.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Once Thomas Davis returns from a four-game suspension, the Panthers have a tremendous trio of linebackers with Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson and Davis. There are plenty of questions in the secondary, but the front seven covers up a lot of issues.
The Panthers had one big stumbling block last season. Including playoffs, they went 11-3 against everyone not from New Orleans, and 0-3 against the Saints. The Saints won those games by a combined 36 points. Forecasting the Panthers for 2017, you have to consider they play in perhaps the toughest division in the NFL. They didn’t match up well against the Saints last season. The Falcons will be good again. The Panthers’ games against the Buccaneers come in Weeks 9 and 13, long after Jameis Winston’s suspension expires. The Panthers have a tough road, starting with trying to figure out the Saints.
Sage Rosenfels, a former NFL quarterback who played for Norv Turner, had some interesting comments to the Charlotte Observer about the relationship between Turner and Cam Newton.
“Cam has twice the talent of a Drew Brees – stronger arm, physically, just a lot of those skills. But it doesn’t feel like to me that he brings that same energy that his teammates can feed off,” Rosenfels told the Observer.
“It’s not necessarily X’s and O’s. But maybe Norv can help him bring that type of tenacity and energy to not only make Cam better and take less hits, but make his teammates around him better.”
It also sounds like Turner will be coaching Newton pretty hard.
“Norv’s demanding. He feels strongly about his offense. He feels strongly about the plays he has designed over the years, helped design, and the way he sees the game,” Rosenfels said, according to the Observer. “And he wants that offense to run smooth and be very precise, and that starts with the quarterback being very precise.
“He puts the most pressure on the quarterback more than any other position, without a doubt.”
When the offensive coordinator change was made, the conversation centered on two topics: Cam Newton, and how to get even more out of running back Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey, the eighth pick of last year’s draft, was solid as a rookie with 1,086 yards from scrimmage. He caught 80 passes. But the Panthers want more. Since McCaffrey isn’t a traditional between-the-tackles running back like fellow 2017 rookie Leonard Fournette – though McCaffrey has the ability to run inside – it’s important for the staff to get creative.
The good news is Norv Turner is already talking up McCaffrey, even making a comparison to Darren Sproles, who Turner coached early in Sproles’ career.
“He’s got such talent, you’re just going to keep finding ways to get him the ball and try to create more space for him,” Turner said in an interview with the team’s site. “That hard-nosed running between the tackles he can certainly do, but I don’t know that’s what you want to lead with him.
“Christian is ahead of [where Sproles was], and there are some things we can do that he did, but Christian can run wide receiver routes. So yeah, there’s a lot of things we did with Darren that apply, and there are some things that I think we can do differently with Christian.”
From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “Christian McCaffery had a heck of a rookie campaign, as evidenced by his current draft stock. While I’m infatuated with the 22-year-old’s talent, I’m not interested in paying peak value for his services.
“The RB11 overall in half-point PPR formats in 2017, McCaffery was the most targeted RB in the league. He also hauled in the third most receptions at 80 catches on the season. How much better can he realistically do? An increase in totes is the only place for him to significantly up his production. Maybe he averages 10 carries per game – and stays healthy in the process – but that’s not a gamble that I’m willing to take in the first round. Not when perennial producers like Devonta Freeman and Jordan Howard are still on the board.”
[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Panthers.]
The Panthers had a tremendous record in close games last season. Carolina was 7-1 in contests decided by seven or fewer points, and won all four games decided by a field goal or less. No team had a better winning percentage in close games. Only Pittsburgh had more wins in games decided by seven points or less, with eight victories. As I often say in these previews, extremely good or bad records in close games don’t tend to repeat. If the Panthers went .500 in those games last season, we’re having a lot different conversation about them.
CAN LINEBACKER LUKE KUECHLY STAY HEALTHY?
Unfortunately, it’s a question we’ll ask about Kuechly the rest of his career. Kuechly, one of the league’s most dynamic players, has dealt with multiple concussions. Last year he suffered another one in a game against the Eagles, and missed one game. The Panthers’ defense looked entirely different in that loss to Philadelphia without Kuechly, and that’s no surprise. His value is tremendous. Over the past three seasons, Carolina is 26-11 when Kuechly is in the lineup and 5-5 in games he has missed with concussions (h/t to ESPN).
Hopefully Kuechly won’t have to deal with more concussion issues, but it will be a concern the rest of his career.
The Panthers have posted at least 11 wins three of the past five seasons. Cam Newton is a difference maker and if he takes to Norv Turner’s scheme, we know he can play at an MVP level. I’m not sure another 15-1 season is possible, but if the Panthers can get over the Saints hump, they could win the NFC South. And because of Newton, they could be a team that makes noise in the playoffs.
The 2013 and 2015 Panthers were dominant teams. The 2017 version was good, but a little lucky to reach 11-5. They’re not going 7-1 in close games again. That’s not to say the Panthers can’t be in playoff contention again, but some improvements will have to happen to fight regression in one-score games. Because Norv Turner has never coached a quarterback quite like Cam Newton, it’s not a sure thing the offense will click right away. The Panthers’ foundation is strong so I doubt they will collapse, but in a tough division they could see a significant step back.
I have the Panthers at a strong No. 13 on my countdown, and there are two NFC South teams ahead of them. This is a rough division. The Panthers could end up being a very good team and still finish third in their division, in a conference that has 8-10 playoff-level teams. There will be some very good teams in the NFC that don’t make the playoffs, and even though I like the Panthers, they’ll be in that group.
32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
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