Does anyone remember The $10,000 Pyramid? In case you don’t, here’s a quick refresher: Pyramid was a game show where contestants tried to guess words or phrases based off of clues given by their teammates. For example, if I said “peanut butter and…” you would probably reply “jelly!” Obviously if your partner doesn’t get it right with the first hint, you can use multiple, varying clues. Ultimately, the more words or phrases you get correct, the more money you’d win.
Well, I think it might be fun to try this exercise with the DLF faithful! What phrase do you think I’m describing? Here’s your first clue:
1. Your team is currently 1-5 and resides at the bottom of their division.
Okay, I guess that could be a bit ambiguous. Let’s try a second hint:
2. Your starting center, the same one who guaranteed a Super Bowl appearance in a full-page newspaper ad, is on injured reserve.
Well, c’mon now. This is fantasy football, who cares about some bombastic center mouthing off? Just get another warm body in there to hike the ball! Here are a few more tipoffs:
3. Your starting quarterback had to be dressed down by your best wide receiver due to poor attitude.
4. Said starting quarterback just concluded a rambling, incoherent interview, where he told reporters they could put ideas in a “suggestion box” to help fix the quarterback’s struggling offense.
Tip of the tongue? I can tell you’re close! Here’s one final clue:
5. Your General Manager was abruptly fired mid-season for helping to cultivate a “losing environment.”
Oh, and time is up! The phrase we were looking for was “Carolina Panthers fan.” No worries, you tried your hardest, better luck next time!
Unfortunately, this mock exercise likely seems a bit too real for actual Panthers fans. With a 1-5 start to the season, “better luck next time” might already be referring to their pick in the 2013 draft. This, of course, begs the question of how did it get to this point?
In large part, I think it boils down to a case of mismanaged expectations. What many likely saw was an improving team playing in a division ripe for the taking. Sure, the Falcons seemed to be progressing, but the perennially playoff-bound Saints were a rudderless ship adrift in a sea of scandal. Even worse, the Buccaneers were coming off a 4-12 record and mystifyingly attempting to replicate the “successful” blueprint of hiring a former college coach.
So, how have the Panthers managed to play themselves into this hole? In my opinion, there are multiple reasons. Let’s begin with the guy who just got canned.
Questionable GM Moves
These seeds of suffering, while presently bearing copious amount of fruit, were actually planted a few seasons ago. Lost in the hoopla of selecting quarterback Cam Newton with the #1 overall pick in the 2011 draft was the fact that the Panthers brass was managing their roster about as well as a group of Enron executives. After all, it stands to reason that unless acquired via trade, it takes some serious “effort” to acquire the number one overall pick in the draft.
In the Panthers’ case, a 2-14 record in 2010 solidified their selection of Newton. This was largely due, to put it mildly, to the “uninspired” quarterback play of then-rookie second-round pick Jimmy Clausen. Clausen, lamentably, was actually the Panthers’ first pick in the 2010 draft, as they had previously traded their 2010 first round pick to the San Francisco 49ers in return for second and fourth round selections in 2009. This netted the Panthers defensive end Everette Brown (six sacks in two seasons, since released) and running back Mike Goodson (traded to Oakland). The 49ers, meanwhile, used the Panthers’ 2010 first round pick (#17 overall) on guard Mike Iupati, who was named an All-Rookie selection by the Pro Football Writers Association.
Fortunately, the 2011 offseason afforded Carolina an opportunity to improve through free agency. However, they inexplicably chose to shell out big money to the core group of guys who were largely responsible for the failings in 2010, as well as unsafe investments.
That’s a lot of money to fork over to a group of defenders who guarded the end zone as if they were enlisted in the French army, and a running back whose age most closely resembles that of Yoda. While then general manager Marty Hurney did re-sign receiver Steve Smith and trade for tight end Greg Olsen, the 2011 free agency binge can only be viewed as an abject failure.
Undeterred, Hurney’s nonchalance towards spending money on nonessential positions continued in 2012. Running back Jonathan Stewart was re-signed for $38 million over six years, and hybrid fullback Mike Tolbert received $8.4 million over three years. For those keeping score, that’s three running-back signings within nearly a year, despite having one of the game’s preeminent running quarterbacks. Mired in salary cap hell and producing little to nothing on the field, it’s no surprise Hurney was unceremoniously dismissed.
Running Game Woes
Despite the heavy investment, the Panthers are receiving precious little from their ground game. Hurney was undoubtedly attempting to replicate the Panthers’ 2009 success, when a healthy Stewart and Williams combined for 2,250 rushing yards. Since then, neither has had 1,000 rushing yards or exceeded 160 carries in a season. Newton siphoned 126 rushing attempts in 2011, and also functioned as the goal-line back, accumulating eight rushing touchdowns from within 20 yards.
Flash forward to the present, and the Panthers are averaging merely 25 rushing attempts per game, or $179,000 per rushing attempt (99 total) from the Williams/Stewart/Tolbert triumvirate (factoring in cost of 2012 signing bonuses for Stewart and Tolbert). Center Ryan Kahlil’s injury hasn’t helped, but the Panthers simply aren’t running the ball enough to justify the money spent. At an aggregate 3.6 yards per carry for the three backs, they’re not running it well enough either.
The Regression of Cam Newton
One of the most amazing statistics in Cam Newton’s career is that he went undefeated as a starting quarterback in college. Is it possible that his recent bizarre behavior is a byproduct of the fact that he still doesn’t know how to lose? Regardless, Newton is seemingly losing his charisma at a rate equivalent to his descent into petulance. A true “chicken or the egg” scenario, Newton’s psyche and on-the-field play are definitively symbiotically linked. Consider the stats from his first six games in 2011 and 2012.
In 2011, expectations for Newton were minimal. The rawness of his abilities combined with a truncated off-season signaled a pseudo “redshirt” year, where Newton would have the luxury of learning on the fly. Along the way, however, a funny thing happened: he played really, really well! While Newton’s performance didn’t translate into the win column, he averaged 342 total yards per game during the first six games, immediately becoming a fantasy darling and rewarding owners who took a leap of faith in their rookie drafts. While his numbers slowed significantly over the latter portion of the year, it was widely assumed that a full off-season of playbook immersion would help him truly turn the corner into stardom.
Thus far, it hasn’t worked out that way. Newton’s passing yards have regressed, along with his turnover ratio. The lack of improvement in his accuracy has also been on full display, culminating most notably in a week four “bounce pass” to a wide-open Ben Hartsock on fourth down. More problematic for fantasy owners, perhaps, is the lack of rushing touchdowns. Seemingly impossible to replicate (as Michael Vick nods knowingly), Newton is on pace for “only” eight rushing touchdowns, after setting an NFL record with fourteen in 2011.
Most troubling, however, is Newton’s increasing lack of maturity. When things don’t go his way, he pouts and distances himself from his teammates, rarely displaying the leadership abilities that made him a college celebrity. It’s impossible to expect Newton’s teammates to fall in line behind him when he acts like the second coming of Ryan Leaf. As Julius Campbell famously retorted to Gerry Bertier in Remember the Titans, “attitude reflects leadership, captain.”
The next GM of the Panthers will likely first be tasked with trimming the fat on the salary cap, and then investing in upgrades on the defensive line and receiving corps. While that’s obviously important to the improvement of the team as a whole, fantasy owners are more concerned with how the key players are affected.
Carolina’s lack of defense could be stunting Newton’s growth, as he’s constantly forced to play from behind, contributing to a one-dimensional offense. As it has become necessary to go pass-heavy, a counterpart/successor for Smith is a must, as age will soon dictate the dimming of Carolina’s brightest star. Thus far, neither Brandon LaFell nor David Gettis have proven enough to be considered long-term solutions.
For his part, Newton needs to enhance his mental toughness. As players such as Peyton Manning and John Elway have proven, the path isn’t always initially easy. Ultimately though, as Matthew Kidman said in The Girl Next Door, “the juice is worth the squeeze.”
A greater reliance on the running game would likely help alleviate the pressure on the Panthers’ signal caller. Considering how much they pay for the position it’s due for an increase in usage! As the younger, more talented option, it would make sense to continue to increase Jonathan Stewart’s workload at the expense of DeAngelo Williams. Using Mike Tolbert or Stewart as the goal-line option, while decreasing Newton’s fantasy value, could possibly spare him some unnecessary hits.
Regardless of the decisions, it’s gut-check time for the Panthers. While it’s true they were the worst team in football in 2010, they can’t continue to lose the momentum they built in 2011. With savvier management and better performance on the field, my next Pyramid clues hopefully won’t lead Panthers fans to guess the phrase “2013 number one overall pick!”
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