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How good are the Panthers?

2013 has been a much more pleasant season for these two

2013 has been a much more pleasant season for these two.

Through 15 weeks, Brian Burke ranks the Broncos, 49ers, Panthers, and Seahawks as the top four teams in the NFL. According to his numbers, Carolina has the #7 offense and the #7 defense.

Football Outsiders is a little less bullish on Carolina, ranking them 13th. On the other hand, the Panthers have won three of their last four games, and Carolina ranks 11th in weighted DVOA, 10th in offense, and 11th in defense (a 31st-place ranking in special teams is not helping matters).

Still, some question whether the Panthers are really a top team, or even an average team. After all, it was only two weeks ago that I wrote that the “2013 Panthers were largest sleeping giant (whatever that means) of the last 20 years.”

Date of the first three paragraphs of this post: December 22, 2012.

Now let’s talk about the 2013 Carolina Panthers. Advanced NFL Stats has them as the 8th best team in the NFL, courtesy of the 13th best offense and 10th best defense. Football Outsiders has Carolina as the 3rd best team in the league, thanks to the #8 offense, the #3 defense, and the 14th best special teams.

But in 2012, Carolina started 2-8, and was just 5-9 after 15 games. This year, the Panthers are 10-4. So why the heck do these teams look so similar? Let’s investigate.

The Carolina Offense

Let’s begin by putting Cam Newton’s passing numbers under the microscope:

Year GS QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Y/C Y/G QBR Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A Sk%
2011 16 6-10-0 310 517 60.0 4051 21 4.1 17 3.3 7.8 13.1 253.2 55.04 35 260 6.87 6.24 6.3
2012 16 7-9-0 280 485 57.7 3869 19 3.9 12 2.5 8.0 13.8 241.8 54.22 36 244 6.96 6.65 6.9
2013 14 10-4-0 264 424 62.3 3049 21 5.0 11 2.6 7.2 11.5 217.8 57.5 38 296 5.96 5.80 8.2
Career 46 23-23-0 854 1426 59.9 10969 61 4.3 40 2.8 7.7 12.8 238.5 109 800 6.62 6.25 7.1

Newton has “arrived” in 2013 by setting career lows in yards per attempt, yards per completion, net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, sack rate, passing yards per game, and rushing yards per game, rushing yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns per game. It’s true that many of those statistics are correlated with each other: in reality, the big reason for Newton’s decline is that his yards per completion average is way down, and his sack rate is up. That second factor looks even worse when you consider that throwing shorter passes and playing for teams with the lead tend to help a quarterback’s sack rate. The other metrics — Y/A, NY/A, and ANY/A — all feed off of those two statistics.

I highlighted Newton’s struggles a couple of weeks ago, and regrettably pinned the brunt of the blame on Steve Smith. But for our purposes, the only thing we care about is the value of the passing game, not assigning credit or blame.

In 2012, Newton’s average completion was on a pass that traveled 7.7 yards, the fifth deepest average in the league. He also was the beneficiary of a league-leading 6.1 yards after the catch per completion, which may have been the residue of good fortune: in general, quarterbacks with high average depths of target don’t get much YAC.1 This year, Newton’s average completion travels just 6.1 yards in the air and he’s getting only 5.41 yards of YAC per catch, figures that rank just 22nd and 16th in the NFL.

Carolina ran a vertical offense under Rob Chudzinski and a much different offense with QB coach-turned-OC Mike Shula. But which one is better? The numbers seem to point towards the 2012 edition, but we know that yards per attempt can be biased in favor of deep passers.

In 2012, Carolina ranked 5th in Net Yards per Attempt, thanks to leading the league in yards per completion (13.8). But Carolina had a boom or bust offense, picking up just 171 first downs through the air on 526 dropbacks. That 33% first down rate ranked just 15th in the league. This year, the offense has picked up a first down on 34% of all pass plays. That’s hardly a good tradeoff for a team that now ranks only 22nd in vanilla net yards per pass attempt. Carolina has slightly better touchdown and interception rates, but even those are not enough to offset the decline in the average pass (as evidenced by the 0.85 ANY/A decline).

In the running game, the Panthers ranked 9th in yards, 3rd in touchdowns, and 9th in yards per carry a year ago, while ranking 8th, 9th, and 18th in those metrics in 2013. Advanced NFL Stats has the Carolina rushing attack as a whole posting a worse success rate in 2013, too. And while I don’t see the team data for this metric available at Football Outsiders, DeAngelo Williams, the team’s leading running back both years, has posted a lower success rate this year according to FO.

So why are the Panthers averaging one more point per game in 2013? The two biggest reasons for the team’s “improvement” in points scored have nothing to do with the offense. Carolina went 1/3 on 50+ yard field goals in 2012, but Graham Gano is a sparkling 6/6 this season, and those 15 additional points in 14 games explains the entirety of the on-paper improvement. The reason the Panthers haven’t declined in points this year is because their average field position has improved from 8th-worst to 4th best, netting them an additional five more yards per drive.2

Riverboat Ron has also played a part in the scoring revolution. Not only is Carolina going for it on 4th down more often this season (13 times in 14 games despite a 10-4 record, versus 9 times in 2012), but the Panthers have been much more successful on fourth down, too. After ranking just tied for 27th in 4th down conversion rate at 33% last year, Carolina is third with a 77% conversion rate this year. That won’t show up in the per-play numbers, but has probably given the Panthers an extra point or two per game.

Here’s one conclusion: the offense, while more consistent, is not as good as it was last year. The team has been slightly less effective both passing and running, and good special teams, good average field position, and some situational success have helped masked these declines.

On the other hand, it appears that the only reason Football Outsiders has the Carolina offense as better in 2013 is due to strength of schedule. FO has the Panthers offense having faced the 2nd most difficult schedule in 2013 after seeing the 19th easiest in 2012. The Panthers still have a game against Atlanta left, so that will help, but the effect of the schedule on the team as a whole has been neutral. That’s because the defense faced the 7th-hardest schedule last year and the 26th-easiest one this year (although a game against Drew Brees will change that). Posting worse numbers against a harder schedule may mean that the Carolina offense hasn’t regressed at all, even if it has changed quite a bit.

The Defense

After allowing 22.7 points per game last year, the Panthers rank 2nd in the NFL with a low 14.9 PPG allowed average in 2013. But let’s break down the numbers a bit more closely.

In 2012, Carolina allowed 6.9 yards per pass attempt; in 2013, the Panthers have allowed… 6.9 yards per attempt. Carolina had a good pass rush last year but it has a great one this year; as a result, Carolina has jumped from 12th in NY/A (at 6.0) to 8th (at 5.7). That’s not a dramatic improvement, but it does represent a small uptick. In some ways, the pass defense looks nearly identical in both years. In 2013, Carolina is allowing just 10.4 yards per completion but allowing opposing passers to complete 66.3% of all passes. Last year, Carolina allowed 10.4 yards per completion and a 66.8% completion rate.

The big change in the pass defense is in the interception numbers and in the red zone. Last year, Carolina intercepted just 2% of all passes, putting them as the 7th worst team in the league; this year, Carolina has improved its interception rate to 3.6%, good enough for 7th best. A year ago, the Panthers were 17th in red zone defense; this year, they’re 3rd, which is a great way to improve your points allowed numbers. And after allowing 10 4th down conversions on 19 attempts, the Panthers have allowed just 2 of 9 fourth-down plays to go for first downs.

Interceptions, red zone defense, and 4th down plays are wildly important in the sense that they will significantly impact a team’s win probability. But from a predictive standpoint, these metrics are not very consistent. As an example, look at the 2012-2013 Carolina Panthers.

The leader of a stout Panthers defense

The leader of a stout Panthers defense.

One area where the team has legitimately improved is in stopping the run, which is not too surprising. Carolina’s front six (the Panthers play a base nickel defense) is unmatched: Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are two of the best defensive ends in football, rookie tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have been outstanding, and Thomas Davis has again stayed healthy and played well. The star remains Luke Kuechly, and the Panthers rank first in rushing yards allowed and second in rushing touchdowns allowed. Some of that is the product of playing with leads and a weak secondary: the Panthers also have faced the fewest rush attempts this season. But we can say without reservation that the run defense has improved with the addition of the two rookie tackles, and Carolina has jumped from 18th to 11th in yards per carry allowed.

So why the big jump in points allowed? After allowing 4 return touchdowns last year (three interception, one punt), Carolina has not allowed any nonoffensive touchdowns in 2013. And field goal kickers have gone 26-of-30 against the Panthers this year after hitting on 35-of-37 in 2012. That’s a swing of 34 points, or 2.4 points per game.

Panthers opponents began drives at the 29.3 last year, the 9th-most favorable starting field position in 2012, but are back to their 25.5 now, the 4th worst mark. Those four yards help, too. Add in some more interceptions, better play on 4th down, and a dynamic red zone defense, and you can see why Carolina has allowed 8 fewer points per game this year. Carolina’s defensive numbers are better, but nowhere near as improved as you might think. And if you factor in the weaker SOS, the margin shrinks even further.

Conclusion

In 2012, nearly all the breaks went against the Panthers. Newton couldn’t lead a comeback, the defense was prone to playing at its worst when the moment mattered the most, and Rivera was responsible for all the other things that went wrong. But on the surface, and on a per-play basis, Carolina was a very good team, and perhaps one of the best in the league.

This year, a lot of the events in the NFL that are random that happened to go against Carolina have gone their way this year. On a per-play basis, I’m not sure if Carolina is any better this year. The offense has looked worse against a tougher schedule, the defense has looked better against an easier schedule, and about the only real change is the addition of a pair of strong defensive tackles and an improved set of special teams.

But what we see here is how a few plays in a game can change everything. Not all of it is random or due to luck – give Rivera credit for his Riverboat ways, even when they backfire. But the narrative, particularly when it comes to Newton, is unsupported by the evidence.

Carolina has simply played well this year in isolated but hugely important moments of the game: they’ve gone from allowing opponents to convert on 53% of 4th downs to 22%, while raising their own rate from 33% to 77%. On third downs, Carolina has put up nearly the same production it did last year. The Panthers have gone from +1 in the turnover margin to +11; some of that is due to playing with the lead, and some of that might be due to luck (Carolina has lost just five fumbles this year).

And, of course, the key stat with Carolina. After going 1-7 in games decided by 7 or fewer points in 2012, Carolina is now 3-2 in that category. A year ago, Carolina gained 1.0 more net yards per pass attempt than their opponents and 0.3 more yards per carry; this year, the Panthers have gained just 0.3 more NY/A and still only 0.3 more yards per carry. But for the second year in a row, Carolina has found out that what happens on a few plays can make all the difference in a season.

  1. The top five in depth of target last year were Andrew Luck (tied for 20th in YAC/C), Eli Manning (30th), Josh Freeman (t-8th), and Mark Sanchez (32nd). []
  2. Here is where I would normally note that Carolina doesn’t get many drives, and ranking them on a per-drive basis makes more sense. But while Carolina ranks 31st in total offensive drives this year, the Panthers were 30th in that category a year ago. []
{ 8 comments }
  • Nick December 22, 2013, 11:41 am

    You have confused the 2012 FO rankings for the 2013 FO Rankings, where they are ranked #3.

    Reply
  • LSF December 22, 2013, 12:59 pm

    “Date of the first three paragraphs of this post: December 22, 2012.”

    Reading comprehension.

    Reply
  • Ty December 23, 2013, 2:19 am

    I was pretty high on Carolina coming into the season. I felt that if they were a little more “luckier” in 2012, they would have been a playoff team, as they were solid on the more important metrics (pass efficiency on offense and defense) that made for a good team. Earlier on this season, the prediction didn’t look good, but they have become more fortunate, this year. Their offense isn’t as good as last year or in 2011 (And I don’t expect it to get better, this year), but with the defense that they have, they can beat anyone.

    Reply
  • James December 23, 2013, 12:06 pm

    “… but we know that yards per attempt can be biased in favor of deep passers.”

    I still disagree that YPA is biased towards deep passers. As Brian Burke said in his article on short vs deep passes: many things have already gone right if a QB throws a pass and it’s very likely many shorter passes are after a QB tried to go deep but couldn’t (either because the deep receiver was covered or pressure forced a checkdown before the deep pass developed). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reward QBs that are better at creating and taking advantage of those deep pass opportunities! How often are Peyton and Brees lauded for reading and moving safeties to open up deep strikes, while other prospects fail to pan out because they won’t pull the trigger (cough Campbell cough Bradford cough)?

    Here’s Brian’s take from a few years ago: http://www.advancednflstats.com/2010/09/deep-vs-short-passes.html

    Unfortunately a conclusion to this debate will probably have to wait until the offseason, if we can even reach one. Maybe someone can really dive into NFLGSIS and EPA data, or create a markov chain EPA model and we can test various completion percentages and YPA?

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart December 23, 2013, 5:13 pm

      Thanks, James. I had forgotten about Brian’s post, and that’s a good one.

      I think if we could incorporate the value of a first down into YPA, that would ease many of my fears about YPA being biased in favor of deep passers. For example, a QB who is 7 for 10 for 80 yards and 6 first downs is someone I would rate ahead of a QB who is 5 for 10 for 80 yards and 3 first downs.

      Reply

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