The Panthers offense seemed to reach full bloom in the first half of Sunday’s game – aided in part by the Bucs woeful defense – but this evolution has been half a season in the making, and the fruits of the offense’s labor have only begun to bloom.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has systematically added pieces to his offense throughout the season and has managed to maintain a run-first approach that puts up points and stretches defense sideline to sideline, all the while protecting the quarterback, allowing Cam Newton to get passes to reliable targets and young playmakers alike. The result has been an offense that’s at the top of the league in rushing and just outside the top ten scoring offenses – all while being near the bottom of the league in turnovers, penalties and negative plays.
Not to mention Cam having a career year in the seemingly all-important completion percentage statistic.
To start the season, the offense was more vanilla. The focus was on establishing Cam and Christian McCaffrey as the foundation of the offense. CMC averaged 24 touches in the first three weeks while Cam had more than nine carries per game during the same stretch. We haven’t seen CMC targeted as much as he was in Week 2 or handed the ball as much as he was in Week 3 in any of the games since. Cam, however, has continued to hover around nine carries per game. The passing game was largely stagnant early in the year, outside of McCaffrey, in part due to both Samuel and Olsen missing time, as the Panthers instead relied on the threat of the triple option with CJ Anderson and using CMC motion to create plays for both backs.
In Week 2 against the Falcons, the Panthers were the cause of their own demise with sloppy penalties in the first half and poor game management before halftime. The Panthers continued to use Anderson and CMC together in the backfield, as well as using DJ Moore in motion – and fans got the first glimpse of his playmaking abilities with a late 51-yard touchdown. The Panthers amassed their highest total yardage of the season (439) but dug themselves too big of a hole on the road against a division rival. Starting with the Atlanta game, the Panthers offense has had more than 350 total yards in seven straight games; last year, they eclipsed that mark just four times during the regular season.
Against the Bengals, the Panthers attempted to get the passing game going, but it was CMC running that proved to be the most effective. Funchess, Torrey Smith, and Ian Thomas all had five or more targets, but it was the 28 carries for 184 yards that won the day. 45 of those yards came on a play where Norv Turner again used Moore in motion, then sprinted him back out, causing the defense to shift and open the back door for a big gain. CMC ran the ball so well that in a goalline situation the Bengals sold out to stop him, allowing Cam to sail untouched into the end zone.
The foundational run game the Panthers use isn’t boring, with triple-option, read-option, pitches, reverses as well as pre and post-snap motions to keep defenses guessing and hesitating while opening up the play-action passing game. The Panthers continue to run the ball more than the league average on all three downs and trail only the Rams in rushing yards per game (by a mere 0.4 yards per game) and lead the league at 5.2 yards per attempt on the ground. The Panthers explosive runs have come in a myriad of shapes and sizes, exploiting teams up the middle and around the outside.
Against the Giants, we saw the young trio of CMC, Moore, and a returning Curtis Samuel combine their powers for the first time on a touchdown drive as this dynamic trio created space with their motions and are all three capable of carrying or catching the ball and turning them into big plays. While CMC is the foundation and Moore has been more involved since taking over in the starting lineup, Samuel has a staggering four scores in eleven touches. The Panthers rushers – other than Cam – have already produced as many explosive running plays (20+ yards) this season as they did all of last season.
Facing the Redskins, the Panthers had their worst rushing day of the season, but more importantly, they had three uncharacteristic turnovers, all within the first half, setting up Washington and Alex Smith with a 17-point lead. The Panthers offense has largely avoided turnovers, posting zero in the three-plus games since the 11:24 mark of the second quarter of this one. The first turnover of the game was a DJ Moore fumble on a punt return – the only turnover in Panthers territory this season. Three of the Panthers six offensive turnovers have occurred in the opponent’s red zone and all six have been in opponent’s territory.
For the majority of the season, the offense has protected the ball well, but it was their undoing in Washington.
Through three quarters against Philadelphia, four of the Panthers five drives featured a loss of five or more yards on a play, constantly putting the Panthers behind the sticks. The Panthers have had ten such negative plays – loss of five or more – all season, outside of this game. When the Panthers finally found their groove entering the fourth quarter, we saw the use of motion and Moore and CMC making plays, before setting up the triple option with CJ and CMC with pre-snap motion and tossing a reverse to Samuel – catching the defense ill-prepared – for a score. On the second drive, Cam leaned on Funchess late, while the other playmakers made space – and by the time the Panthers capped their third TD drive, it was play-action to CMC and the threat of Cam running that made the Eagles forget about Old Reliable, Greg Olsen.
Taking on the Ravens without Torrey Smith, the Panthers made a point of getting Moore and Samuel involved early, trying to slow down the aggressive top-ranked defense with misdirection. The Panthers also used more CJ and CMC backfields early, both to protect Cam, but also to misdirect – DJ Moore ran the ball on back-to-back plays, off separate motions and Samuel made himself felt on both offense and special teams. By using their array of weapons, combined with various motions, the Panthers found themselves in the red zone with no defenders between the hashes and Greg Olsen matched up man-to-man. The result was an easy pitch and catch for a touchdown. Looking to salt the game away in the fourth, the Panthers would go to a jumbo package from the 12-yard line, fake the ball to CMC and again Cam sails untouched into the endzone.
Sunday against Tampa, Norv ran some more slow-developing plays, perhaps emboldened by a suspect defense – and the Panthers’ dynamic offense was on full display in the first half as they amassed 35 points, scoring on all but their opening drive. Turner got Alex Armah his second TD of the season, critical for making defenses think about him as a viable ball carrier in short yardage situations going forward – sometimes the result of the play isn’t just what happens in the moment, but in the future. The offense used motion and misdirection all over the place, resulting in explosive plays for McCaffrey, Moore, and Samuel. One of the players forgotten about when people speak of the Panthers exploding offense, Devin Funchess, twice got the ball to the doorstep for touchdowns.
One of the promises that came with a Norv Turner offense was a commitment to protecting the passer. The Panthers have used motion to the backfield throughout the season, sometimes to key a run or play around the perimeter, but also to solidify pass blocking as they’ve allowed the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL through eight games. The pass protection allowed three sacks Week 1 against the Cowboys, but just nine since and never more than two in any game. By keeping Cam upright in passing situations, they allow him to make plays with both his arm and legs. It also forces defenses to send more bodies to generate pressure, creating more space for the playmakers – namely CMC leaking out.
The three young guns put tremendous pressure from sideline to sideline on opposing defenses, and while all three are capable of breaking plays, the NFL is about sustaining drives. When the Panthers offense hasn’t been clicking, it has been self-inflicted wounds or the passing game not connecting – sometimes both in the form of drops. For the most part, the offense has worked, with Cam currently posting a career-best 67.3% completion percentage and a big piece of that is CMC, with McCaffrey this week surpassing Jonathan Stewart as the running back with the most receptions in the Newton era (129 to 127), but young 22 isn’t enough to explain the big uptick. Five Panthers pass catchers are catching the ball on more than 65% of their targets.
2018 Catch Percentage
To this point, Cam’s had only two receivers in his career catch more than 65% of passes for a season (minimum 10 catches) – Jerricho Cotchery in 2015 caught 72.2% and Brenton Bersin caught 65% of his targets in 2014. This season, Cam has three wide receivers at or over 65% with a career-high catch rate from historically his favorite target and the most reliable and dynamic pass catcher out of the backfield that he’s ever had.
We’ve never seen Cam have a first half of the season quite like this, and armed with an offense that strains defenses in so many ways, Panther fans are getting a glimpse of what this offense can become. They’ve still not relied on the CMC and CJ pairing as much as they could with the two being on the field together for only 31 snaps in eight games thus far, content to bring it out early in the season and as needed. Meanwhile, they’ve established every skill position player as a threat and the result is for the first time in years, defenses can’t keep all eyes on #1. Since establishing the foundational run game early in the season, the Panthers offense has focused on adding new pieces and elements while not sacrificing their run-first identity, even at times when it frustrates the fans.
The Panthers have three backs regularly capable of getting yards between the tackles, five ball carriers capable of breaking open big plays on the perimeter, three reliable veteran targets capable of extending drives and scoring in the red zone, and an MVP running the show. The blend of limiting mistakes and a diverse attack that has the Panthers offense in a winning position pre-snap has produced a historic first half of the season for Norv Turner’s bunch and with Cam finding his passing rhythm over the past month, the offense is as dynamic as it was in the second half of 2015, only this time Cam’s more accurate, more seasoned, and has more weapons.
That’s the making of a Norvanaissance