Now that the Carolina Panthers ARE the 800 pound gorilla in the room that can no longer be ignored, expectations have skyrocketed and the scrutiny intensified. Even now, it seems like the Bengals and Patriots are getting more talk than Carolina after the initial surge in talk has died down a little after the victory over the Packers.
Nobody has given them much of a chance since Kelvin Benjamin went down in spring training, but it has been a case of "next man up" all season long. Different game, different hero. Josh Norman - probably more than once. Certainly Thomas Davis last week, A.J. Klein when Luke was out....especially that first game. Olsen certainly has had monster games and just seems to get stronger as the season goes on. Even Ted Ginn has chipped in with some good plays despite a tough week, but rookie Devin Funchess stepped up with a couple of big-time receptions mere hours after I had noted in a conversation that I was concerned with Funchess and how he needed to show me something - anything - after dropping almost half his passes through seven games.
Boy, I'd say he did exactly that.
Therein lies one of two main things that makes Carolina so hard to prepare for.
Cam Newton Draws Attention for a Reason
First, I think we can all agree that Cam Newton is the engine of this offense, despite the contributions made by Olsen. Cam's biggest physical asset is actually his strong throwing arm, which leads to inconsistent mechanics, but that's another issue. Otherwise, he's got good but not great running speed, good but not great body control and agility.
What he does seem to be elite with is his balance. I think his size (6-6 250) does somewhat limit his speed and agility, but they're still uncannily deceptive in a man so large. He also has hands the size of Cleveland.
With the physical strength and brute force he brings to the position as well as the size of most defenses' "back seven," he's almost always bigger than these defenders once he gets to the second level. He also has the strength to get that 4th-and-one and last week he "dunked" on a Packers lineman's helmet and drew the ball back in after crossing the plane of the goal line. You just can't "simulate" that in practice and can only scheme for him and hope for the best.
Secondly, the lack of stars at WR actually can actually make it harder to game-plan against the Carolina offense. One of the nice unintended consequences of the "next man up" thought is that the team always has such faith in each other that "someone" will be in position, and that "someone" will make the play they need to make at the right time. Since that's exactly what has been happening, nobody can foresee the next "no-name" that will make a big play.
Run 'Til Daylight
The Panthers are the only team to run more than they pass and when they get the passing game working, it's often off some sort of play-action because of the heavy running tendency. I think Mike Shula has done a masterful job of tailoring his system to his personnel instead of the square peg/round role approach that some use. Cam is the centerpiece and does his two designed runs per quarter while mixing in straight-up hand offs to J-Stew or Foz or Tolbert. There are always at least 3 different, legitimate running threats in any given play with Cam, Toldozer and J-Stew being the top three. This opens the playbook up as well.
Remember, Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula was a QB at Alabama and an NFL QBs coach for a good while, and was Cam's QB coach until landing the OC job after Chud left. So, Shula's personal experience as an nonathletic QB gives him a measure of insight that other position players wouldn't have, and that very likely helps this offense be what it is in its current form: punch the guy wearing the other hat in the mouth and ask questions later.
It's an incredibly brutal approach to the game in an era where QBs earn frequent flier miles without leaving the gridiron. Lighter LBs to cover faster guys means our running backs are going to have favorable physical match-ups due to size alone. It's also why football is a cyclical sport as the "pendulum" swings too far one way. Then the secondary starts sneaking closer to the line, so unleash a play-action deep ball for a shot at a big play. Even if it doesn't connect, it'll keep the DBs largely out of the box.
All the RBs that have seen much playing time can catch as well, so the defense has to keep that screen-pass game in mind too. Shula's use of some plays inherited from his Father, like the roll-out Draw, throws some degree of trickeration into the mix, as well.
Plays, one can simulate. Bigger and more powerful athletes cannot be until game day. Cam's unique talents allows Mike Shula to blend in a number of plays that other teams simply do not run. Then if they try, they take away time from working on other things and stretch their practice time too thin while being unable to "simulate" Cam's abilities fully in the first place.
With Carolina's smash-mouth approach to the game, with their spreading the ball around, and with their stout defense giving the offense the confidence to open up the playbook, this team has become more unpredictable than anyone this year...and that's the one big complaint fans have had with Mike Shula in the past.
I think Shula and Cam are both growing into their jobs very nicely.
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