We take an in-depth look at the state of the Panthers and Bucs ahead of Thursday Nights Showdown
By Jesse Beller. Last Updated: 24/10/13 12:36pm
Cam Newton and the Panthers need a win Thursday to boost their post-season chances
Perhaps we should refer to Thursday Night's Showdown in Tampa as the Hot Seat Bowl, in honour of Greg Schiano and Ron Rivera's precarious positions as head coaches of their respective teams.
Both the Panthers (Rivera) and Bucs (Schiano) entered the 2013 season as favourites to make the leap from mediocrity (or worse) to the play-offs as multiple teams do every year in the NFL. Both featured young, highly talented quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Josh Freeman (though Newton was clearly the better of the two), and both featured what looked like extremely talented defenses.
Seven weeks in, things don't look so good.
No Quarterback: No Wins
Tampa Bay is 0-6, Josh Freeman is the starting quarterback in Minnesota, and Schiano is almost guaranteed to be fired before next season (he would have been already but by switching to rookie Mike Glennon1 at quarterback he bought himself a few weeks).
The Bucs with Freeman were not a bad team - their 0-4 start obscures the fact that the team was three plays from 3-1 and weeks of glowing stories about building success - but that was mostly thanks to their stellar defense which gave up only 17.5 points per game in that stretch.2
The Bucs had the league's best run defense in 2012 and added Mark Barron, Johnthan Banks, Dashon Goldson, and Darrelle Revis - sole owner of Revis Island and one of the top three cover corners in football - to a core of Lavonte David and stud defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, supposedly bolstering their porous secondary. The Bucs defense has largely held up its side of the bargain - ninth in defensive DVOA, 13th in yards allowed per game - but it has not been enough to cover for an appalling offense.
The Bucs were built to win in 2013, hoping that the combination of Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson would help bring back the Josh Freeman of 2010, who at age 22 put up superstar numbers to the tune of 61.4 completion percentage, 7.3 yards per attempt, and a 25:6 touchdown ratio. Considering he is now plying his trade in Minnesota, it is pretty obvious that plan did not go so well.
Glennon has come in and been terrible3, and Schiano's seat is a raging wildfire.
Do not Blame Cam, Blame Hurney
The Buccaneers' opponent in the Hot Seat Bowl are the Carolina Panthers, NFC South rivals and fellow under-performers. At 3-3 life for head coach Ron Rivera is okay. He should have been fired last year, when his incredible inability to properly manage end of game scenarios lost his team multiple games. He has done better in those situations this year, but he already blew the week two game against the Bills, and at a staggering 2-14 record in games decided by less than a touchdown, he should still be fired.
They have only played six games, but the Panthers have already lost two they should not have (to the Bills and Cardinals), and will struggle to make up for those pretty much inexcusable losses as they chase the last NFC Wild Card spot.4
Only two weeks ago, fans were beginning to clamor for former Rookie of the Year and Heisman winner Cam Newton to be benched, following a poor performance in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals. A two game winning streak has all but silenced that talk, but the basic problems that plagued the Panthers still exist.
Thanks to former general manager Marty Hurney, the Panthers essentially are stuck in salary-cap hell. Hurney was an aggressive (see bad)5 drafter, but his true awfulness stemmed from the massive contracts he handed out to secure the core of a 2-14 Panthers team. Hurney gave $50 million ($25 million guaranteed) to linebacker Jon Beason, $36.5 million ($7 million) to linebacker Thomas Davis, $76 million ($32 million) to defensive end Charles Johnson, $12 million to kicker Olindo Mare, and best of all, $43 million ($21 million) to running back DeAngelo Williams.6 Each of those players had either had serious injury issues or simply never performed - none of them would have even come close to approaching the deals Hurney gave them on the open market.
As a result, Newton finds himself throwing to the likes of Legedu Naanee, Louis Murphy, and Ted Ginn. Even his supposed star receivers - Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen - are poor, with both asked to do far too much.
Newton has not changed much as a player since his breakout rookie year: his completion percentage is up to 63.5% and his yards per attempt sits at 7.83, good for eighth in the NFL, but he started at about 60% and 7.9 respectively. Newton was fantastic his rookie year so even a small improvement makes it pretty clear that he is not the problem.
The Panthers have the NFL's second best scoring defense (13.8), and best by total yardage (1813), yet they sit 3-3. Why? Well, when they win, they blow teams out, skewing their numbers. The Panthers are an excellent bad team: they crush bad teams and lose close games to good or okay teams. To take the leap to a good team, the offense must step up - and not just Newton.
What Happens on Thursday
On its surface this should be an easy win for the Panthers. Luke Kuechly and the defense should harass Mike Glennon, Cam Newton should have little trouble putting up 20 plus points thanks to excellent field position and his unique talents. However, the Buccaneers could make this interesting - Gerald McCoy and the defensive line should hold strong against the Panthers running game, Lavonte David could shut down Greg Olsen, and if they ever realized that Darrelle Revis is the league's best cover corner and thus should play straight man to man, not zone, they could eliminate Smith.7
Regardless, the Bucs just lost star back Doug Martin to a torn labrum, Mike Glennon should still be holding a clipboard on the sideline, the team cannot stop committing penalties (third most penalized in NFL), and the combination of Schiano and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan are enough to ruin any team. The Panthers should win with ease.
The Pick: Panthers -6.5
1. Freeman had played poorly and there was clearly a rift with Schiano, but Glennon was considered raw and unprepared coming out of college so this move screamed of desperation and has unsurprisingly come out terribly.↩
2. The Buc's offense on the other hand? 44 points in those four games. Freeman can't exactly complain that he didn't deserve to be benched.↩
3. Though better than Freeman, which should give some indication into how bad Freeman has been.↩
4. The race got a whole lot more open when Jay Cutler went down, but still it is hard to see the Panthers getting to the 10-6 record they will probably need to beat out the Lions.↩
5. Hurney traded the Panthers 2010 first round pick - which became Pro-Bowler Mike Iupati - to the 49ers for the chance to take Everette Brown (who lasted all of two years in the NFL) with the 43rd pick of the second round in 2009.↩
6. Williams' deal, which guaranteed him $21 million is amazing considering they gave backfield partner Jonathan Stewart $37 million the next year. It is almost impressive how bad Hurney was at evaluating player contract worth.↩
7. The Bucs got burned last week by an Atlanta passing attack missing Julio Jones and Roddy White. Instead of covering the Falcons' number one receiver Harry Douglas (7 catches/149 yards), Revis was given the task of playing zone and covering Drew Davis...↩