With training camps in mid-swing and the summer winding down, teams are fully focused on the upcoming 2017 season in the NFL. After a disappointing 2016 campaign, the Carolina Panthers are looking to rebound this year and return to the postseason. Their season will undoubtedly have less pressure than the last, considering they are not following up a Super Bowl appearance, but there are still high expectations for the team.
Here are three main questions surrounding the Panthers’ 2017 season that will only be answered on the field in the fall:
Can the roster stay healthy?
During the 2016 season, there is no doubt that Carolina’s 6-10 record was partially caused by injuries. True, a handful of ailments on a roster does not make the entire team lose five of their first six games, but there is plenty of evidence that points to injuries contributing to the Panthers’ poor start.
Quarterback Cam Newton was memorably knocked around in the season opener by the powerful Denver Broncos defense before suffering a concussion a few weeks later against the Atlanta Falcons and missing a game. Offensive tackle Michael Oher was concussed during the third game of the season, causing him to never made it back on the field in 2016 and factoring into his release this offseason. Starting center Ryan Kalil sprained his shoulder later in the season and was shut down for the last five games. Star linebacker and defensive captain Luke Kuechly suffered a concussion in the same game as Kalil’s injury and was held out for the remainder of the season as a precaution.
These injuries, including many others that held various core players out intermittently, eventually accumulated and affected the on-field performance of the team. Whether or not they were the entire cause of the 6-10 record and last place in the NFC South is a separate argument. For 2017, it will be crucial for Carolina’s core players (most notably Newton and Kuechly) to stay healthy and lead the team. Perhaps the Panthers’ amount of injuries will regress back to the mean, but the question still remains as to whether or not their key contributors can regularly stay on the field.
How different will the offense look?
Carolina is pushing the message of a new offensive approach during 2017 to try and help limit those injuries to Newton. Although the team is still claiming they will lean on the ground-and-pound method they are known for, Panthers staff is promoting the use of a shorter passing game this season to compliment the rushing attack. The goal is to get the ball out of Newton’s hand faster, which would cut down on his sitting in the pocket and getting hit by a defensive front.
This idea became more obvious to the public after the team drafted versatile, speedy players Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel in the NFL Draft. McCaffrey is expected to be used like how Standford University utilized him in college, by taking most snaps as a running back while occasionally splitting out into the flat to play receiver. Samuel, drafted as a wide receiver, played a similar role at Ohio State too, totaling more rushing yards and touchdowns as a running back than as a receiver.
The two are likely to be used to create shorter passing options for Newton in comparison to Carolina’s usual deep-ball attack, which could lead to more receivers open deep and less designed rushing plays for the franchise quarterback.
Playing behind a revamped offensive line (tackles Oher and Mike Remmers out, tackles Matt Kalil and rookie Taylor Moton in), this revised approach is a gamble by the Panthers attempting to protect their Newton and extend his career.
There is a fair amont of pressure on offensive coordinator Mike Shula for this scheme to work, especially following a poor offensive season in 2016. Will this change cause a bump in the road for the Carolina offense in 2017, or will the integration of McCaffrey and Samuel lead to more successful drives? Fans will likely find out the answer pretty early in the season.
Can the team finish out and win close games?
One of the marquee characteristics of the Panthers’ 15-1 season and Super Bowl run was their ability to win close games in 2015. When looking at all the games decided by a touchdown or less, Carolina went 7-1, including the divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. In 2016, however, they fared decidedly worse, and the tone was set in the season opener when kicker Graham Gano’s game-winning field goal attempt went wide in Denver. Out of the eight ‘close games’ they played last season, the Panthers only won two and five of their losses were by a field goal or less.
That stark difference between the two seasons provides a clear objective for Carolina to focus on in 2017: finish out games in crunch time. A positive record in games decided by seven points or fewer is often a necessity for a team to make the playoffs. If the Panthers want to compete for the division title again, winning games in a tight fourth quarter will be crucial.
After winning their first preseason game on Wednesday, August 9, the Panthers finished their training camp on Sunday, August 13. The NFL regular season will begin on Thursday, September 7, with Carolina kicking off on Sunday, September 10 against the San Francisco 49ers.