The 2019 NFL season has been a total loss for the Carolina Panthers. Hot starts in the past two years feel like forever ago, thanks to an endless string of injuries to star quarterback, Cam Newton.
Even MVP-level production out of running back phenom Christian McCaffrey couldn’t save the Panthers in 2019. In turn, their shaky play ultimately led to the demise of longtime head coach, Ron Rivera.
Online gambling sites and sportsbooks are now pondering Carolina’s next move. There are prop bets detailing their potential next coach and whether or not the franchise is ready to move on from Newton.
Of course, Carolina’s next step depends on what their intentions are for 2020. Do they want to kickstart a rebuild, or do they want to compete for a title? If it’s the latter, here’s everything that needs to happen to make the dream a reality:
Keep Cam Newton
Before the Panthers even hire a coach, they need to tentatively figure out what they want to do with Cam Newton. Injury-plagued the past two seasons, Newton was shutdown in 2019 in an effort to save the team.
That didn’t work out, but with the long-term in mind, hopefully allowing the dual threat quarterback some time off will give him the rest his body needs.
There is a very real chance Newton is just done as the flashy, do-it-all stud passer Panthers fans have come to know and love. However, at just 30, Newton could still have a lot to offer.
For what it’s worth, Panthers ownership and Newton himself have said enough good things that suggest a divorce is not imminent. Newton isn’t cheap and he’s an injury risk, though, so the team needs to decide if his latest foot ailment is something the two sides can work together to move past.
It’s a risk, but if the Panthers want to compete at a high level in 2020, they can’t walk away from such a terrific talent. When healthy, Newton can carry the offense, he can burn the defenses in multiple ways and he can (gulp) help make Christian McCaffrey even better.
Newton has a bevy of explosive weapons at his disposal and his return would likely keep Greg Olsen from retiring. Besides, everyone got a good look of the immediate future without Cam Newton and it wasn’t good.
Kyle Allen isn’t the answer and Carolina’s reluctance to pass the torch to Will Grier suggests he may not be, either. The Panthers could blow things up and start from scratch under center, but if they want to chase a title anytime soon, it just isn’t a realistic option.
Find the Right Head Coach
Feel free to rank this as a more pressing need ahead of keeping Cam Newton. In reality, they probably go together and you can’t have one without the other.
It needs to be said; Ron Rivera was a good head coach. He preached the fundamentals of football, he coached up a solid defense and he committed to the ground game.
Rivera benefited from having a dynamic star quarterback for most of his Panthers tenure, of course. He was also nicknamed “Riverboat Ron” for his risk-taking ways, which could also often be confused with simply making bad decisions.
There is also an argument that his once stout defense – his area of specialty – has slowly eroded over the years. He was a rock-solid coach that got the Panthers to one of two Super Bowl appearances, but he didn’t get the job done the past two seasons.
Rivera isn’t going to be easy to replace, but what the Panthers need is a change of pace and someone equipped to make better calls at the right time. That seems incredibly intangible and impossible to peg, but it has to be the aim for this franchise.
So, who does that bring in to run the Panthers? For better or worse, it could be a safe play like Mike McCarthy. Maybe it’s a wilder personality like Jim Harbaugh. Perhaps it’s someone that can hit the reset button on the entire franchise and spark long-term optimism like Lincoln Riley.
The latter probably isn’t the safe bet if the Panthers want to win in 2020, though. Instead, they need a coach embedded in strong fundamentals, someone who will coach up a defense, run the football and take necessary risks at the right time.
Basically, they need a slightly better and less volatile Ron Rivera. The problem is figuring out exactly who that is.
Fix the Defense
Ron Rivera was let go partially due to the Panthers failing to make the playoffs for the second straight season, but also because his trademark defense continued to slip.
Carolina was a middle of the road defense in 2018, finishing 19th in points allowed per game, 18th against the pass and 27th in sacks. The one thing they did well was stop the run (12th).
In 2019, things have only gotten worse, as a pedestrian defense slid to 29th in points allowed, 26th in total defense, 16th against the pass and 30th against the run.
Carolina did turn their pass rush around under Rivera’s watch, though, pulling into first in sacks at the time of this writing. Unfortunately, Rivera didn’t produce a complete unit in his final two years on the job and with the team’s struggles with health under center, that was all too evident.
Whoever comes in to fill Rivera’s shoes needs to make sure that gets fixed. Part of the solution will undoubtedly be to control the tempo again on offense and score points more consistently.
But there are underlying problems with Carolina’s run defense, while the team has even had issues with big plays (12th most 20+ yard gains given up) allowed.
To fix their problems, the Panthers need to add fresh blood at cornerback and they need to make a decision on Dontari Poe. Poe is pricey, but he’s probably necessary if the Panthers want to turn into a feared run defense again.
If Carolina doesn’t keep Poe, they need to find someone else to plug holes up front.
On the outside, the Panthers could take a hit in the secondary in free agency. Drafting a cover man or two would be advised, while the team would be wise to make a splash signing out on the open market.
The Panthers will not be short on options. Chris Harris, Logan Ryan, Jimmy Smith, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby are just a few big names that could be available to them at the right price.
Overall, the Panthers aren’t good enough up front and they need to prevent a capable secondary from falling apart. That’s nothing 1-2 nice free agency moves and a good draft can’t fix, however.
If you want to add one more area to improve, the Panthers should keep adding pieces to their offensive line. The more versatile, the better, but if the plan is to keep Newton in town – and it should be – the Panthers need powerful and athletic run-blocking guards, as well as athletic tackles for the outside.
The exterior of the line is probably where I’d spend most of the focus, of course. Injuries derailed a pretty good group, as Greg Little could still end up being a stud at left tackle and Taylor Moton is a strong option on the right.
That said, the Panthers rank second in sacks given up on the year and that simply will not do.
Protecting Cam Newton is obviously crucial going forward, but the team can’t go away from its love for running the football. Bringing in one big offensive lineman will shore up the versatility of this line, while 1-2 extra bodies for depth wouldn’t hurt.
It all starts up top, though. Carolina isn’t going anywhere in 2020 unless a healthy Cam Newton returns and that may not matter much unless the team gets the right shot-caller on the sidelines.
It’s an unsexy hire, but I think the ticket for a playoff return – and possibly more – could be the arrival of former Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
McCarthy’s offensive concepts grew tired in Green Bay, but he was a highly successful coach that game-planned fairly well and was a bit more conservative than Rivera. Maybe that newfound balance, coupled with a healthy Newton, could be exactly what the Panthers need.