Carolina Panthers: Why the Backfield Will Be Key to Success in 2012-13

Colin Kennedy@ColinKennedy10Featured ColumnistAugust 30, 2012

Carolina Panthers: Why the Backfield Will Be Key to Success in 2012-13

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    Cam Newton's unprecedented rookie success helped transform Carolina's last-ranked offense into an explosive juggernaut seemingly overnight. 

    The Panthers totaled fewer yards than any NFL team in 2010. But the silver lining inside Carolina's league worst 2-14 record ultimately proved worthwhile. 

    The first overall pick in the 2011 draft was used to select a national championship quarterback from Auburn whom some considered unprepared for the next level. An unimpressive preseason stirred angst amongst a faithful fan base as many began to question the organizational decision.

    One year later, there isn't a critic in Carolina. 

    In just one season, Cam Newton and company leap-frogged 25 teams in terms of total offense. The last-ranked unit in 2010 finished seventh in 2011, and the rookie's success helped account for four additional wins. 

    While the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner shattered rookie passing records from day one in Carolina, it was the ground game that propelled the Panthers to a record of 6-10. 

    The deadliest rushing attack in the entire NFL consisted of a three-man backfield including Newton, Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Together, the trio rushed for a league-leading 26 touchdowns (14 of which were courtesy of the quarterback), and averaged more yards per carry (5.4) than any other team. 

    Now, the theme in Carolina is a little different entering the 2012 regular season. 

    Expectations have risen, and there isn't much that could exceed them. Superbowl guarantees highlighted the Panthers' otherwise uneventful offseason, and an MVP-caliber performance from Newton wouldn't shock anyone. 

    The commonly known "last-to-first" NFC South has proven to be one of the league's most unpredictable divisions in recent years. And with the Saints surly scandal looming, it could be Carolina's time. 

    With 16 games of film and a year's time, league-wide adjustments from opposing defenses are definite. No longer will coordinators dare Newton to pass. Never again will teams underestimate his ability. 

    So a balanced offense is key. And despite the continual transition into a quarterback-friendly league, it might be the passing game that complements the rushing attack in Carolina. 

    Here is why the Panthers' backfield will be the key to success in 2012-13.

8 in the Box

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    Typically, defenses opposing a rookie quarterback will stack the box and force the inexperienced arm to beat them through the air.  

    But after Cam Newton proved he can do that with consistency a season ago, coordinators may have a tough time game-planning for Carolina's explosive offense in 2012. 

    Pick your poison. 

    If you drop back in coverage, you leave wide running lanes for a tandem of tailbacks who combined for nearly 1,600 yards in 2011. Add in Cam Newton's 6'6" frame and 700 additional rushing yards from last season, and you're up against a punishing run game that will persistently eat away at the defensive line. 

    So, you put eight in the box. 

    Pull the safety inside and plug up the holes. Make the opposing offense one-dimensional and rely on your cornerbacks to maintain tight coverage in hopes that the added pressure will force errant throws from an inexperienced QB. 

    But you better have Steve Smith on your fantasy squad. Because he is about to burn your single coverage for an 80-yard score.

    Pick your poison. 

    The point is simple: A balanced, yet equally effective, dual-threat on offense can be virtually unstoppable for defenses at times. It opens up the field and the playbook. 

    Play-action becomes that much more effective, and reading the defense becomes that much simpler. 

    A top-ranked rushing attack is Cam Newton's best friend. 

Investment

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    When the Panthers announced the signing of Mike Tolbert in the offseason, thoughts around Carolina were that Jonathan Stewart would be playing elsewhere in the near future. 

    Think again. 

    A new five-year deal for the former Oregon Duck helped the organization lock up one of the deadliest backfields in the entire NFL. And even with Cam Newton's capped rookie contract (4 years, $22 million), the Panthers have placed their future in the hands of the ball carriers. 

    I just hope they don't fumble. 

    With nearly $110 million committed to the quartet of talent, one would figure the group to get a lot of touches in 2012. And while individual numbers may not widen the eyes of fantasy owners, the combined effort should prove significant for the Panthers.

    In his last two seasons with the Chargers, the versatile Mike Tolbert accumulated more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage and scored 20 total touchdowns. 

    And he will be lining up at fullback. 

    The man who played second-fiddle to the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson and Ryan Matthews in San Diego may now be the fourth option in Carolina.

    Like his new teammate Jonathan Stewart, Tolbert is accustom to catching passes out of the backfield having done so 54 times in 2011. With just four more runs, Deangelo Williams will become the second player in NFL history to average more than five yards per carry with a minimum of 1,000 attempts. 

    I don't remember Jim Brown splitting time...

    The addition of Tolbert at 5'9" and 247 lbs could mean less goal-line carries for Cam Newton (one of the reasons I am staying away from him in fantasy). But from the Panthers' perspective, crossing the plane is all that matters. 

Sophomore Slump

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    A lackluster showing in the 2011 preseason left fans in Carolina hoping they hadn't wasted their first overall draft pick on an unpolished quarterback. 

    Then Cam Newton delivered arguably the greatest rookie season we have ever seen from a quarterback.

    His 4,051 total passing yards are just one in a long list of rookie records set by the Auburn product in his first year. He didn't exceed expectations, he shattered them. 

    And now, after helping his team improve by four wins, Newton is expected to do better. 

    Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that the 23-year-old should post better numbers in his sophomore campaign. I for one would argue so. 

    But in the NFL today, there is no evading the media, no hiding from the spotlight, and certainly no avoiding the pressure. 

    Two seasons removed from an abysmal 2-14 record, Panthers fans are now calling for the playoffs. Of course Newton's trajectory indicates that the postseason is possible if Carolina can add another four wins to their total.

    But how realistic is that?

    Defensive units have now had a year to adjust to the freakish athlete from Auburn. 16 games of film are available for coordinators to study, and models of effective schematics have been seen. 

    I'm not suggesting that Newton won't ultimately reach the next level. I'm not even saying that he won't improve over the course of the season. 

    But I do think that it will be tough for the second-year quarterback to duplicate the numbers he posted in his rookie season. Especially given the defensive adjustments that will be made. 

    Realistically, not many QBs can say they have passed for 4,000 yards in a year—let alone their first. So for Newton to join that company at 23 years of age is simply remarkable. 

    But for 2012, it is all about the backfield in Carolina. 

    The running game will need to alleviate some pressure off Newton who had more attempts than any rookie in 2011. Look for a slight step back in terms of the quarterback's statistics, but for the Panthers to pick up a win or two in the standings.