The NFL offseason is a time of hope. Possibilities are endless; fans of the lowliest franchises start talking playoffs, while the more fortunate teams speculate over their chances to play in the Super Bowl.
In the offseason every draft pick is a future star, all the veterans have one good year left in the tank, and players who have disappointed in the past are surely headed for breakout seasons. And, of course, this is the year that your favorite team will finally stay healthy. You hear this in Detroit, you hear it in Pittsburgh, and, naturally, you hear it across the Carolinas.
In Charlotte, there's been a lot of hope that this is finally going to be the year that Dwayne Jarrett becomes the touchdown machine he was in college. No one wants to discuss Muhammad's age, because he's taken exceptional care of his 36-year-old body. Fans are getting excited over Gary Barnidge and his potential to bring a pass-catching tight end back into the mix on offense.
And, of course, there's the rookie with jets, Michael Goodson. Or was that Larry Beavers, or maybe it was Jamall Lee? No matter—we've got a fast rookie, and that's what counts.
But what actually counts? Amidst the giddiness of the offseason, one thing that gets lost in the details is that there's only one football on the field at any given time. That means that despite expectations, you won't see Jarrett, Smitty, Barnidge, and Moose each snag 90-100 balls, there just aren't that many opportunities.
Think about the running game and you start realizing that Williams and Stewart probably won't be combining for 600 carries. Maybe you start getting the idea that every time a rookie is given the rock it takes away from one of the current stars. So what should you expect? Aside from a great year out of Jake, that is...
Much depends on injuries for sure. At first glance the Panthers had good luck last year where injuries were concerned. That's at first glance only, because the offensive line was a revolving door for a while.
It may surprise some people that no single player started at right guard for more than eight games. Jordan Gross missed the first game in his career. Jeff Otah was out for a few games, and so was Ryan Kalil.
Unlike the terrible year suffered in 2006 though, offensive line injuries did not become a big problem because the depth was there to mask them. Not so on the defensive line, where injuries may have cost the Panthers the game in New York and were certainly a big part of their fade down the stretch.
But this article isn't about injuries, although that last mention brings to mind an interesting point. Traditionally, Carolina fans look at their team as a defensive juggernaut that just tries to put enough points on the board to eke out a victory. That wasn't the case in 2008—that edition of the Panthers turned conventional wisdom on it's head.
The 2008 Panthers were more likely to just plain outscore you, finishing seventh in the league at putting points on the board. That's the highest finish of any John Fox team. This year, the offensive production will be just as important a gauge of success as it was in 2008.
Under John Fox, there's no better indicator of offensive success than how often the Panthers run the ball. When the Panthers are winning, they run the ball more than they pass it. It's a very simple formula.
In the winning years of 2003, 2005, and 2008, the Panthers ran the ball 53.3 percent of the time, when they've struggled they've run it 46 percent of the time. That may just be a reflection of several games where they threw more in an effort to catch up, but regardless of the reasons why, the running game is a good indicator of team success.
Under Fox, the Panthers have averaged about 950 offensive plays per year. So if all goes well in 2009 you can look at about 507 running plays and 443 passes. If the wheels have come off, figure on about 438 rushes and 512 passes. That represents a big difference in the stat line, and will reflect on just how well Goodson, Jarrett, and Barnidge can do.
Lets project what a successful season will look like.
First, you want to assume Smitty will get 90 to 100 catches. If Jake throws 507 times, then Smith will need to be the target about 160 times for him to make that number.
Moose will probably get 60-70 catches again (call it 65), because we know he's kept his 36-year-old body in great shape. That represents another 109 throws from Jake, which when combined with Smitty, leaves 174 throws to other receivers, tight ends, and running backs.
At Jake's completion percentage, you're looking at a total of maybe 103 catches between those three units. Sounds like a lot, right? Well it isn't, not when you consider that in 2008 running backs caught 39 balls and so did tight ends. Just repeat those numbers in 2009 and you're left with 25 catches to round out a successful season in the passing game.
So how are those catches distributed? Do you give them all to Dwayne Jarrett? Mike Goodson's supposed to be great out of the slot. Maybe you give him a few grabs? And what about Barnidge, do you just give him the 18 balls that Rosario caught last year and throw in a few more to get him to a respectable 25?
When you think about it that way, and then realize that handing the ball off to Goodson means it's not in Williams' hands, then the luster starts to fade from those fast rookies and you begin looking at the upcoming season in a different light.
Yes, for the 2009 Panthers the more things change, the more you want them to stay the same. On offense, this edition is loaded.
While that's pretty remarkable for any Panthers team, what's especially surprising about this unit is the unselfishness. Starting with the stars, Smith and Williams, there's an attitude of "whoever gets it done, that's great" that has infected the entire group.
I expect production to drop from both of the Panthers offensive stars, just because of that attitude and the talent the Panthers have added across the offense in the past two drafts.
Look for the following in 2009 if the offense enjoys the success it did in 2008.
- Smitty will get 90 catches, and Moose 55. That's not because of a decline in their effectiveness, but because of the emergence of other options in the offensive scheme.
- Jarrett will likely get into the double digits with 20-25 catches, and ignorant sportswriters across the nation will declare him a bust anyway.
- A receiver to be named later will get nine or ten catches and look amazing while doing so, prompting message boards across the Carolinas to declare him a future all-pro.
- Gary Barnidge will get 25 catches, and Rosario will disappear from the offense.
- Williams's numbers will go down and Stewart's will go up, both will break 1,000 yards rushing, and both will be happy about it.
- Goodson will rush about 40 times. That may sound like a lot, but it's only 2.5 carries per game. He'll also catch a few balls.
- Overall the Panthers will gain more on the ground than they did in 2008, but will be more diverse in doing so.
Yes, that's what a good season will look like. A lot more of the same, with marginal improvements from Jarrett, Barnidge taking over for Rosario, and Goodson emerging as a faster version of Nick Goings. And of course, there's one more prediction.
The road to the NFC Championship will go through Charlotte, NC. And if you're a Carolina fan, you know it will because it's the off-season, and that's what it's all about.