Why The Carolina Panthers Can't Run The Ball

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IOctober 14, 2008

Everyone knows that the Carolina Panthers love to run the ball.  It’s always been head coach John Fox’s offensive philosophy.  He’s preached this run-first attitude ever since he joined the Panthers in 2002.   This season they’ve run the ball 181 times, ranking fourth in the league.  They also rank seventh in the league in rush attempts per game at 30.2 carries per contest. 

This wouldn’t be such a problem if they were actually good at running the ball, but they rank 27th in the NFL in yards per carry.  The Panthers usually start their first possession of each game with two rushing plays right up the middle.  If it’s third-and-short after that, chances are they’ll run again.  If it’s third-and-long, they usually throw.  But by then it’s too late and the defense is playing the pass. 

This is the reason why their offense has been near the bottom of the NFL since 2003.  Their offensive play-calling is way too predictable.  Opposing teams always know exactly what the Panthers will do—run, run, run.  They know that Carolina refuses to pass except on third-and-long and in other various culled spots throughout the game.  They need to adjust something. 

Head coach John Fox will tell you that stats are for losers.  However, one can’t help but notice incompetency in the Panthers’ run offense when considering the stats above. 

This season I’ve watched the Panthers stubbornly, adamantly stick to the run in every game.  It worked in the San Diego game.  Running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for 139 yards.  It also worked in the Bears game; Stewart rushed for two touchdowns as he led the offense to a comeback win.  The other time the run offense truly paid great dividends was against the Chiefs; DeAngelo Williams rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

But the Chargers underestimated us.  Stewart’s powerful running style was a perfect fit for the Bears’ defense after Williams got them used to a light, speedy back in the first half.  The Chiefs just suck.  Anybody could run for 100 yards against them.

On the other hand, the Vikings and Bucs completely stuffed our rush offense.  The Falcons did an average job of stopping our run. 

The point is: We can only run on bad teams.  Why?

Coordinator Jeff Davidson doesn’t know how to balance his play-calling tendencies between the run and pass.  The stats will show you that the play-calling is perfectly balanced.  The number of rush attempts to the number of pass attempts per game is 30.2:30.2—a ratio of 1:1.  A perfect balance.  But these stats are misleading.

The rush attempts-to-pass attempts ratio is distorted because there have been pass-heavy games and there have been rush-heavy games.  But there are definitely more of the latter. 

Meanwhile, another element in the stagnancy of the Panthers’ run offense is the fact that Williams often gets misused, just as DeShaun Foster was when he played for Carolina.  His number frequently gets called for runs up the middle.  I don’t understand why. 

Inside runs don’t fit his running style.  Williams likes those outside runs where he can use his speed to blow by the defense and his elusiveness to squeeze out those last couple of yards for a first down.          

Stewart, with his hulking 5’10”, 235-pound frame, is made for the kind of inside runs the Panthers always like to start each game with (this is also why Stewart should be starting, even if Williams is better—which I don’t think he is).  Plus he has the breakaway speed to outrun defenders after he breaks a few tackles. One doesn’t need to look any further than the Week Two Bears game to see what he can do.

Last but not least, the retooled offensive line has been hit hard by injuries this year.  Three of the Panthers’ starting offensive linemen have been forced to sit out at least one game this season due to injury.  At least one has sat out at least two straight games at some point. 

The Panthers have had to cobble together a makeshift offensive line for most of their games this season.  That definitely hurts the offense, and the run game in particular.    

If the Panthers want to run on the better teams in the remainder of their schedule, they have to stop misusing their running backs, learn how to balance the offensive play-calling better, and get healthy on the offensive line. 

Honestly, it’s no wonder the Panthers’ run offense has been inconsistent this season.