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Shorts and Shells: Week Seven

Chudzinski, Wannstedt not making proper adjustments

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Posted Oct. 22, 2012 @ 12:56 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

If Juan Castillo can be fired midseason, shouldn’t others be vulnerable too?

In Carolina, the answer is yes — GM Marty Hurney was relieved of his duties Monday morning — but there's a clear disconnect between the remnants of the front office he leaves behind and the coaching staff. Similar things appear to be happening in Buffalo.

Rob Chudzinski was an ace a year ago who turned down head-coaching overtures, and Dave Wannstedt is a respected former head coach who knows defense. But both are in a serious slump.

The Panthers still haven’t answered the question that Ron Rivera asked — we assumed hypothetically — a few weeks ago: “What kind of offense are we?”

After Sunday’s 19-14 loss to Dallas, their fourth in a row, we have no more answers. The Panthers have the body of a Corvette and the engine and fuel-injection system for a Buick. They’re driving an automatic like it’s a standard transmission.

Cam Newton was the toast of the NFL for his rookie-season explosiveness, and Chudzinski was showered with praise for his work with the offense. Considering the truncated offseason and Newton’s sometimes crude passing mechanics, it was warranted.

But somewhere along the line, Newton got off track — did he stop working? — and Chudzinski couldn’t adjust his play-calling the way that defenses did armed with 16 games’ worth of tape on his talented quarterback.

The combination has been lethal.

“I’m not the play-caller. I’m speaking for Chud right now. You’ve got to keep a balanced offense,” Newton said after Sunday’s game. “When we run the football it hasn’t been exciting like we want it to be, but you still have to call the plays. It’s kind of putting a strangle on our passing game. We’ve got to be more balanced, it’s evident, but the job’s got to get done.”

Coming out of a bye, this was the perfect chance for the Panthers to reassess. The bye week offers the one true opportunity for teams to self-scout properly during the regular season. They can stop bad tendencies, find packages that work, look at defensive trends and create game plans that match the personnel. None of that happened for Carolina on Sunday.

When you have a $50 million backfield and your O-line includes new parts, sometimes you just need to line up and run the ball. Not sideways, but forward. Chudzinski has tried too hard to be clever with his play-calling, and Newton has not improved. Despite throwing fewer passes, Newton’s numbers are remarkably similar from his first six games a year ago to his first six this season:

  • 2011: 134-of-229 passing, 1,847 passing yards, seven TDs, nine INTs; 207 rushing yards, six rushing TDs.
  • 2012: 101-of-173 passing, 1,387 passing yards, five TDs, six INTs; 273 rushing yards, three rushing TDs.

I’ll save you the math: Newton’s yards per pass attempt are nearly identical from his six-game start to last season (8.07) to this season (8.02). Last year’s Panthers started 1-5. This year’s Panthers have matched that mark.

The biggest difference has been the lack of a consistent run game. The rushing attempts (150 last season, 149 this season) are nearly identical. The yardage totals (722 in 2011, 682 in ’12) and TDs (eight in ’11, seven in ’12) are close enough. But after struggling in Weeks One and Two a year ago, the Panthers ran the ball more often and rang up at least 137 yards on the ground in 12 of their last 14 games.

This season, the rushing attempts have been all over the map — from 13 carries Week One, to 41 in Week Two, to 20 in Week Three — and the spotty results have followed suit. Plus, the Panthers are going more for homers; most often, singles and doubles get the job done.

In Buffalo, the Bills thought they hit a grand slam when they signed DE Mario Williams and added DE Mark Anderson and CB Stephon Gilmore to the 26th-ranked defense in terms of yards and 30th in regard to scoring from a year ago. Where do they stand now? Entering Sunday — when they allowed 390 yards and 35 points to the woeful Titans — they were 31st in both categories.

The Bills have suffered no major injuries. DT Kyle Williams is back from the foot injury that cost him 11 games in 2011. DT Marcell Dareus and CB Aaron Williams are up-and-comers. And, again: They added the cream of the free-agent crop in Williams, plus two starters in Gilmore and Anderson in the offseason.

Yet, somehow they are worse. Call me a simpleton, but it’s coaching. Wannstedt’s inability to adjust to his personnel throughout the course of the season has been bad. It’s the same poor-tackling, poor-pursuing team as it was in Week One. Chan Gailey said everything else is on the table for change.

“We have to reevaluate everything,” said Gailey, whose team’s bye is Week Eight. “That’s what you do with the bye week. You look at it, and what’s good you try to keep. What’s bad, you try to see what you need to do to get it done.”

Funny: The Panthers just came off a bye. Sometimes an inability to adapt just becomes who you are and your identity.

PETERSON’S REVENGE

Week Seven was notable for the monumental returns of Saints LB Jonathan Vilma (suspension) and Ravens LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles tendon) to the field, but perhaps it’s time we pay our due respect to a player who has been on the field — a lot — for the duration of the season.

RB Adrian Peterson is running incredibly well for a man who tore his ACL less than 10 months ago, and he has been a huge reason why the Vikings are still at the top of the NFC North at 5-2.

Sunday was his finest game since last season: 153 bone-crunching yards on 23 carries and his first TD since Week One. But make no mistake, Peterson has been terrific, carrying the ball at least 16 times and collecting at least 80 yards from scrimmage in every game.

“There’s still a little missing,” Peterson said. “You guys probably think I am crazy.”

The lack of home-run plays is noticeable — his long rush is 34 yards — but that is a bit deceiving. Peterson has just as many 20-yard runs (a league-high seven) through seven games this season as he did in 12 games a year ago. He also has nearly matched his receiving production from 2011.

So why aren’t more people noticing?

PFW executive editor Dan Arkush spoke the other day with ESPN’s Merrill Hoge, who most certainly noticed how good Peterson has been before Sunday’s big game.

“I actually spent this morning watching all of his runs in slow motion, and I was in awe,” Hoge said. “He’s the greatest story in the league that nobody’s talking about. I saw a little hesitation with him in Week One, but nothing since. His ability to cut is something else. Even when he’s making lateral moves, everything is going downhill.

“It’s unreal. He’s getting it done staying in the holes, not jumping out and going to the edge like (Chris) Johnson.”

Vilma and Suggs gave their teams lifts Sunday, however long the effect lasted. But Peterson has lifted his team all season.

REDSKINS NOT DEAD

Much like the Seahawks after their Thursday loss to the 49ers, the Redskins have to be looking forward to the rematch against the Giants. And like the Seahawks, who will face their division rivals at home in Seattle, the Redskins will get the rematch at their own house, in Washington. The 27-23 Giants victory was a lesson in teacher (Eli Manning) getting the best of student (Robert Griffin III), but don’t be shocked if the rookie gets his revenge when they meet again in D.C. on Monday night of Week 13.

Losing TE Fred Davis was a tough blow (Chris Cooley was re-signed this morning), but this offense can take the hit with a strong run game that is averaging almost 180 yards a game and a talented group of receivers that received some nice contributions from Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss and should get Pierre Garcon back soon.

The Redskins’ defense will be vulnerable to big plays, such as Victor Cruz’s late-game TD where Madieu Williams inexcusably didn’t cover the deep route from the slot, even though Cruz ran right across his face. You get the feeling that the safety play is going to be a problem all season, as it has been to this point. But it is capable of some very good things, too, and the improvement in recent weeks has been evident.

This is Mike Shanahan’s best team with the Redskins by far, and Griffin gives them a chance to remain in the postseason race. They are 3-4 but far from out of it.

A CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

One final note on Vilma and his continued battle with the NFL, and I’ll make it quick.

Why can’t everyone win out here? Why can’t Vilma have his sentence reduced? Why can’t Paul Tagliabue’s revised discipline rekindle his name a bit and perhaps kick-start his Hall of Fame candidacy? And why can’t Goodell, having recused himself and handed off to his predecessor, come out looking more flexible than he has previously?

It’s almost too perfect, and the NFL is seldom that cut and dry. But it behooves all parties to bury this issue.

Many have talked about this having too cozy a feel with Goodell giving his longtime former boss the power in the case, especially because Tagliabue’s word went a long way towards getting Goodell, his one-time consigliere, the commissioner’s job. But they were different men in terms of discipline.

Tagliabue left office with the reputation of being a laissez-faire operator who allowed far too many shenanigans to slide by. Goodell rode into the job as the new sheriff in town aimed at cleaning up the joint. Somewhere along the line, Goodell’s overzealous approach to what he has seen as his legacy fumed the NFLPA, which felt like the commish was trying to vilify and make examples of its players.

So if form holds and Tagliabue rules with a velvet glove, this thing could be cleaned up nicely. Vilma could get back on the field untrammeled by the appeal, Tagliabue could come out reminding people of his power and knowledge and Goodell (whose approval ratings among players and fans is at an all-time low) could be seen as semi-compassionate and not as an all-knowing, all-seeing lord.

Is that too clean, too nice and easy for this league? Let's hope not. Everyone would win.

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