Philosophy shift sets up Panthers' playmakers to fail

Posted Nov. 12, 2012 @ 12:22 p.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

Rob Chudzinski surprised the football world in 2007 when in his first NFL offensive coordinator job, he took an erratic, hot-and-cold, sixth-round, pocket passer who could not even earn the Browns’ starting job at the beginning of the season and managed to win 10 games with him, helping earn Derek Anderson a Pro Bowl appearance along the way. The next year, after Chudzinski changed the offense following an extension that came on the heels of being courted for the Ravens’ head-coaching job, he was fired along with the rest of Romeo Crennel’s staff.

Fast forward to 2011, when a lockout-shortened offseason hindered the installation of an offense. Chudzinski, back in the coordinator saddle again following a two-year stint as tight ends coach in San Diego, took a raw rookie quarterback and rewrote the NFL’s record books with an offense predicated on a two-TE downhill running attack featuring the top backfield tandem in the league. The majority of the time, Cam Newton operated from under center with only a few designated runs coming primarily near the goal line. Pass reads were kept very simple, set up by play-action, where the quarterback needed to read only half the field, high to low, and Newton was very effective rolling outside the pocket. Chudzinski transformed one of the worst NFL offenses into a top-10 unit, and Newton earned Rookie of the Year honors.

Following another extension to keep Chudzinski in Carolina, the Panthers entered the 2012 season, after a full offseason to prepare, with a radically different offensive philosophy. Instead of sticking with what worked, the Panthers moved to operating heavily out of the shotgun and incorporating a read, dive-option offense that has proven not to work at the NFL level, as Lou Holtz found out the hard way in 1976 with the Jets before he submitted his resignation.

Instead of lining up with a powerfully built offensive line and hitting defenses in the mouth the way GM Marty Hurney built the team and owner Jerry Richardson prefers his brand of football, the Panthers have gone to a finesse style, in which the line is often set in a two-point stance when running the ball. Newton, who is taking more hits than ever, is being asked to run a college running attack coupled with a pro passing game that no NFL quarterback is capable of mastering, even if their last name is Manning.

Against Denver, Newton was sacked a career-most seven times and did not convert a single third down all game, finishing 0-for-12.

Not only has the quarterback woefully underperformed given the unrealistic, foolish expectations being asked of him, the running game largely has been underutilized, with DeAngelo Williams gaining a career-worst 3.5 yards per carry on a career-low eight carries per game. Against Denver, his six carries resulted in a mere six yards, as the offense struggled to find any rhythm after the Broncos adjusted to account for TE Greg Olsen following the Panthers’ first TD drive.  

Great coaches find ways to tailor their schemes to the strengths of their talent, creating plays that maximize what they do best. For the Panthers to find success the second half of the season and Superman to find his lost cape, they need to simplify their approach and go back to what worked a year ago.

• 49ers DE Justin Smith did not notch a sack against the Rams, but he deserves a huge assist for allowing Aldon Smith to stunt inside. Thanks to Justin Smith hooking OLG Shelley Smith and occupying two blockers, Aldon Smith consistently had a free lane to the quarterback and finished the day with two sacks and whole bunch of hurries.

• Since Joe Vitt has returned to the interim head-coaching post, the Saints have won two in a row and are making a slow climb back to respectability after handing the Falcons their first defeat of the season. Part of Vitt's first course of action was reestablishing a power running game and feeding the ball to Chris Ivory more often. A very hungry, determined Ivory has been appreciative, as he showed most on a 56-yard TD run when he ran through the reaches of three tacklers and planted a heavy stiff-arm into the chest of Falcons CB Dunta Robinson, whose speed clearly has diminished.

• Patriots NT Vince Wilfork faced a big challenge having to match up with Bills C Eric Wood and OLG Andy Levitre, one of the best C-OG tandems in the league. Yet, Wilfork did a very good job disrupting the inside and cementing himself in the run game, locking out and controlling the Pro Bowl-caliber center, who was flagged for holding and struggled to match up with Wilfork's rare combination of power, strength and quickness. 

• Though it might not be as stout as it was a year ago with a defensive line that could use a heavier rotation, the 49ers' defense remains the most physical run-stuffing unit in the league. It met its match against Marshawn Lynch, who topped the 100-yard mark earlier in the season, and even though it took five full quarters, Steven Jackson managed to cross the 100-yard barrier on Sunday. The way Jackson barrelled into Patrick Willis and kept churning his legs after having his helmet ripped off is a testament to his toughness. Lynch and Adrian Peterson run incredibly hard, but Jackson might be the most feared locomotive to stop when he is moving dowhill with a head of steam.

• One shining star on a struggling team this season has been Chargers DE Corey Liuget, who despite being nagged by a hamstring injury, continues to consistently make plays against the run and pass.

• When Philip Rivers was exiting North Carolina State, he drew a very wide range of grades from evaluators. As easy as it was to like his mental makeup, toughness and on-field leadership presence, his pop-gun arm and lack of mobility created concerns about how long he would be able to last. When he is forced to reset his feet and move outside the pocket, his arm strength rapidly diminishes, as it did on the momentum-swinging, game-costing interception he threw to Buccaneers CB Leonard Johnson that ultimately might have sealed the fates of Norv Turner and A.J. Smith.

• Broncos OLB Von Miller played one of the finest games of his career against Carolina, harassing Cam Newton and making his presence felt in the backfield all day as he easily toyed with ORT Byron Bell. With Trindon Holliday showing an electric flair in the return game, adding his second TD return in consecutive weeks and Peyton Manning playing flawless football, John Elway has brought difference makers to each phase of the team since he arrived and it has the Broncos soaring to new heights. The Broncos are well-positioned to run the table the rest of the season in the weakest division in football.

• Midway through the first quarter of the Patriots-Bills game, Tom Brady passed to a wide-open Wes Welker in stride after Welker beat Bills CB Justin Rogers in tight press coverage. The ball was perfectly placed and would have been an easy touchdown to start the game. With George Wilson coming over the top, Welker dropped the ball that hit him cleanly in the hands. Welker dropped another coming across the middle in the fourth quarter that was thrown low but was catchable. Though Welker remains one of the most productive players in the league in a Patriots offense that's perfectly suited for his talents, he has been declining the past three years. He's not as quick as he once was getting out of breaks or as crisp catching the ball.