Christian McCaffrey set to shoulder more of Cam Newton's burden for Panthers
Tenth in a 13-part series on the opponents the Green Bay Packers will face during the 2019 regular season.
GREEN BAY – It was just two years ago when it looked like the NFC South was going to be one of the toughest divisions in football for some time, with three playoff teams and two MVP quarterbacks in Carolina’s Cam Newton and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. But in 2018 all but New Orleans cratered, including Newton’s shoulder and the Panthers’ season.
The 30-year-old quarterback still played 14 games but at times couldn’t throw the ball deep and it led to offseason surgery. He just began throwing a regulation-sized ball in early June, but the initial outlook is that he’ll be ready to go for Week 1. Despite the health issue, Newton seemed to thrive under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, completing a career high 67.9% of his throws (his previous high was 61.7% in 2013), tossing 24 touchdowns (tied for second most in his career) while throwing 13 interceptions (his lowest total since 2015). His 94.2 rating was also the second-highest of his career, just behind the 99.4 he posted as the MVP in 2015.
The Panthers began to transition to a running attack, with their No. 10 overall offense bolstered by the No. 4 overall running game. In 2019, the Panthers will seek more production from a receiving corps that features 22-year-old D.J. Moore (55 catches), 22-year-old Curtis Samuel (39 catches) and a trio of receivers who are, or will turn, 30 this year: Chris Hogan (35 catches in New England), Torrey Smith (17 catches) and Jarius Wright (43 catches). There is some promise with Moore and Samuel, but the Panthers do need more production out of that room to aid Newton and the air attack.
Defensively, the Panthers are still led by All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, but it’s a young back seven they hope can coalesce around a veteran defensive line to improve off a No. 15-ranked unit from a year ago.
Here are three things to know about the Panthers:
‘Riverboat Ron’ loves odds
This will be Ron Rivera’s ninth year coaching the Panthers and since taking over in 2011 when he went 6-10 (a four-win improvement from the previous year) his team, for whatever reason, performs at a playoff level every other season. Rivera has posted three winning seasons and they have come in 2013 (12-4), 2015 (15-1) and 2017 (11-5). In-between, the Panthers have gone 7-9, 7-8-1, 6-10 and, you guessed it, 7-9 in 2018. Now, it’s probably a fun coincidence over a period of nearly a decade but there is a bit of a mathematical reason baked in: The schedule gets easier the year after a losing season. But it’s an important year for the head coach, as his contract runs only through 2020. Putting together another playoff run in an odd-numbered year would be in his best interests.
Third-year running back Christian McCaffrey has more than justified the Panthers using the No. 8 overall pick on him in the 2017 draft the last two years, and then he made social media waves this offseason when he appeared at OTAs looking ripped. He said he gained just 5 pounds of muscle, but it makes sense to bulk up — he only touched the ball 326 times last year. The Panthers love splitting him out as a receiver while also increasing his workload as a traditional running back. As Newton continues to get his throwing shoulder healthy, it makes sense to filter the entire offense through the 22-year-old running back out of Stanford.
The real McCoy?
Six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy’s tenure in Tampa Bay came to an abrupt end when new Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians essentially said the 6-foot, 4-inch, 300-pound defensive tackle was no longer good enough to command a $13 million salary. So, the Bucs cut him. Then the Panthers decided to sign him to one-year deal that could pay out $10.25 million depending on incentives reached. McCoy, now 31 years old, missed the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2011 last season but he did record six sacks in 14 games. He’s never had double-digit sacks but has always been considered a great disrupter on the interior and it will be interesting to see how much he has left in the tank. He will be paired up front with 346-pound veteran and two-time Pro Bowler Kawann Short and the Panthers hope he can suck in blockers from new edge rushers Bruce Irvin and 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns.
Packers schedule glimpse
Nov. 10 vs. Panthers, Noon, Fox
Week before: at Los Angeles Chargers, Nov. 3.
Week after: Bye.
On the horizon: at San Francisco, Nov. 24.
Coach: Ron Rivera (71-56-1 overall, ninth season with Panthers).
2017 record: 7-9, second in NFC South.
Scoring offense: 23.5 points per game (14th in NFL).
Total offense: 373.3 yards per game (10th).
Scoring defense: 23.9 points per game (19th).
Total defense: 353.2 yards per game (15th).
Series: Packers lead, 9-6.
Last meeting: The Packers lost 31-24 on Dec. 17, 2017 in Carolina to fall to 7-7 and see their playoff hopes crushed, despite the fact that Aaron Rodgers was activated off injured reserve following a broken collarbone suffered in October. Rodgers would then be put on season-ending IR shortly after the game. Rodgers threw three touchdown passes and three interceptions while being sacked three times in his return. He also rushed for 43 yards. Rodgers hit Richard Rodgers for a 24-yard touchdown with 2 minutes, 48 seconds to go to pull the Packers within a score. Marwin Evans then recovered the onside kick, but Geronimo Allison fumbled after a 10-yard completion to the Carolina 28 with 1:55 to go to end the Packers’ comeback attempt. For Carolina, Cam Newton tossed four TDs and tight end Greg Olsen caught nine passes for 116 yards.