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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Avant Out; Chandler to IR, Part Two

Vet WR Jason Avant was cut, Nate Chandler is on injured reserve.
Nothing's changed since the last time I've said that.

The loss of Chandler at RT and his future development/evaluation remains
the bigger hit to me. It's remarkably intriguing that the names to
possibly replace him include the recently deposed because of injury
Amini Silatolu, and the tremendously mediocre Chris Scott. But it's a
funky experiment, and a letdown, that all this is happening when the
line was just starting to work.

But, the fan community remains at a full froth about Jason Avant.

First off, I wish Jason all the best. It must be a hard roller coaster
he's on - on a losing team, in the decline of his career, coming off a
Philly at Philly homecoming for him that did not go well, and a week
later he's cut. He made sense here - slot guy, leader, good hands,
good routes.

I didn't see enough separation, and if you're a conspiracy theorist,
absolutely. That sounds like a team line. I had worries as far back as
the drafting of Kelvin Benjamin that, now with those two vets as the
roleplayers, Carolina was surprisingly duplicative. If Cotchery was the
X (split end) receiver, the possession guy, then there's room for Avant
to be the slot, the part timer. With KB a stalwart split end himself,
Cotchery becomes the Z, the move guy, more often the same type role as
Avant.

Again, Ron Rivera's got issues if he's suddenly noticed that Cotchery
and Avant are more or less the same guy. His words about separation are
legitimate, and most teams do have more speed at the Z than Carolina can
throw at you (having Philly Brown out there does, in fact, fix that).
Still, in a world where the team is throwing more short routes, it would
make some sense. They're not doing that, certainly not the team that
took a ton of deep shots against the Saints. They're less efficient at
getting to manageable 3rd downs and less efficient at picking them up,
so some of that's on the team design. What they intended to do with
Avant made sense. What they were doing with him in games made less
sense.

I know it's a nuanced argument to make, one that those burning torches
on this one won't want to hear, but I do hesitate to carry the team line
on this one. I do see the media pushing that this is definitely not a
spiteful cut, and I don't fully trust that, but I do believe in what the
team's trying to do regarding separation.

I guess it's just where - I don't know. Jason Avant isn't sacred. A
little of this feels like Steve Smith resentment. I can't do anything
about that for the average person reading this. But just the same as
he's not sacred, he doesn't deserve to be the rope in the tug of war
over what's going on with Cam, the OL, the offense, either.

I'm reading David Newton's blog post, stating cutting Avant was the
right choice. It's fairly well done, and Newton doesn't just copy the
same article the way the others do. But if you'd told me before
yesterday, they were going to cut Avant? I don't know.


There's a precedent for this type thing, to quell the conspiracy
theorists. Geoff Hangartner was cut in the start of camp 2013. I knew
Hangartner was underperforming, he'd had a decent '11 at the last second
and so he got the rght to struggle through '12. They let him go,
beloved by teammates that he was, because as long as he was there, the
others couldn't get reps. It's an odd dynamic. It's the same dynamic
as this. Why not just demote Avant?

For that matter, Brown had 7 for 66 against Pittsburgh in week 3. Sure,
there were injury weeks in there. But, you could conceivably have
gotten Brown more reps before now. You could get them with Avant
inactive, if that's helpful.

Rivera disagrees - and that's his choice - stating "when you have
veteran guys who play a lot in front of younger guys that have
potential, sometimes you stunt their growth". He knows more about
player development than I do. I'm OK with that. You could inactivate
Avant, which I guess costs you a younger player who you can elevate.
Avant wasn't going to be here next year, given that he isn't now.

It does make me wonder, if he's not, why not start feathering in other
players? Sure, Ed Dickson finally had a nice gain the other day, but
Brandon Williams is the guy who should be in that role next year. Let
him be there now. Same for Roman Harper versus random warm bodies.

So, I don't know. I think the angry mob, looking for a sign of Ron
Rivera's demise while hoping for just such a thing, found a potential
symptom and ran with it. Ron Rivera's quite conservative on the average
day, and so he's definitely not the "fire anyone that pissed me
off!!!1111" type guy. Those two entities, they'll probably disagree on
that type reaction. I don't believe the team is 'lost' and it's their
job to play through it all no matter what. I'm growing impatient of
failure myself, so while I can't blame all of the offense on Mike Shula
or Cam Newton, or Rivera for that matter, it's not good enough.

I don't think that's what's happened here. But, while Rivera's choice
for the pre-field goal offense is a valid but conservative choice, the
concern that Greg Olsen, Avant, and others had mentioned, that was valid
too. Obviously if Carolina stays on the throttle, they have a better
shot at a first down or touchdown, at the expense of clock stoppages
that could benefit Atlanta. I know if they'd run it at least once or
twice, as needed anyway, that a misfire on 3rd down as Newton had
through the first three quarters? That would've gotten criticisim in
other directions.

So, I don't know. I feel like this is somewhat a situation of
channeling the want (and based on viewpoint, need) to suit the
situation. On its own, I don't find panic in "someone said something
about the offense" as much as the offensive consistency itself.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Jason Avant Out; Chandler to IR

Vet WR Jason Avant was cut, Nate Chandler is on injured reserve.

Avant had 21 receptions and a score, for 201 yards. He was a slot WR on
a team that essentially already had a duplication in Jerricho Cotchery,
along with Greg Olsen being a guy who plays out as a slot TE about 50%
of the time (based on last year). Ron Rivera singled that out, stating
that Cotchery, Avant, and Brenton Bersin were too similar (being too
similar didn't keep Cotchery and Avant from being signed around the same
time, for what it's worth).

The internet is abuzz about Avant having criticized late-game
playcalling, suggesting that's the reasoning for dropping the veteran.
At this point, both that reasoning and the official one - to get rookie
Philly Brown more reps - make sense. You could argue that dropping a
critical vet sends a message, or it suggests the team has been 'lost'.
Carolina has precedent for dropping a vet, possibly for shock value, in
Charles Godfrey earlier this year.

That's all speculation. You could also speculate that Rivera has given
upon the season and wants to evaluate the available youth - of which
Brown is definitely a valuable piece. He's the small guy of the group,
the deep threat, the shifty guy who can fill the Ted Ginn roles (which
is to say, he's most valuable at the WR screen/end around/go route
stuff), the fabled undrafted Victor Cruz to the first round Hakeem Nicks
of the Giants' championship era (there really can't be a worse two-time
championship 'dynasty', but at least they took two rings from the Pats).

If you want to make that "giving up on '14" thing, which I don't know if
Brown versus Avant gives less of a competitive difference at this point,
that would be a mixed situation - it suggests Rivera has longevity (I
believe he does, to a point), but losing vets like Avant would be a
negative toward that. You'd also want to start talking about Brandon
Williams, for instance.

Avant gets paid for the rest of the year, so it's not the worst thing of
all time for him, but he certainly has to figure out what's next in his
career, if anything.

Andrew Brandt, who's gained a bit of traction on the internet as the
front office type insider (outside the ESPN brand of buying essentially
anyone who's out of football and has a recognizeable name), said today -
"The business of football at work today: unless player is special no
tolerance for rumbles of discontent. So many players, so few jobs."

But, WR are always the focus, the lightning-rod.

Losing starting RT Nate Chandler is a bigger deal. Avant was a
roleplayer, Chandler a starter, and at a worse position (it's also
unlike the Godfrey cut, where the position itself was also in turmoil -
WR is going to be okay). Avant's third, sometimes 4th WR type role
meant 375 snaps - 55% of snaps. There was some injury there (Benjamin
has played 84%, Cotchery 71%, Brown and Bersin about 12% each).
Chandler as a starting player would be expected to play the whole time.

And, unlike Avant, there's nothing behind him. You have Canadian
project David Foucault, recent signing Mike Remmers, maybe moving a guy
like Andrew Norwell outside. Tackle depth has been tremendously bad all
year - no one could really compete with Chandler or Byron Bell, so they
fought each other to see who'd be on what side. Garry Williams, who I
can't remember staying healthy into October since 2010 - predictably
went down early again and couldn't contribute.

Chandler, of course, had his best game of the season (PFF +3.2) right
before getting hurt. It's a torn meniscus, for what it's worth.
Chandler signed an extension this year, the injury shouldn't keep him
out through camp next year or anything. But, with Bell a free agent (and
at this point, don't call us, we'll call you), and nothing behind them,
Chandler's an incumbent next year. So you don't even get to evaluate
him.

So, I have no clue what they'll throw out there at RT. We can argue
all day over whether Avant was cut for performance or for criticism,
whether Ron Rivera's lost his team, all of that, but it won't matter at
all without a right tackle.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

V/S Atlanta, Pregame

Carolina's reeling.  They have lost four in a row, haven't won in five straight, however you want to chop it up, they're 1-6-1 in a brutally hard stretch of games.  That Atlanta comes at the end, with them being 1.5 games behind, might be a blessing. Carolina follows Atlanta with a bye, and while Atlanta's quality this year suggests this may as well be a bye, Carolina's almost as bad.

Of course, Atlanta acts like it wants to get hot on defense right now, because why shouldn't Carolina have to fight another bad team at its apex?   It obviously still has a good set of WRs, Tony Gonzalez being gone has harmed them, and they will seemingly never have a shot at improving their OL and their defense back to playoff caliber without some sacrifice.

This one could be, with NO facing a better Cincy team, and Carolina fighting a supposedly lesser team at home, the one that puts Carolina back in the lead for the NFC South (again, a tremendously sad statement about all involved).

Or, the season could continue as planned and enter the bye with massive amounts of turmoil, and no direction.  Guess it's their call - which dumpster fire can overpower the other one?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Let's Pretend That Didn't Happen

This past two weekends, it's been nice not worrying about Panther
Football - you just have a casual Sunday. The humiliating Thursday and
Monday Night blowouts, I'm going to go with "this never happened."

Let's keep the bit where Kelvin Benjamin scored twice, good for him.
Even though it was after it stopped mattering, it's nice to see. Nice
to see Jonathan Stewart in the endzone. So, three plays were kinda fun.

It didn't start that way, and that's when you could just tell, this was
going to be ugly. Deangelo Williams fumbled - that essentially never
happens - and it was immediately lost. Cam Newton threw a quick INT
immediately after, on the next possession, and while Benjamin was
covered anyway, he'd stopped on his route. Not good. Any attempts at
fighting out of a 10-0 hole wouldn't work. Newton would take a 9-sack
beating after. This was never a competitive game.

I don't mind not beating one of the NFC's best teams. This was never a
great matchup. But, competitive? This team can bother to be involved.

I'm starting to want change. I don't know what that means - and I'm not
a "make them pay/I have to find a scapegoat for my sorrow" guy.
Whatever is necessary to get better, that's all I want. If that's a set
of assistants, or the head man, at this point I just don't want this
level of football for any longer than necessary. So if that's Mike
Shula, hey man, it's been a nice ride at least half the time. I see
what he wants to do, and right now it's not that possible with what he's
working with. Should he get to do what he needs, but with real
offensive tackles? Maybe. If you can get better, just get better
instead.

This isn't good enough.

Monday, November 10, 2014

V/s Eagles, MNF Pregame

On the road, against a better team, under the lights.  And Carolina's not won a football game in a month.

This could be a tough one.

Even before digging into the guts of this one, and I'll be glossing over the matchups a bit more than usual, this is an ailing team facing one of the best in the league.  Hope looks more like competency than a win right now.

There's no doubt I've been intrigued by the design on Chip Kelly's NFL makeup.  The aggressive 4th down calls, the remarkably fast pace from practice to game, the sheer volume of plays and yet the simplicity of the scheme.  It's a tough thing, with Cam Newton coming off an awful game and the internet quickly looking for the head of Mike Shula, to go against a scheme that's a true scheme product - in that I don't believe they're exceptionally talented, outside LeSean McCoy.  The rest, it doesn't seem to take a talented QB, just a smart one; it doesn't take great receivers, just able ones.  I don't know how well this offense would look without McCoy killing it in the inside zone, though in the last ten years or so, plenty of pedestrian backs have made a short term killing with the inside zone, too.

The Eagles spread you, obviously.  Chip Kelly is a spread guy, it's right in the name of the offense.  They spread you horizontally with numbers, give the QB options, give route combinations with inside and outside guys.  The QB, on most plays, can read the box, call whether a run or pass is a good idea, and go against the numbers.  At that point, if run, there's handoff or keep; with the pass you have, potentially, screen on one side, hitch on another, or a crosser.  It's that concept over and over, with a few changes.  70-90 times, and a few break wide open out of confusion.  The rest are just high percentage plays, since most of the thought is presnap, and of course execution.   That's a packaged play, and it's a lot of the Eagles' O.

Kelly believes heavily in line play, so it's no wonder he has a good running game - again, not to undersell McCoy - and he got that team because the expensive Philly OL had broken down for Andy Reid (himself skewing very spread lately, and that's only partially a fat joke).  Add Lane Johnson and you have a tremendous OL.  Carolina has a good run D, when it plays up to its potential, and the last few weeks they have been on point - but the Eagles' run game is such that the back 6 (not 7, as it's spread) is on roller skates because of the packaged plays.

Luckily, the best part of that comes in the Panthers' LBs; sure, this O will fool anyone, but the hope is, they won't sell out so hard on the run.  This is a good pass coverage duo, and Kuechly has been as good as anyone at letting the defense take their 3 yard pass shot, and then making the guy with the ball pay for having done so.  Not only must this pair be patient against the run, they have to almost do it dropping a bit, since the Eagles will in fact throw a dart in there behind them if they sneak up just a bit.

Oh, and be ready to go against them for a hundred plays.

Maybe the back 5 will be ready, but Bene Benwikere isn't.  That's a tough break, as he's probably the best corner (something that's changed a lot since he got hurt, which has been since Carolina's last win, in what feels like forever ago).  Antoine Cason has to get over being a bit sullen, Melvin White has to do his best with his opportunities, and Josh Norman has to just not screw up within the system to keep his favored status away from the Cason/White saga.  And then you're still hoping against disaster at safety.   Do you use more Tre Boston, and let inexperience kill you, or let vets make rookie mistakes of their own?

I don't know whether they'll run a traditional outside corner against the inside Philly receivers (honestly in this system, you're not fighting a traditional slot guy, it's just another receiver), or use the James Dockery/Colin Jones duo again.  You have to like Jones, and he's got size/speed.  But he's also not a corner, so, who knows.

Certainly, it's not as if Jeremy Maclin or apparent racist Riley Cooper aren't talented.  I certainly think a lot of Jordan Matthews, the rookie, who's been almost as good as Benjamin and more efficient.  I don't mean to say that the offense is the only thing of relevance, or that they just sit back and earn it.  They're a tough cover.  I certainly worry of Maclin's playmaking (8 TD) and Matthews' 3rd down stuff, with his precise routes and big body. Zach Ertz is shaping up to be a fine TE, and if not McCoy in the backfield, Darren Sproles remains as yet another threat.

Against a traditional O, you'd want to confuse former shell-shock alum Mark Sanchez, making his first start in a year.  This isn't a traditional O, so mixing up too many coverages means outsmarting yourself. Blitzing it, of course, automatically trips it into pass mode, or almost as bad in this defense, a run to the other side.  Certainly, forcing Sanchez into mistakes would be great, but you have to be careful.  At least, Foles had shown some chinks in the armor against some not-great teams, and Sanchez is new to all this.  A net 14th per attempt shows they're not where they were last year.

Defensively, they look worse, where 14th in points is respectable but 23rd in yards gives some hope, 20th in passing yards.  But, footballoutsiders.com has the D 8th; some of the trending yards/attempt numbers suggest that sheer volume drags their D down a bit, but you could suggest a fair bit of that comes after games might be more or less decided (FO is also interesting, in that it shows defensively Philly has faced almost no one (32 in strength) where Carolina has faced the worst stuff (1 in strength)).

They're a base 3-4, but the meat of the D comes in nickel.  Connor Barwin rushes over left (6.5 sacks), Trent Cole right (3.5), and athletic Fletcher Cox inside (0 so far, but 8.5 total over the last two years).   Emmanuel Acho and Mychal Kendricks make up the second level; Kendricks looks to be an active player in both blitz and coverage, but Acho looks like a pedestrian run stopper.

The Eagles have some size at corner with Cary Williams (6'1) and Bradley Fletcher (6'), Nolan Carroll (6'1), and odd man out Brandon Boykin (5'10).  It's size against size for the big Carolina receivers; the hope is, you can get them on some double moves, get ahead of them on slants, drags, and so on, without them holding (I don't feel good about Carolina drawing PI calls, and the refs absolutely didn't budge on anything with the mass of deeper balls heading to Kelvin Benjamin).    You can break them of some of the size advantage putting Greg Olsen outside formation, and they need to re-feature that - Olsen shouldn't be blocking.

It's a personal, but emotional game for career-till-this-year, former Eagle Jason Avant.  Certainly Jerricho Cotchery has some need to bounce back as well.  But I'd like to see, with maybe a bit more time, a few deep balls to Philly Brown.  Get it deep to a deep guy.

I don't see how this game stays reasonable without a good running game for Carolina.  This might be the first time in a while that RBs Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and the line (with Byron Bell and Amini Silatolu, but without Trai Turner) line up together somewhat healthy.  You have to have a heavy dose of the run, and makeable third downs, to get field position, to keep the D fresh, and so on.  This was the best part of last year's offense, and it just hasn't been there this year.

I think you have to see more Newton running, too.  No way around that.  That's the x-factor that makes things better around here.  I'd, in general, love to see some no-huddle, I just don't think this is the time, this is the game.  This is, offensively, an old man football situation.  Maybe go 2-TE a lot.  Maybe do it with Olsen split out, I don't know.  Bunch them, let them stay 3-4.  Pound the ball.  Hold the ball.

That's their only shot.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Will Panthers Stop Gambling?

Being 2.5 games behind .500 in week 10 means starting to look big
picture.

Dave Gettleman gambled in 2013. He signed a bunch of guys to one year,
cheap deals. A lot of them worked out.

He gambled in 2014. Results suggest they didn't work out. I don't need
to state that Antoine Cason 's QB rating is the league's worst to
underline that point, or list out all the issues to suggest that he
did, in fact, gamble and lose a bit on things like OT, DB, or Greg
Hardy. A lot of that, obviously, didn't work out at this point.

My focus at this point – is this how life is going to be under Gettleman
from here on? And what are the alternatives?

The truth of the matter is, 2015 is coming, and there's some dead money
to deal with, some big contracts to deal with, and so on. It's an
issue. And there's no doubt in my mind that if the wheels don't fully
fall off Cam Newton (i.e., if he throws out 7 more games like this last
New Orleans game), Newton's going to get paid. I can see them picking
up the transition tag on Luke Kuechly (which would be cheaper for 2016
than an extension now) but that's coming due, too. Eventually, one way
or another, the future won't have big contracts for the 2011 signings
(I'd prefer maybe more friendly deals for Charles Johnson and Ryan
Kalil, certainly a new deal for Greg Olsen), as much as the potential
cost of massive new deals for Newton and Kuechly.

So, is this just life now? Is Carolina's fate wrapped up entirely on
the gambles of the middle of the roster, with one, maybe two major needs
filled by the draft? It would appear so.

An upside to that? There's essentially no middle class in the NFL.
You're a free agent – if you're not signed beforehand, or highly sought
by desperate, cap-rich teams, you're going to get less than your value.

The one-year approach is a hedge – you're not tied to a player longterm
if he's not good, and the cost is obviously low. Gettleman wanted a lot
of guys on inexpensive 3 year deals, and guys like Captain Munnerlyn and
Mike Mitchell benefitted by getting the one-year. Most guys this year
got one or two year deals.

Carolina's also done a remarkably good job of stocking up on some new
stars in the draft, honestly getting fairly lucky. Which is great - I'd
love for them to get lucky at OT next year. But, regressing toward the
mean (that OT isn't a star, as far as OTs go, but is a competent
starter) is allright, too. As with the start of 2011 and forward, the
issue hasn't been the high end players that often, it's the bottom of
the roster. Depth. Hence the reasons that these gambles, paying your
potential starters at less critical positions low money, are gambles.
Carolina doesn't need stars, but in an ideal world they'd have had money
for a starting tackle.

It's amazing, in hindsight, the things people will decide. Suddenly,
people who all summer said Brandon LaFell wasn't that valuable, will
suggest that LaFell was a need and the Panthers were fools to not pick
him up - while he's currently the 4th best receiver for the Patriots and
even on his best games, drops a lot of passes. Suddenly he's a
must-have? The guy who disappeared down the stretch for Carolina when
Steve Smith was banged up? I know the NFL is a results-oriented
business, but it's amazing how a mediocre guy has a couple of good games
and suddenly becomes a star. LaFell is an inefficient piece of the
puzzle, and not one that can carry you. At this point, sure, LaFell has
made a few plays, but I'd still rather have Ted Ginn on this roster.

Absolutely, half-way through a season, you can go in hindsight and
re-spend Greg Hardy money on other things. Of course, that hindsight
would be complaining about how Hardy should've been franchised because
the defense isn't as good as it could be, or critical of LaFell that
he's not earning his money here. It's easy to be right with the answers
already in hand.



That's not to say Gettleman has done everything just right. Some of the
blame for this year this far is in his hands. And whether it's him or
not (hint - it's going to be him), these gambles will have to continue.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fixing Carolina

Ron Rivera says the team is far from done.

So how does that become possible?

*Survive Philly

Philadelphia is #5 of 5 in a row of 2013 playoff teams Carolina will have played.  They absolutely must survive that game unscathed.  It being a road game against the 2nd best record team on the schedule (the Lions are 6-2, somehow) at this point, it's hard to expect more than a moral victory.  Just know this is a good team you're playing, and that any true turnaround might have to come afterward.

Speaking of which, they get 2-6 Atlanta at home after that, and then the bye week.   See?  Good time to spark something.  Atlanta plays no one this week, then Tampa Bay next week.

*Get Healthy

Byron Bell and Amini Silatolu are in, most likely, next week.

Same for Thomas Decoud and Bene Benwikere.

Jonathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams are already more or less in.

That would be the healthiest Carolina's been in a while.  Bell isn't exceptional, but David Foucault is definitely not good.  Silatolu back allows Carolina inside flexibility.   DeCoud returns some experience to FS, and Benwikere's probably Carolina's best corner.

Then, they get Mike Tolbert back after the bye.

*Settle Cam Down

He's doing too much.  Force some easy completions, get the ball rolling.

*Protect, Without Olsen

You need Greg Olsen in routes.  If you have to have someone to pull into pass blocking from TE, find someone else.  Olsen shouldn't be blocking.  He does a decent job, but get someone else.  If you want passes completed, Olsen is downfield.

Kelvin Benjamin, like Cam Newton, is being asked to do way too much.  Benjamin was already getting coverage shaded his way, and then you take away Olsen?  Not the way to do it.

*Don't Get Cute, McDermott

Sean McDermott's moved Luke Kuechly around a good bit.  Fair enough, do what you must.  But there's only so much you get by pushing Kuechly to a side of the field or a single gap.  Luke's been rushing outside, and that's fine, Thomas Davis is more than capable in space by himself, but it's not the same.  Kuechly has to be in the middle of that defense.  

*No Huddle, Packaged Plays

You know, when nothing works, doing something foreign can't help but so much.  But, the no huddle has established a rhythm at times.  They need to go back to it.

Packaged plays let Cam count the number in the box and choose run or pass, and let him  choose where and what from there from either option.  This is the best way to proceed, and yet I haven't seen it much lately.  Packaged plays also tend not to be extended, long route combos, and Carolina needs higher percentage passes right now.

*Pick a Corner

It's disheartening to hear Antoine Cason whining that he got benched.  I thought the PI call was hasty (and certainly, the Saints got away with more), but Ron Rivera does this sometimes.  He's sat guys before.  Josh Norman sat a full year away from playing defense.  At this point they've played six different guys for significant time, and that's without counting some growing playing time for safety Colin Jones at nickel.   Benwikere's your nickel, and who knows, maybe one day he grows into more.  Find someone outside that can play, and stick with him.

*Find Greg Hardy
Hope he's in game shape.  Carolina, and Hardy, both seem to think that he should start playing again.  It couldn't hurt the defense, and Hardy adds attitude.  In an ideal world, Hardy would be properly punished but that doesn't seem possible right now.  At this point he's taken 8 games with pay, more than he would've gotten under the new league penalties.  I don't know if that's what it should be, or if the league will reinstate him (expect something next week either way).