With the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers scheduled to face off on Monday, I reached out to our friends/enemies over at Cat Scratch Reader for some inside perspective. The great James Dator kindly took the time to answer my questions.
Let's take a look at his answers.
1) The 2013 Panthers were pretty good. They went 12-4 and won the NFC South. The 2014 Panthers are not very good. They are 3-5-1 and own the NFL's seventh worst point differential. So... what happened?
It turns out offensive lines are important! Seriously though, things are bad. Long standing mainstay at left tackle Jordan Gross surprised the fanbase and the organization by retiring in February, and despite having ample time to find a replacement the Panthers didn't. It's my belief that they thought the guys in their organization were flawed, but good enough to carry the load for one season -- they were wrong.
On the other side of the ball it was salary cap issues. Not having Greg Hardy available due to his domestic violence trial is huge, but on top of that the team didn't have enough money to spend in free agency, particularly in the secondary. It leaves the Panthers with 3/4 of a great defensive line and arguably the league's best group of 4-3 linebackers then nothing else. That doesn't cut it in a passing league.
2) What's the future hold for Cam Newton? He's scheduled to be a free agent in 2016. Will the Panthers let him play out his contract?
That's the $64,000 question. By all accounts the team wants to lock him up long term, and it would be lunacy not to. People can prattle on about his struggles this season, but at the end of the day he's the same quarterback he's always been -- but asked to play with no offensive line and a rookie (albeit a good one) as his top wide receiver. Kelvin Benjamin is young and he's making rookie mistakes.
3) To what extent are Panthers fans satisfied with Ron Rivera? How about former Eagles and current Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott?
Rivera makes some maddening coaching decisions and still isn't comfortable in clutch situations, but the players LOVE him. Seriously. You hear stuff about "players coaches," but in this case they'd run through a wall for him. If nothing else it means the Panthers wont quit, no matter how bad things get.
Defensively Carolina has taken a step back, but it's not really McDermott's fault. He's been a fantastic defensive coordinator that's often had a sub par group to work with. You can draw up the perfect coverage for a play but it's still going to go poorly if an ancient Roman Harper can't make a simple tackle. That's what he's working with.
4) What is the Panthers' biggest strength and weakness?
It's probably a copout to say "Cam Newton," but he is -- struggles and all. The Panthers QB still has the ability to completely take over a game when he gets a little help, but too often that hasn't happened.
On defense it would probably be impact plays. It's not like the Panthers have done a lot right on defense, but they are opportunistic. This season they've forced 12 fumbles, intercepted 9 passes and have a turnover ratio of +4. They'll allow points, but also give the offensive plenty of chances they will subsequently screw up.
5) How's old friend Jason Avant doing?
You know, he really hasn't had a ton of opportunities. We've heard about him being a great locker room presence but I think he was a safety net in case Kelvin Benjamin wasn't ready to start in the NFL. So far there haven't been many chances for him to take the field with Carolina using younger receivers in the slot role. That said, he's been decent when needed.
Bonus: Let's hear a score prediction. Who wins this game and why?
Philadelphia 30, Carolina 17
The Eagles will win because of Chip Kelly's creativity. I don't care that Nick Foles is out and Mark Sanchez is in; Kelly is one of those coaches that will have a whole week to work out what he needs to do and will attack the Panthers multitude of weaknesses. On the other side of the ball the Panthers struggle with 3-4 defenses and have no offensive line, so yolo? I guess.