The Continuing Struggles of the Carolina Panthers Offensive Line

Last Word On Pro Football, Nathanael Gabler

The 2015 iteration of the Carolina Panthers will be remembered by fans as a lovely, unexpected rain of love and tremendous letdown. After a 7-8-1 campaign in 2014, Ron Rivera came into the the season feeling the heat from fans and local media. He came out of the gates and rattled off one of the best four starts in NFL history, leading the team to a 14-0 record start to the season. They would finish the regular season with a 15-1 record, en route to their second Super Bowl. Unfortunately, they fell quite convincingly in the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos. The Super Bowl got out of hand quickly, and the Panthers have seemingly never recovered.

The Continuing Struggles of the Carolina Panthers Offensive Line

Breaking Down the Super Bowl Hangover

There were a clear multitude of offensive factors contributing to the Super Bowl loss. Regular season MVP Cam Newton had trouble dissecting the looks given to him by the Denver defense. Ted Ginn and the diminished Carolina receiving corps failed to help Cam out of tough situations. Additionally, offensive coordinator Mike Shula abandoned their potent and multidimensional running game far too early. However, the most notable flaw was obvious to even the casual fan. The Denver pass rush was able to get to Newton with ease, dominating the Panthers at every position along the offensive line.

Through the first 82 games of Newton’s career, Cam has been hit an astonishing 831 times – an average of nearly 10 a game. While this number accounts for hits taken by the quarterback in the pocket or on the run, the number is still remarkably high. The next most hit quarterback has taken nearly 300 less shots over the same time frame. Since the Panthers used their number one overall pick on Newton in 2011, they have taken strikingly few opportunities to protect the health of their franchise quarterback.

Why is Cam Taking So Many Hits?

It would be easy to blame play-calling and Newton’s running style for all of the hits he has taken. While this tells part of the story, there’s much more to it. Since Cam was drafted, Carolina has taken only two offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the draft – both guards. Left guard Amini Silatolu, who is no longer with the team, was a second round pick in 2012. Carolina then used a third rounder in 2014 on right guard Trai Turner. While Turner has emerged as potentially the best O-lineman on the team, he is more of a force in the rushing game. During the same stretch, the Panthers drafted only a singe offensive tackle. A fourth round pick in 2015 was spent on the current backup right tackle, Daryl Williams.

Left tackle has been a revolving door ever since Cam took over under center. When three-time Pro Bowler Jordan Gross retired following the 2013 season, Byron Bell, an undrafted free agent out of New Mexico, started 15 games at left tackle in 2014. Entering the 2015 campaign, Carolina signed Michael Oher to take over for the struggling Bell. Oher ranked as the 74th best tackle out of 78 qualifying in 2014 by Pro Football Focus.

Issues Exposed in the Super Bowl

Oher was serviceable, to put it nicely, during the 2015 regular season tear. Newton’s remarkable MVP season covered most of the veteran tackle’s flaws. However, 33-year-old DeMarcus Ware utterly embarrassed Oher in front of the entire nation during the Super Bowl.

Von Miller lining up opposite of Ware during the Super Bowl turned out to be another tremendous mismatch. Miller spent the game reminding viewers why Mike Remmers, the starting right tackle for the Panthers, was a 26-year-old undrafted free agent. The journeyman in Remmers had bounced around to six different teams in his short career before joining Carolina. To be fair to Remmers, Von Miller is… well he’s sort of a more evolved species than the rest of us. Regardless, having these two plays on your resume isn’t going to help when negotiating your next deal.

Future Implications

The offensive line problems have clearly continued into this season. The lack of investment in the line by David Gettleman and the front office has caught up to the team, and been blatantly obvious during the disappointing 3-6 start to the regular season. Yes, there is many more problems with the team than the five guys lining up in front of Cam. The defense is currently ranked 17th the DVOA – a Football Outsiders efficiency rating. The secondary could clearly use more work, and the front four just hasn’t been able to put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

However, the offensive line has been unable to open holes in the running game, and incapable of giving Newton enough time in the pocket. Carolina’s rushing offense rankings dropped from sixth in 2015 to 15th so far this year. The passing attack also dropped ten spots to 19th in the league. Kelvin Benjamin‘s return to the receiving corps should have helped improve the team on both sides of the ball. Both of these factors, in my eyes are the key contributors to the Panthers’ 3-6 start. With the record where it stands, the playoffs essentially start this week for the underperforming Panthers. Gettleman needs to start seriously investing in the offensive line if Carolina expects to return to contention.