32 Questions in 32 Days: Carolina Panthers

Panthers QB Cam Newton

Aug 15, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) under center during the second quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

As we count down to the NFL season, XN Sports will be bringing you 32 questions in 32 days. Each day, we’ll feature one of the most important questions for a different NFL team heading into the opening weekend of the league.

Today’s feature team and question?

Carolina Panthers: Can banged up backfield be effective?

With dynamic quarterback Cam Newton, there’s no question that he’s the focal point of the Carolina Panthers’ offense. In two NFL seasons, Newton has proven that the team’s offense revolves around him and is quickly becoming a star.

In his rookie year in 2011, Newton topped 4,000 passing yards and added 35 total touchdowns. The 706 rushing yards on top of that instantly made him one of the league’s most dynamic quarterbacks. The young star also avoided the dreaded sophomore slump in 2012. With 3,869 passing yards and 27 touchdowns last year, Newton had another big season. Even better, he significantly cut back on his interceptions going from 17 in his rookie season to only 12 last year.

Newton’s biggest problem was that he didn’t have much of a running game behind him. Because of that (in part, anyway), Carolina couldn’t get past a dismal 1-6 start and even with a late run, the team still finished only 7-9 in missing the playoffs.

The Panthers’ rushing offense is incredibly misleading merely going strictly by the statistics. Despite a weak backfield, Carolina actually finished ninth in the NFL, averaging just over 130 yards per contest. However, that factored in Newton’s 46 yards each game and without him, the Panthers would have been one of the worst running teams in the NFL.

Mainstay DeAngelo Williams was incredibly average last season with 737 rushing yards on 4.3 per carry. He wasn’t terrible, but with only five rushing scores on the season, was hardly a star. Unfortunately for the franchise, there was even less behind him. Jonathan Stewart was next with only 336 yards and other than Mike Tolbert’s seven touchdowns, there really wasn’t much to get excited about in the team’s backfield.

Things were bad last season but the prognosis could be even worse in 2013.

Not only did the team fail to add an impact running back, but the current stable of rushers is banged up. A lot. Williams, the starter, is healthy – that’s the good news. However, behind him, there are several questions. Stewart had ankle surgery and is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, which means he’s out for at least the team’s first six games. Tolbert, the touchdown machine, didn’t play in the preseason due to a hamstring injury. The hope is that he can contribute immediately, but without the reps and not being 100%, he remains a concern. Carolina did address their running back situation a bit by drafting Kenjon Barner out of Oregon in the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft, but even he isn’t healthy. Barner also has an ankle injury and could miss the team’s first game this weekend.

The running back situation was already a debacle but all of the injuries just make it that much worse. Just how bad is it? Undrafted free agent Armond Smith could be on the depth chart for the team’s opener against Seattle. Out of Union College, Smith has a grand total of six carries for two yards in his two-year career. Woof.

Williams can still salvage the unit and if Tolbert can get onto the field, Carolina may be able to get by. However, it’s far from an ideal situation and don’t be surprised if the Panthers look to the free agent heap for a short-term fix.

Anson Whaley is a freelance writer with more than 16 years of experience. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and a current member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA). Mr. Whaley has also been a credentialed member of the media for various events.