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The Panthers' masking of a fatal flaw came undone Thursday night. While Cam Newton is the face of the franchise and a former league MVP, Carolina's identity has long been built off a uniquely constructed power run game. The team consistently ranked in the top 12 in run-play percentage during the successful years of the Ron Rivera/Newton era. Through the first half of the 2017 season, the Panthers running game hasn't just been a shadow of itself, it's been a liability. After Thursday night, there's no more hiding it.
Against the Eagles, Carolina's running backs averaged -2.15 yards before defenders closed within one yard of them (NFL average - 0.37), the lowest for any team all season. Not so coincidently, before this game, the worst team performance was indeed the Panthers with a -1.9 average against the Lions last week. The issues with Carolina's run blocking becomes more exacerbated with each passing week. On the year, Carolina carries the fourth-lowest average yards gained before defenders close within a yard at a -0.29 average.
While their run blocking is quite clearly a monstrosity of an issue and makes the situation nearly untenable for their backs, the duo of Stewart and McCaffrey aren't doing enough to create for themselves.
While he's no longer the sexy name in the backfield, Jonathan Stewart was meant to hold down the fort as the early down banger. Thus far, it's a task the elder statesman has proven unable to accomplish. With defenders quickly knifing into the backfield at a clip not seen so far this season, Stewart was renderer completely ineffective.
Heading into Thursday night's loss Stewart averaged 3.5 yards after defenders closed within a yard of him. While it's still below the league average for running backs (3.74), it's a respectable figure for a player with his skillset at this stage of his career. However, it was clear that without any help from his offensive line, Stewart could not function. His yards after close average cratered to 1.85, which would have been the lowest among running backs in Week 5 (five-plus carry minimum).
While Stewart isn't off to anything resembling a great start this year, he's far from the most disappointing player in the Panthers backfield.
Much fanfare, intrigue and praise went the way of the Carolina Panthers when they took Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick in this year's draft. The tantalizing skillset of the dual threat back was meant to add layers upon layers of extra dimensions to Panthers backfield and passing attack.
Through six weeks of his rookie season, McCaffrey is more than holding his own as a pass-catching weapon and anyone watching the games can tell you he makes a difference as a weaponry decoy. He leads the team in catches (37) and targets (41), while creating opportunities for his teammates. However, McCaffrey has been a downright poor runner in the first month-plus of his NFL career; there's no way around it.
The player who dazzled in the open field in the Pac-12 as a true superstar for Stanford is going down far too easily at the NFL level. McCaffrey averaged just 2.79 yards after defenders closed within a yard of him on his carries in Week 6.
Making matters worse, this mere four-carry sample was an improvement on what we saw from the Panthers rookie in the first five games. In Weeks 1 through 5, McCaffrey averaged 2.66 yards after close, ranking him 58th among 61 running backs with 20 or more carries. The only players to perform worse in this metric was the historically ineffectivePaul Perkins, now released 32-year old Chris Johnson and Vikings role player Jerick McKinnon.
McCaffrey is still adapting to the NFL and he's already been a positive addition overall for the Panthers passing game. However, given the expectations that this player arrived with and built in the offseason, it's more than fair to be disappointed. At some point Carolina will want to see more as a pure runner from their eighth overall pick, because the results so far have been ghastly.
With the run game falling apart, too much was put on the right arm of Newton, who registered a career-high 52 pass attempts. While he came in off perhaps the best two-game stretch of his career, the Panthers offense simply became too predictable and one-dimensional for him to get exposed as the game went on.
NFL teams can survive with a weak running game, but one that's a dysfunctional liability as Carolina's currently is, renders the quarterback's job a nightmare the longer the game wears on. The Eagles knew they could tee off on Newton in this game, and so they did. Newton registered a 28.2 passer rating under pressure, the worst of any game in the last two seasons. The former MVP quarterback needs more from his backfield as soon as possible.
If there's one silver lining for Carolina, it's that they can point to a key factor as the root cause to their issues: the absence of star center Ryan Kalil from Week 2 on. The Next Gen Stats confirm Kalil is a difference-maker; the team's running backs averaged 0.18 yards before defenders closed within a yard in Week 1 and -0.45 in every game since.
The Panthers hope Kalil will soon make his return from a neck injury to the starting lineup and anchor the blocking unit. He's taken part in warmups each of the last two weeks. Yet, with how dire the ground game is, it's fair to wonder if his return will be a magic fix for this moribund attack. Carolina must hope so, as the running game is the key to unlocking this offense's true potential.