In professional sports there are two types of tests that are often used by fans and experts to determine how “good” or “bad” players and teams may be. There are those that look at the numbers to tell the story, then there are individuals who use the “eye test” in a subjective matter to formulate their opinions. Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are an example as to why both of those types of tests can be very hard to determine the truth behind a team's performance. At this point, one must wonder what is the real identity of the group once known as the Cardiac Cats.
With Thursday's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Panthers are above .500 for the first time in 5 years or 71 games. That's the type of record that gets general managers fired, coaches replaced and quarterbacks critiqued. This season the Panthers have been performing as if they are ready to shed that record to challenge the New Orleans Saints for first place in the NFC South. But when using either the eye or the number test the results are hard to gauge.
At 4-3 Carolina is on a three game winning streak. Their four wins have come against the New York Giants, St. Louis Rams, Minnesota Vikings and the Bucs. Four teams that have a combined 5-22 record at this point in the year. In their wins Carolina is averaging 33.5 points per game. As a team they are playing very well on both sides of the ball. They are ranked in the top ten of both defensive categories and as a rushing unit. Across the board they've performed very well against the teams that they should defeat at this point in the year.
Being the quarterback Newton is subject to the critique of his team's performance. Cam is playing mistake free football and leading the offensive units on sustained drives each time they are on the field. In October alone he has a 69.3 completion percentage, thrown for 975 yards with 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions while rushing for 2 additional scores. In last night's game he became the first quarterback in NFL history to have 50 passing and 25 rushing touchdowns in a three year span.
Quite the resume at this point in the year. He's playing very well in games that the Panthers have won, but in games where Carolina were unable to get the victory, there's a different story being told.
When the Panthers have been defeated Newton and the team as a whole has struggled. His completion percentage drops to 58 percent to go along with the 4 interceptions he's thrown against only 3 touchdowns. What's even more alarming is that he has been sacked 14 times in those three losses. Key mistakes cost the Panthers against the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills in two games that they group could have won. Receivers have dropped passes that most likely would have led to points while the defensive gave up one of their few mistakes during the Bills' game winning drive back in Week 2. In their defeats they are averaging only 6.5 points per outing which will not get the job done at this level.
With Carolina's offense clicking the way they are at this time it seems they they've caught up to how well their defense is playing. This unit is allowing only 301 passing yards and 79.3 rushing yards per outing at this point in the year. Only the Kansas City Chiefs are allowing fewer points per game this season. Except for the loss against the Arizona Cardinal's the Panthers have held every game close this year. The Carolina defense has consistently been their stronger unit and that trend continues into this point of the 2013-2014 season.
Last night's game was the first division game for Carolina this year and their schedule is going to pick up over the next few weeks. They play the Atlanta Falcons, who are also struggling, but then must play San Francisco, New England and Miami in consecutive weeks. That stretch will show just how good this team is and if they have turned the corner that many have hoped they would under Newton's leadership.
For the last two years the Carolina Panthers have went on runs to close out their season at a point where they were already eliminated from playoff contention. In 2013 they seem to have hit those cylinders early in an attempt to make the post season for the first time in the Cam Newton era. If they can play the way they can sustain this level of play against teams with winning records as they have against those that are losing, then this unit will not be overlooked much longer this season.