Fox and the Black (and Teal) Panther Party

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by Aaron Schatz

By which I mean Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox, of course. I want to make sure the titles on my posts fit into The Atlantic framework.

So I asked for you, the readers, to bring your questions about the upcoming football season, and AJShoe (who has excellent, first-class initials) asked:

I am not a fan of the Panthers but I feel like they aren't getting any respect heading into the year. For example, the line for their over/under win total is now down to 7.0.

My question is two parts...
1. Do your efficiency ratings control for strength of schedule?
2. Can you explain why everyone is so down on the Panthers heading into 2010?

To answer the first question, yes, our efficiency ratings at Football Outsiders (known as DVOA) do control for strength of schedule. One of the major goals of DVOA is to control for context, which is why we compare every play to similar plays as well as adjusting for opponent strength and game situation. (For example, teams stuck on their own half of the field will usually shut things down in the final minute before halftime, so we adjust for that.)

As for the second question, let's discuss the Carolina Panthers. Yes, there's no doubt that Carolina was hot at the end of last year. In our book Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, we run these week-to-week graphs showing the performance of a team in each week, and the Carolina graph goes straight upwards except for a little plateau in the middle of the season. Their worst game last year was in Week 1, their best games in Weeks 16-17. (That needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as they played the New Orleans backups in Week 17, and the Giants defense was just a complete mess by Week 16.)

Often, a team getting hot at the end of the year does roll that success over into the following season. Yet our projections agree with the conventional wisdom—we have the Panthers with an average of 7.2 wins in our simulations. (We play the season out with our projections 10,000 times, assigning random values to each of the variables in the projection system each time.)

A big reason for this is the loss of personnel, as AJShoe mentioned in his comment. The Panthers lost their second-best defensive player, Julius Peppers. One of their starting outside linebackers, Thomas Davis, is out for the year.  They aren't really getting back two starting linemen—Jordan Gross played nine games last year, and Jeff Otah played 13. There are still questions about Matt Moore—there's no question he played very well last year in five starts, but young quarterbacks often come off the bench and play well in their first couple games until opponents get enough film on their tendencies. Then they struggle for a couple games, and then we find out if they are for real (in which case they rebound and improve) or not. The Panthers still have essentially one receiver, Steve Smith. Brandon LaFell seems to be impressing in the preseason, but he's a rookie, and you can't count on rookie receivers. They also keep screwing around with mediocre tight ends, when they might be better off sticking Gary Barnidge in there to see if he can reach his potential as a pass target. For years now, the Panthers have run this weirdly conservative offense that runs very well but tends to throw two-yard passes to tight ends and fullbacks on third-and-5.

Another important trend that indicates that the defense may not be as strong this year: the Carolina defense was better in the red zone than it was overall, and that doesn't tend to carry over from year to year. Red zone performance tends to regress to match overall performance.

Finally, the Panthers schedule isn't as easy as you think. We have it rated as the 10th hardest in the NFL. They get the NFC West, but they also get the AFC North, which is pretty strong. (Our projections even think that Cleveland will have a good defense this year, although the offense will be horrendous.) They draw the Giants and Bears, two teams we expect to improve on defense. And their division is tough. As another commenter noted, our projections actually put the Falcons on top of the division. The Saints are there, of course, and for a lot of little reasons that are difficult to explain, our projection system also has Tampa Bay improving. (I have to admit that subjectively, I don't quite agree with that one.)

More football talk to come...

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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