Of the Panthers, Kelly, and AD

Watching the end of the season, you’d think the Panthers were a playoff team. The team finished 5-1. Cam Newton averaged over 245 yards per game plus another 58 on the ground with 14 total touchdowns and just two interceptions. They outscored opponents 173-120 and dominated the turnover battle 8-4. For the second straight year, the Panthers finished the last six games of the season strong.

But then there’s the matter of the first ten games of the year.

In both seasons under coach Ron Rivera and Cam Newton, the Panthers started the year 2-8. This season, they were outscored 184-243 in the first 10 games with a -3 turnover margin. Cam Newton only had 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions with 8 fumbles to boot. In the first ten games, the Panthers looked more like the Charlotte Bobcats than anything else.

The good thing about being really bad, though, is landing a high draft pick. After ten games, the Panthers were on pace for just over three wins, which would have been good for the third overall pick in the draft. Instead, Carolina turned on the jets about ten games too late to finish the season 7-9, earning them the 14th pick in the draft.

The Panthers won’t be drafting a Star this year third overall. They’re going to be drafting a middling first-round talent–and still be out of the playoffs.

Then comes the matter of head coaching. The day after the end of the regular season, seven head coaches were fired (meaning 2012 NFL head coaches still have a lower unemployment rate than Greece). Ron Rivera wasn’t one of them, but according to Adam Schefter, Rivera will meet with owner Jerry Richardson to discuss his future.

It’s hard to say whether Rivera deserves to be fired or deserves another year. Or whether deserving even matters. At times, Rivera’s teams have looked like playoff contenders–the fact that the team ended 4-2 last year probably encouraged Ryan Kalil to pay for this infamous full-page newspaper ad. But during far too much of his tenure, Rivera has led listless players with terrible clock management and underwhelming enthusiasm.

But no matter how well Rivera’s two campaigns have gone, I believe there is a far superior option on the market, which is reason enough to let Rivera go. I’m talking about Chip Kelly, Oregon head coach.

People have said that Oregon’s fast-paced offense wouldn’t work in the NFL. People also said that Robert Griffin III’s pistol formation-centered offense wouldn’t work. That Russell Wilson wasn’t good enough to start in the pros. That Cam Newton couldn’t run the option. That trio seems to be working out well, and the Patriots seem to be doing just fine with their fast-paced, no-huddle offense.

The key in the NFL is innovation. The Dolphins turned around their 0-16 franchise the following year largely thanks to their baffling wildcat offense. At the very least, successful NFL teams don’t maintain status quo. Keeping Ron Rivera signals just that–status quo and a lack of innovation.

Chip Kelly nearly took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach job last year but turned them down at the last minute because he had “some unfinished business at the University of Oregon.” Of course, Kelly isn’t playing for the National Championship on the 7th, but he made another great run this year, falling one game short. And the Panthers also represent the best fit for him with a potential head coach opening–maybe the best fit among all NFL teams.

If he joined the Panthers, Kelly would have his athletic quarterback in Newton, a bevy of runningbacks in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert, and athletic receivers in Steve Smith and Greg Olsen. It’s like Kelly would get an upgraded Marcus Mariota, Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas, and Josh Huff.

Of course, not all of the blame for the Panthers’ shortcomings falls on Rivera’s shoulders. Hell, now ex-GM Marty Hurney locked up the core of a 1-15 team, highlighted by giving Charles Johnson, who has never made a Pro Bowl, $72 million. Not only that, but he invested $89.5 million into three running backs ($48.2 million guaranteed) in a league that is trending towards aerial dominance. Just look at the leaders in Total QBR: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Robert Griffin III, Alex Smith, and Russell Wilson. What do they all have in common? They’re all in the playoffs.

The Panthers ate up their cap space with three running backs, none of which are truly exceptional. And since all three need carries (along with Newton), the Panthers cannot maximize any of their values. Although it’s nice to have that flexibility, we’ve seen how replaceable these backs are through the draft for cheap. Among 1000 yard rushers this season, 10 of the 16 were drafted after the first round. Ray Rice and Matt Forte were nabbed in the 2nd round, Jamaal Charles, Stevan Ridley, Frank Gore, and Shonn Greene were taken in the 3rd, Alfred Morris was drafted in the 6th, Ahmad Bradshaw was swiped up in the 7th, and Arian Foster and BenJarvus Green-Ellis went undrafted. The Panthers would have been better off just investing all their money in one elite back like Adrian Peterson or retooling through the draft.

But an Adrian Peterson is hard to find. All Day had one of the most impressive seasons ever–one that should earn him the MVP. Peterson fell nine yards short of Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season rushing record of 2105 yards–never mind that O.J. Simpson ran for 2003 yards in a 14-game season, which extrapolates to 2289 yards over a 16-game season. And Peterson did all of this on an offense with no other weapons. Christian Ponder was 25th in passing, and Percy Harvin was the leading receiver at 677 yards, good for 60th in the league.

Adrian Peterson's real value came this year during his appearance on FX's The League.

Adrian Peterson’s real value came this year during his appearance on FX’s The League.

Opposing teams put eight and nine men in the box to stop Peterson, and they still couldn’t stop him. Not that it really impacts his overall value, but Peterson did this coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL at the end of the 2011 season. Peterson just put the team on his back (doe) and led his team to a 10-6 record.

To me, Peterson is the MVP because of how well he produced and how little help he got from his teammates. Not everyone shares this opinion, and that’s fine for the most part, since other players like Peyton Manning (who had his own miraculous comeback) and Tom Brady has incredible seasons. But I do have a problems with people thinking Peterson is not the MVP because of nine yards.

In 2011, the NL MVP race was very tight between Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp. Both had outstanding, very similar seasons (a .324/.399/.586 line for Kemp and a .332/.397/.597 line for Braun although Kemp had a big edge in WAR at 8.8 to 7.6), but Kemp finished with 40 steals and just 39 home runs. Kemp lost the award because he didn’t quite have a 40-40 season. One fly ball fell short. One moonshot curved the wrong way around the foul pole. Because Kemp fell inches short of a arbitrary milestone, he lost out on the MVP, despite having superior overall numbers to Braun.

If Kemp hit one more home run two years ago, he wouldn’t have drastically changed the Dodgers’ season trajectory. But suddenly one home run drastically changes his perceived value? That doesn’t make sense.

I pray that this isn’t the case for Peterson. If Peterson had rushed for 9 more yards, the Vikings’ season wouldn’t have changed much. But does one broken tackle, one mistaken step out of bounds, one holding penalty negating a rush suddenly make is case much stronger for MVP? No, it doesn’t. A 0.4% increase in rushing yards is such minute increase in value. It’s just maddening to think Peterson may lose out because his incredible season was 99.6% as impressive as a man who played 28 years ago.

Chew on this: would Peterson have a stronger case for MVP if Blair Walsh missed the game-winning field goal as time expired, Peterson rushed for 10 yards in overtime, and the Vikings lost, missing the playoffs? Hey, he would’ve broken Dickerson’s record.

If Peyton Manning ends up winning the MVP, that’s totally fine by me. But the deciding factor cannot be those nine yards. Peterson is either the MVP with or without those nine yards and the record or someone else is the MVP. Nine yards doesn’t make a difference over a full season.

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