Carolina Panthers: A Toast to Hurney, Wide Receivers

CHARLOTTE, NC - OCTOBER 12: Torrey Smith
CHARLOTTE, NC - OCTOBER 12: Torrey Smith /

The Carolina Panthers have a brand-new offense.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Some say that nothing is original, and they may be right.

The new-look Carolina Panthers offense has been exciting through three games, and the rebuilt receiving corps has been a significant part of the electric injection.

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Before last Sunday’s offensive firestorm, Carolina was ranked in the bottom half of the league in both yards and points per game. However, they were also placed at thirteenth in the NFL in yards per play and fourth overall in first downs per play.

So, while the Carolina  Panthers offense hadn’t been a tremendous force, it had been remarkably efficient in the opportunities it had been given – indeed, Carolina was only eighteenth in plays run per game. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system allows for fewer opportunities, but the Panthers had been able to succeed in those opportunities.

Of course, this all got blown up when the Panthers matched up with the Bengals last Sunday. Carolina’s attack slowly wore down the Bengals all afternoon, until Cincinnati was all out of fight.

The Panthers offense definitely looked like a tremendous force.

But was it? Christian McCaffrey rocketed up to third in the league in rushing yards with a career game, but afterward rightfully credited the offensive line for their efforts.

“It starts up front… [they] just go out there and ball.”

That’s not at all to say that McCaffrey isn’t a premier rusher in this league. While he and the line had a dynamic performance, the real credit should go to the defense.

Not for a stifling performance, but for three big plays.

It’s third and seventeen for the Bengals, the game tied up at seven all. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton throws and the pass is snagged away from wide receiver John Ross by rookie corner Donte Jackson for his second career interception.

It’s first down and ten for the Bengals, and Cincinnati’s now down seven. Dalton throws and James Bradberry reaches to make a play on the ball, knocking it up into the air. Young, promising defensive end Efe Obada, dives for it, picking up his first career interception in his first NFL game.

It’s second and twenty for the Bengals, and they’re down seven points with just a few minutes left in the game. Andy Dalton launches the ball and it’s caught by Donte Jackson, who is now tied for the NFL’s interception lead.

Both Jackson and Obada were later awarded game balls.

And yes, I know, Luke Keuchly grabbed a fourth pick as well. But that only mattered in the box score, as it was on Cincinnati’s meaningless Hail Mary as the game ended, down ten points.

But I digress. The point is, those turnovers allowed Turner and the Panthers to slow down the game exponentially by grinding down the Bengals defense with McCaffrey and the line.

This, in turn, brought down Carolina’s offensive efficiency, boosted the Panthers’ plays per game, etc. However, the strategy did send Carolina into the bye week with another win, something the coaching staff and the team probably appreciated.

So, back to the point. Without those turnovers, the Panthers offense would have had to maintain the efficient style and play calling it used in the first two weeks.

While the Panthers offensive personnel didn’t go through much change this offseason, one position group may have gone through the most turnover Carolina has ever put it through.

Of the six Panthers wide receivers that started the 2017 season with the Panthers, only three are on the team today. And two of those three finished the 2017 season on injured reserve.

Norv Turner has been lauded for his efforts this offseason to improve the Panthers offense, and, so far, he seems to be deserving of all the praise he’s been given. But maybe new general manager Marty Hurney deserves just as much, or more, credit.

Hurney worked tirelessly to piece together a cohesive, fluid receiver group this offseason that seems to be flourishing under Turner’s offense. Playing with perhaps the best receiving corps of his career, Cam Newton has been fantastically efficient, completing a career-high 67.4% of his passes so far this season.

A notoriously inaccurate passer, Newton currently holds the twelfth-highest completion percentage in the NFL. This is without 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel (medical illness), who was supposed to be a key piece this year after leading the Panthers in receiving yards in the preseason.

Hurney seems to have made excellent use of his extended leave of absence from the Panthers after he was let go in 2012. However, it isn’t often that someone can just flick the switch and become a mastermind.

Maybe Picasso was right when he said that great artists steal.

Last February, while the Eagles were celebrating their Super Bowl victory, Hurney just might have been celebrating, too. He had found the secret to a successful, efficient group of wide receivers, something the Panthers had struggled with for seemingly forever.

Last season, the Eagles rode a diverse, renovated group of wide receivers to the Super Bowl. Not one of them was a true star receiver; they each brought their own unique talents.

This mixture of talent allowed the Eagles to shift around the lineup, which resulted in incredible efficiency for the Eagles offense.

As of now, four Panthers receivers have caught passes from Cam Newton: Devin Funchess, Jarius Wright, Torrey Smith, and D.J. Moore, in order of most to least receptions. Three games into the 2017 season, four Eagles receivers had caught passes from Carson Wentz: Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith, and Mack Hollins, in the same order.

What do Devin Funchess and Alshon Jeffery have in common, besides that they both play in the NFL? Funchess and Jeffery are both big and fast for their size, presenting an opportunity for mismatches.

Incredibly, Funchess and Jeffery’s stat lines from their three first games in this season (Funchess) and last season (Jeffery) are almost identical. So far, Funchess has 14 receptions for 185 yards and a touchdown, and Jeffery had 14 catches for 186 yards and a touchdown through three games last year, besting Funchess by a single yard.

Sorry about that.

How are Jarius Wright and Nelson Agholor similar, as players? Both are possession receivers with great hands that primarily work out of the slot.

Torrey Smith and Torrey Smith? Well, this one’s a little bit more of a stretch. They are both fast, deep threat receivers that can stretch the field from outside. Seriously, though, Torrey Smith is a great resource for the Panthers, having worked with a similar receiver core.

D.J. Moore and Mack Hollins? Both Moore and Hollins are and were exciting rookies with enormous potential, touted for their speed and abilities after the catch.

Of course, the Eagles went on to be world champions with their stellar offensive attack, stout defense, but most importantly, diverse wide receiver corps. Now, Carolina may or may not be at that point, but I digress.

Next. Panthers in good position entering bye week. dark

I propose a toast. To Hurney, a great artist and a  true master of diversity.