Carolina's Special Teams Prognosis
By Blake Baxter
Unlike basketball, football is a sport where players specialize in playing on one side of the ball. We remember the legendary defensive stoppers like Ray Lewis and Bruce Smith, as well as offensive titans like Tom Brady and Barry Sanders. But what we often forget is that there is more to the game than those two sides. Over half of the players in the NFL play on special teams. We glorify offense and defense, but too often we forget that some of the most thrilling plays happen on special teams.
Remember the Music City Miracle? What about Devin Hester’s magical 2006 season? Of course you do, but what about all of the jaw-dropping collisions and pivotal stops that happen on special teams every Sunday? My guess is that you take those for granted.
However, over the past 15 years or so, one special teams position has started to gain a little bit more notoriety. Since the dawn of the fantasy boom, average fans have spent much more time monitoring the activity of kickers. Skill players and defenses are also routinely scrutinized for fantasy football purposes. Until recently, though, the rest of special teams have largely been ignored. However, in recent years, the Moneyball-inspired advanced metrics that revolutionized baseball have bled over into football. Now, the fog has been lifted and everything in the NFL is measurable - including special teams.
As I’ve documented multiple times, the 2012 Carolina Panthers were mediocre when they were at their very best. More times than not, the Panthers were just plain bad. They had their struggles on both offense and defense, but their special teams performance was even worse. According to the metrics provided by Football Outsiders, only three teams were worse on special teams last season. This ranking is based on a statistic that they call Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). It is a formula that is used to determine how imperative a certain play is in comparison to another play. Basically, it allows one to see which plays have the most impact on the game’s outcome. It is a stat that can be applied to any aspect of the game, but it is especially useful when comparing special teams units.
Five elements are considered in calculating the DVOA of a special teams unit: field goals, extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns, per Football Outsiders. Last season, the Panthers had a special teams DVOA of -4.8 percent. In comparison, the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens had a 9.0 percent DVOA for special teams and led the league in the category. That is not to say that you have to have the highest special teams DVOA to win the Super Bowl, but it does provide evidence that the 2013 Carolina Panthers special teams unit needs to perform much better if they want to have a shot at contending in the competitive NFC South.
Two areas in which Carolina specifically needs improvement are returning and punting. Last season, the Panthers finished 29th in returning yards and 28th in punting. Having said that, there is reason to believe that those numbers will be much better this time around. For one thing, second year punter Brad Nortman will come into the year with a whole season of experience under his belt. Last season, his numbers showed improvement throughout the season. In the last half of the season, Nortman’s yards per punt increased to 45.5 after averaging 40.7 yards per punt in the first eight games of the season.
Carolina's hopes on improving the return game hang mainly on the offseason acquisition of embattled wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. The once promising standout receiver has struggled the past three seasons for the San Francisco 49ers, but the Panthers will not only be counting on him to record more receptions, but also to contribute on special teams. They are gambling that if he can't recapture his 2008 form when he recorded 56 receptions, then he will be able to take advantage of more return opportunities and repeat his 2009 season when he had 1,296 return yards.
For all of their special teams deficiencies, the Panthers were very strong in one area in 2012: kicking. The Panthers finished third in the league with 35 field goals made and 32 extra points. Nine of those field goals came in the last six games of the season after Graham Gano became the starter. He kicked the game-clinching field goal over division rival New Orleans in the last game of the season. Gano will begin this season as the starter for the first time in his four-year NFL career.
These are not the only pieces to Carolina's special teams jigsaw puzzle. There are others who are expected to have an impact too. Kealoha Pilares has been the Panthers top returner for the past two seasons. Armanti Edwards is another receiver/returner who is expected to contribute.
The majority of football fans likely will not notice if it happens, but if the Panthers special teams unit improves its DVOA this season, then the team will have a much better chance at having substantial success in the long run.