Led by Christian McCaffrey, the Carolina Panthers added very interesting offensive pieces this offseason. … For Vance Worley, it won’t be “Requiem for a Journeyman."
Today the tour through the NFC South continues, bringing one of the biggest conundrums of any team into play: How do we collectively sort through the 2015-16 rollercoaster of the Carolina Panthers into a foundation that can be trusted? Things naturally went a little too well in that Super Bowl run two seasons ago, a case of a good team overachieving into a great one, while 2016 brought the reversal of many of the pendulums. It is in sorting through those disparate seasons that I believe a reality can be found, and it is one that may be about to change rather drastically.
The 2015 Panthers were one of the NFL’s all-time best at jumping out to early leads, having a +9.8 advantage in the first half, which allowed for a conservative offense that did not need many chapters in the playbook. That team had limitations in the skill positions but worked around them. In 2016 the game flows were different, and the offense was called on to expand that playbook, but it was one of the biggest single-season performance drops in recent memory. Let’s go to our preferred reference, the Football Outsiders final charts:
Season Total O Run Pass
2015 6 9 6
2016 26 24 23
The personnel changes were not all that major, and remember how excited they were to get Kelvin Benjamin back on the field? After missing all of 2015, Benjamin caught 63 passes at a 14.9 clip, seven going for scores in 2016. Yet as a group the offense was far worse.
What happened? The game situations changed drastically and what was a limited skill group, in terms of both style and substance (now we get to the headline), finally got exposed. Over land, the Panthers had power but no one with any burst. Through the air, there was a field stretcher in Ted Ginn and big targets in Benjamin, Devin Funchess and Greg Olsen to work the intermediate routes. But they did not have a guy who could get quick separation for short passes, and there was no one resembling a playoff-worthy 3rd-down back, Fozzy Whitaker getting most of the work as a target out of the backfield. Carolina RBs only caught 44 passes all season (for comparison, 15 individual RBs caught at least 44 around the league). It was a receiving corps virtually bereft of a YAC guy.
The basic issue was that the offense was imbalanced in terms of personnel, both in the substance of their abilities and individual styles that could have opened up the playbook. Ultimately, much of the blame fell on the shoulders of Cam Newton, which was an easy portrait for the Sports Mediaverse to paint, only need cheap water colors because the imaginations of the audience were ready to buy in.
But now let’s consider how quickly things may change. Christian McCaffrey is not just a major talent, but also one that fits the missing pieces in terms of both explosiveness overland, and as a receiver out of the backfield. Fellow rookie Curtis Samuel brings the skill set to get early separation off of the line of scrimmage at WR and also to extend plays once the ball is in his hands. And don’t sleep on WR Russell Shepard, who is not going to put up major numbers but does help fill that void of guys effective in the shorter routes.
Newton has already been around the newcomers enough to grasp the potential that is on hand: "One thing I'm excited about is throwing so many different looks and having so many multifaceted players that can do different things. Catching, running, even throwing. It just puts so much pressure on the defense. I look at a Curtis Samuel, I look at a Christian and all these guys that are new additions on this offense and it's on me now. The thing I have to realize is my job is not necessarily to always be the playmaker. I have to give other people opportunities to make plays.”
This is not just about the quality of the additions, but what they can do with them. McCaffrey’s presence is certainly dynamic on that front – the Panthers will be able to isolate him against a LB in pass coverage vs. 4-3 sets or to run power against nickel packages, with the defense not being tipped off for their situational deployment by the Carolina offensive personnel. And the more attention the new weapons require from defenses, the more it allows Benjamin and Olson to get downfield and do what they do. Throw in the wild card of the run threat that a healthy Newton brings, which is magnified because the defenses can’t afford a player to shadow him, and the dynamic has changed greatly.
The 2016 Carolina offense brought checkers to a chess board. That won’t be the case this season.For Vance Worley it won’t be “Requiem for a Journeyman”
Worley has had a competent MLB career, putting together a 34-32/3.85 over 636 innings, but the fact that he has been with five teams since first coming up with the Phillies in 2010 speaks volumes. He has been one of those “almost there” guys, with stuff good enough to compete when he is hitting his spots, but not good enough as hitters get second and third looks -- hence why 54 of his 72 appearances the last three seasons have come as a reliever.
There was nothing magic coming from him as the Marlins converted him back to starting at the Triple-A level, a 2-5/4.43 over eight outings that brought an alarmingly low 4.4 K/9. And prior to getting a start against the Nationals at home last week there hadn’t been all that much to like from Worley in a Miami uniform, a 6.42 allowance over 13 appearances, which included five starts. But last Wednesday the journeyman right-hander did something that baseball allows for every now and then, throwing seven shutout innings of two-hit ball as the Marlins rolled 7-0.
Was there any special zip behind his stuff? Not really, Worley only struck out three of the 21 batters he faced, and despite not walking a batter his control was also nothing special, with 54 of 92 pitches in the strike zone. What he encountered was an overeager lineup that lacked patience against his limited offerings, which is underdstandable with his average fastball clocked at 90.6 mph, and it led to a lot of ground-ball outs, a single-game 83.3 GB% for a pitcher that had not been over 60.0 in any other appearance.
Now an offense that leads the National League in AVG, SLG and OPS, and is #2 to the Dodgers in OBP, gets a quick second look at a rather limited arsenal, and I believe we will see a much different flow this time, Worley being just the kind of pitcher that can be vulnerable in such a setting. With the markets sitting at a fair value point (there is as low as -132 out there) that means some #902 Washington (7:05 Eastern) will go into pocket. I don’t see much that calls for an upside from A.J. Cole yet, but in this instance that is OK – his presence helps to bring the price point.
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