Kevin: Last year, a lot of people were ready to give up on Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, writing off his rookie year performance, and ignoring the fact that he still threw for over 3,800 yards and had a higher passer rating than his rookie season. This year, he's back to being among the darlings of the NFL, and he is playing some really good football. Can you point to the top area of growth for Newton this year?
Jaxon: I think it is a result of two key things. First Newton is simply making better decisions with the football. He's taking what the defense gives him and not trying to do too much. Hence he has cut down on the killer turnovers that resulted in points for the other team. Second Mike Shula's play calling better suits Newton's abilities and allows him to find his rhythm. Though he can throw for 400 yards in a game because he has done it, the Panther offense is better able to extend drives with less passing and more running plays by the RBs versus Newton himself in the read option or even designed runs.
Kevin: Obviously, the Panthers started slowly this year, going from 1-3 to 7-3, riding the longest current winning streak in the league right now. What changed after the loss to the Arizona Cardinals to send the Panthers on such a run?
Jaxon: You might laugh but I attribute it to the emergence of ‘Riverboat Ron', the sudden 4th and 1 gambler persona adopted by Ron Rivera on game day. Please know that 1-3 start was all on the offense as the defense has been lights out all year. After being one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL his first two season and four games, Rivera decided he had to stop settling for 3 points. Over the next three or four games the Panthers went for it on 4th and short instead of kicking the FG and consequently went 6 for 8 on those gambles. The result of those gambles was more than just a few more extended drives and TDs. It energized the offense because they for the first time felt the coaching staff trusted them to convert the first down. Now when the Panther offense gets inside the red zone and is staring at a 3rd and short they know they have two downs to get it. Success breeds confidence in a nutshell.
Kevin: All eyes right now are on the Panthers injury report, and specifically Charles Johnson's knee. Having seen what happened to Cameron Wake earlier this year when he sprained his MCL, and had to sit out one game, played three snaps in the next, and then 16 in the following game, it's not an injury that is easily overcome, though Johnson did return to the game after the leg-whip that injured him. What can you tell us about Johnson's status, and do you think he will be playing on Sunday?
Jaxon: I'm about 99% sure he will sit out this game. He didn't practice on Wednesday so expect him to be ruled out Friday. The only question is who will start in his stead. My preference is Frank Alexander (6'4" 270l bs), the 2nd year pro out of Oklahoma. He has flashed a lot of talent but has also been in Rivera's doghouse of late. If it's not him then it will be Mario Addison (6'3" 260 lbs), a 3rd year guy better suited for 3rd down instead of three down work.
Kevin: The Carolina defense is dominating right now, which may be an understatement for what they have been doing lately. Is there any way to attack them and find success?
Jaxon: With Johnson out I would start by trying to run to the right side. Establish the run and then play action will give your QB time to attack the Panther zone downfield. Athletic TEs have done well against us but if you lack a Gronk or a Gonzales type TE then your best bet is pepper the short, underneath routes. Our CBs are not very experienced and can make mistakes at times.
Kevin: Let's take a look at the play everyone was talking about after the game against the New England Patriots last week. No, not that flag/non-flag one at the end. I mean the one where Ted Ginn, Jr., and his entire family, found the endzone on his one reception for the game. Ginn has 24 receptions this year, for 411 yards, giving him a crazy 17.1 yards per reception average, along with three touchdowns. Seven of his receptions have been over 20-yards. As a former member of the Dolphins, and a former first round pick from Miami, how has he looked with Carolina this season, and should we worry that he is going to come back to Miami ready to prove the team - and the fans - wrong?
Jaxon: We love us some Ted Ginn in Carolina! The Panthers have been disparate for a PR for years so that aspect has been wonderful. It was his 4th quarter punt return for 25 yards that set up the winning FG against his most recent former team the 49ers. Ginn has played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder this year so I do expect him to view this as a bit of a revenge opportunity. Ginn won't get many targets in the passing game but he provides what we really needed, a legit deep threat. The Panthers will throw a hitch or two to Ginn early to help set up the deep ball. So far he has only dropped one deep pass that he should have brought in but otherwise he has maximized his catches as you point out. Newton takes fewer deep shots than seasons past but if it is there he is not afraid to throw it.
BTW, thanks for not asking about the final play!
Game Prediction: The Dolphins will cover the 7 point spread but still lose the game. Panthers 30 Dolphins 24
Thanks to Jaxon for taking the time to answer my questions. Make sure you check out Cat Scratch Reader for more on the Panthers, as well as my answers to Jaxon's questions about the Dolphins.