In the aftermath of C.J. Anderson’s 48-yard overtime touchdown — which unceremoniously ended the Patriots’ undefeated season — just one NFL team remains perfect: the Carolina Panthers. Unlike New England, Carolina delivered the goods again in Week 12, routing the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day to become just the 12th team of the Super Bowl era1 to start a season 11-0.
Already, this is the best team in franchise history. It’s hard to go 11-0; the other teams to pull it off have been historically great. But despite the unblemished start, there remain statistical reasons to wonder if these Panthers are quite as great as their 11-0 forebears — and, perhaps, reasons to wonder if the stats are missing something about their style of play.
Let’s start at the top: This season, Carolina is outscoring foes by about 11.5 points per game, which is relatively low by the standards of an undefeated team. Among the 11-0 club’s dozen members, only the 2009 Indianapolis Colts and 1969 Los Angeles Rams had lower per-game scoring margins than the 2015 Panthers. Further, the Panthers have piled up the wins against a schedule rated as the league’s second-weakest by Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS). According to SRS, only two of the Panthers’ opponents thus far have been above-average teams: the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.
Add in the fact that Carolina wasn’t expected to be anything special before the season began, and it isn’t hard to see why our Elo ratings2 still doubt that the Panthers are even the NFL’s best team this season. (So forget about asking if their rating measures up to that of great historical squads.) By Elo, the 2015 Panthers are the worst team of the Super Bowl era to start a season 11-0:
|THROUGH 11 GAMES|
|YEAR||TEAM||ELO||OPP. ELO||PPG||OPP. PPG||FINAL W-L|
Elo assigns Carolina a rating that implies it would win about 11.5 games against an average slate of 16 randomly drawn opponents. That’s quite good — in terms of true talent, it’s better than about 93 percent of teams under the current structure of the NFL. But going into this season, the average historical 11-0 team had the talent to win 12.5 games against the same kind of schedule. In other words, the 2015 Panthers are missing a whole win of talent compared with their 11-0 peers. And a win of talent goes a long way — according to Elo, it’s roughly the difference between Carolina and the 6-5 Kansas City Chiefs.
Abstracted strength of the team’s true talent aside, the most glaring way in which Carolina lags behind those historical squads is under center. Although Panthers QB Cam Newton is a strong MVP candidate, it’s more because he’s the charismatic face of an undefeated franchise than his own statistical performance. According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR),3 Newton ranks 20th out of 31 qualified passers this season. QBR is hardly an infallible metric, but in Newton’s case, it’s notable because in addition to passing, QBR also accounts for his strong rushing ability. That makes his QBR underperformance especially disappointing, and it’s corroborated by other data points.4 Simply put, quarterback play probably isn’t the main driving force behind the Panthers’ success.
You can see this in the team’s expected points added (EPA), which tracks how many net points can be credited to each phase of the game. EPA says Carolina possesses a strong rushing attack and the league’s top defense against the pass,5 so even though the Panthers’ passing offense is also above average, it isn’t the team’s strongest suit. This stands out when compared with the other 11 Super Bowl-era teams to start 11-0: Only those ’69 Rams averaged fewer EPA per pass play (relative to the league) than Carolina has,6 with most getting far more production through the air than Newton’s Panthers:
|EPA RATING (100 = AVERAGE)|
|YEAR||TEAM||PASS OFF.||RUN OFF.||PASS DEF.||RUN DEF.||TALENT WINS|
To find an 11-0 team led by an aerial attack similar to the Panthers’ — decent, but not great — you’d need to go back to the fabled 1985 Bears, which only serves to underscore just how rare (and challenging) it is to put up a long winning streak without a standout QB. That Chicago team was unique; it used Jim McMahon’s solid passing to complement the elite rushing of Walter Payton and one of the most dominant defenses ever. It should also be noted that the league had not fully opened up the passing game by the mid-1980s, so top-flight passing was not as much of a requirement as it is now.
Although the Panthers, including Newton, run the ball well and their D has been terrific against the pass thus far,7 I don’t think anyone’s confusing this Carolina team with the ’85 Bears — going by Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), the Carolina defense doesn’t even match up with the 2013 Seahawks.
But if Carolina does have a secret weapon in the passing game, a place where the overall stats have a blind spot, it could be in Newton’s ability to throw the ball deep. Among qualified passers this season,8 Newton ranks seventh in QBR on passes that travel 20 or more yards through the air. The ability to complete deep passes affords a QB more margin for error on shorter passes — good news for Newton, whose completion percentage hovers near the bottom of the league — and leaning on the deep pass also meshes well with a roster built around efficient rushing and tough D. In an inversion of the typical QB-for-MVP argument, the makeup of the Panthers may actually help boost Newton’s value.
While the Panthers’ unbeaten run is an outlier among 11-0 starts, both in quality and composition, there are far worse fates than potentially being the worst team to accomplish the feat. In fact, how they’ve done it emphasizes how impressive the streak is: 11 wins without a loss in the NFL is truly rarified territory, and Carolina got there without putting up the rarified stats that typically go along with the record. Put another way: The Panthers win ugly.
Check out our NFL predictions for each team’s chances of advancing to the playoffs and winning Super Bowl 50.