Game changes show Carolina's need for QB

I’ve written several times in recent weeks that the Carolina Panthers are giving strong consideration to using the first pick in the upcoming draft on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.

One of the reasons I’m saying that is because I believe the departure of former coach John Fox and his offensive philosophy (control the ball with the running game, rely on the occasional pass and win with strong defense) have cause the organization to re-evaluate things. One of the reasons, Newton is getting this kind of consideration is because the Panthers believe that the league has changed and is now, more than ever, driven by quarterbacks.

What’s that mean? Well, it’s not too hard to visualize. Guys like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have been having lots of success and so have their teams. Rules have changed and so have trends in play-calling, scheme and personnel in the past three years.

Want proof? Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some pretty strong evidence. Starting with the 2008 season (gee, that’s the last year Fox and the Panthers had a winning record) there has been a noticeable league-wide shift from the running game.

Last season, the pass/run ratio (based on play design) was 59 percent to 41 percent. In 2009, it was 58 percent to 42 percent. In 2008, it was 57.2 percent to 42.8 percent. Play design for passes includes plays that resulted in a pass attempt, a sack or a scramble.

The percentage shift might not seem like that big a deal, but let’s explore it a little further. The shift has been very pronounced when you look only at the pass/run ratio of playoff teams over the past three seasons. In 2010, the playoff teams passed on 58.9 of their regular-season plays while running on 41.1 percent of their plays. In 2009, the margin was 57.8 percent to 42.2 percent. In 2008, it was 54.6 percent to 45.4 percent.

A lot of critics are down on Newton and Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who also is in the mix to be Carolina’s choice, because both of them lined up in the shotgun formation frequently in college. Well, guess what? That might not be such a bad thing.

Lining up under center is still far more common in the NFL, but the shotgun formation has been used a lot more the past three seasons. In 2010, 38.3 percent of league-wide snaps came out of the shotgun formation, while 61.7 percent came from under center. In 2009, 37 percent of snaps came out of the shotgun formation and the figure was 32.3 percent in 2008.

Another trend has been for offenses to line up in empty-backfield sets and spread out defenses with five receivers. In 2010, the league average was 6.4 snaps per game with just a quarterback in the backfield. In 2009, that average was 4.8. In 2008, it was 4.7.

Bottom line: If the Panthers want to compete in the modern NFL, they’re going to have to scrap the offense Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson ran and new coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Rob Chudzinski need to use a more creative offensive scheme. It would help if they have a quarterback that allows them to be creative.