By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts dose of statistical reality

Carolina Panthers star center Ryan Kalil made more waves than the CHFF Olympic belly flop team last week when he took out a full page ad in the Charlotte Observer, declaring that his team will win the Super Bowl.
If we suffered the weakness of human emotion, we’d admire Kalil for his confidence. After all, ladies love a Confident Man. And it’s certainly difficult to contain the enthusiasm that surrounds the team’s young and talented quarterback.
Cam Newton wowed the college football world in 2010, winning both the Heisman Trophy and a national championship with Auburn.

He followed up that performance with a rookie season for the ages, including a record 4,051 passing yards by a first-year quarterback, another 706 yards on the ground and 35 total touchdowns.

Hell, even we get juiced up by those numbers, and we haven't produced a measurable pulse since the Sharon Stone scene in "Basic Instinct."
Newton gives Carolina an excellent foundation at the only position in football that really matters. It’s very reasonable to see him lifting the Panthers to a Super Bowl victory or two sometime in the near future.
But one player does not a team make. And a critical team weakness offers one very compelling reason why that Super Bowl future is not visiting Carolina in 2012.

Here in the real world, Kalil and the Panthers are faced with a historic conundrum if they truly hope to win a Super Bowl. It's a critical defensive weakness so profound that it's difficult to see Carolina fixing all its problems in the space of one season.

Carolina's pass D gashed like Jack the Ripper victim

Carolina defenders were gashed through the air last year like a Jack the Ripper victim, leaving the bloody carcass of a defense lifeless in the alleyway of NFL also-rans week after week.

Carolina surrendered 7.58 Real Passing Yards Per Attempt in 2011, the worst pass defense in football by that measure. Remember, that’s not the gross average per attempt against Carolina. Real Passing YPA, a CHFF Quality Stat, is the net average – that is, the  average even when you include sacks in the equation.
In other words, opponents did not average 7.58 yards everytime they attempted a pass – they averaged 7.58 yards everytime the opposing QB dropped back into the pocket, even if he failed to get off a pass.
That number was not just bad. It was historically bad. In fact, Carolina in 2011 fielded one of the 10 worst pass defenses in the Super Bowl Era, as measured by Real Passing YPA.
10 Worst Pass Defenses, Super Bowl Era (Real Passing YPA)
Defense Real Passing YPA Team Record
1981 Colts 8.19 2-14
1975 Jets 8.12 3-11
1969 Saints 7.90 5-9
1991 Rams 7.86 3-13
2008 Lions 7.856 0-16
1989 Patriots 7.64 5-11
2000 Seahawks 7.63 6-10
1989 Falcons 7.59 3-13
1991 Bengals 7.586 3-13
2011 Panthers 7.58 6-10

It is a notable list of unlovable losers, including the team with the worst record in football history (2008 Lions). The list also proves a long-held CHFF maxim: the NFL is all about the passing game. You can’t win if you can’t pass the ball effectively. And you can’t win if you can’t stop opposing passers. The 2011 Panthers were very good at the former; they were historically inept at the latter. Hence, they were a 6-10 team rather than a Super Bowl contender.
In fact, Carolina's defense in 2011 was so distantly related to Super Bowl contender that they can legally marry in all 50 states. The defense was among the worst in football at stopping opposing passers by every measure:
  • No. 32 in Defensive Real Passing YPA (7.58)
  • No. 30 in Defensive Passer Rating (98.3)
  • No. 29 in Defensive Real QB Rating (91.2)
  • No. 26(t) in touchdown passes allowed (28)
  • No. 25 in sacks (31)
  • No. 24 at pressuring the passer (8.64% Negative Pass Plays)
  • No. 22 in sack percentage (6.0%)
  • No. 20 in interceptions (14)
  • No. 17 in INT percentage (2.9%)
Even in its best indicators, Carolina was no better than a mediocre pass defense. And at worst, Carolina was historically bad stopping opposing passers.
Hell, Carolina couldn't even stop opposing offenses on the ground, either: the Panthers surrendered 2,093 rushing yards (25th), 4.64 yards per rushing attempt (also 25th) and 18 rushing TD (29th).

But last year is last year, of course. Teams do improve, sometimes dramatically from year to year. Star linebacker Jon Beason, for example, missed all of last year with an Achille's injury (an injury he conveniently suffered just weeks after signing a deal with $25 million in gauranteed money ... hmmm ...).
But every team has injuires to key players each year. And few of the teams on our list above, weighted down by the anchor of a historically inept pass defense, posted much of an improvement the next season.
In fact, the nine other teams on the list, combined, improved by a total of just three games the following year. The 1991 Rams and 2000 Seahawks topped the list, improving by three games each.
Record of 10 worst pass defenses, Super Bowl Era (Real Pass YPA)
Defense Record Record Following Year Wins difference
1981 Colts 2-14 0-8-1 -2
1975 Jets 3-11 3-11 0
1969 Saints 5-9 2-11-1 -3
1991 Rams 3-13 6-10 +3
2008 Lions 0-16 2-14 +2
1989 Patriots 5-11 1-15 -4
2000 Seahawks 6-10 9-7 +3
1989 Falcons 3-13 5-11 +2
1991 Bengals 3-13 5-11 +2
2011 Panthers 6-10 tbd tbd

Ronnie Lott offers one great example of hope

There is some statistical hope though, Carolina fans. If you’re looking for a team that went from defensive dud to Super Bowl-winning defensive stud in the space of one season, it’s a pretty damn good one.

Bill Walsh’s 1980 49ers boasted a talented young upstart quarterback, much like the 2011 Panthers. In the case of the 49ers, it was a second-year QB named Joe Montana. But that team in 1980 was encumbered by the worst pass defense in football.

In fact, San Francisco's pass defense in 1980 looked frighteningly similar to Carolina's pass defense in 2011:
  • The 1980 49ers, like the 2011 Panthers, were dead last in Defensive Real Passing YPA (7.13).
  • The 1980 49ers posted a 95.7 Defensive Passer Rating, the worst in football that year and one of the worst of all time to that point.
  • The 1980 49ers also chalked up just 31 sacks – the same exact number as the 2011 Panthers.
  • The 1980 49ers went 6-10 – the same exact record as the 2011 Panthers.
The 49ers looked back on their 1980 season and knew big changes were needed on defense. So they drafted stud college CB Ronnie Lott out of USC with the No. 8 overall pick in the 1981 draft. The Panthers drafted stud college LB Luke Kuechly out of BC with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Lott went on to a Hall of Fame career and a reputation as the greatest defensive back of his generation: a hard-hitting safety with cover-corner skills. But he was not the only young impact player on that team. Rookies Eric Wright (No. 40 overall pick) and Carlton Williamson (No. 65) joined him as new starters in a completely revamped defensive backfield for the 1981 49ers.
San Francisco, boosted largely by Lott and its rookie defensive stars, produced the most dramatic defensive turnaround in NFL history.

The numbers are absolutely stunning. Note in particular the improvement in Real Passing YPA (-1.96 YPA) and Defensive Passer Rating (-35.5) from 1980 to 1981.
San Francisco 49ers Defensive Turnaround (1980-1981)
Category 1980 49ers 1981 49ers
Pass yards allowed 3751 2845
Pass yds allowed rank 27th 3rd
Real Pass YPA 7.13 5.17
Real Pass YPA rank 28th 3rd
Defensive Passer Rating 95.7 60.2
DPR rank 28th 4th
Pass TD allowed 29 16
Pass TD allowed rank 27th 6th(t)
INT 17 27
INT rank 22nd(t) 5th
Sacks 31 36
Sacks rank 19th 13th
Points allowed 415 250
Points allowed rank 26th 2nd
Team record 6-10 13-3
The 49ers had finally paired its young talented QB with a legit defense. As a result,  San Francisco rose from the oblivion of 6-10 to go 13-3, win the franchise’s first Super Bowl and establish itself as one of the great and certainly the longest-lasting dynasty in NFL history.

However, it took more than just a dramatic improvement on defense to lift the 49ers to the first Super Bowl win in franchise history. It whole series of events to go San Francisco’s way that year:
  • 1981 was a down year for the NFC West (49ers only team with a winning record)
  • 1981 was a down year for the NFC in general (Tampa Bay won the NFC Central with a 9-7 record and only three teams in the conference won 10 games)
  • there was a brilliant little NFC title-clinching play called The Catch
  • there was a less-heralded moment in the Super Bowl that should be known as The Goal Line Stand
So the path Carolina hopes to negotiate in 2012 has been crossed before. It’s just a little brazen – and even unrealistic – for Ryan Kalil and Panthers fans to expect statistical lightning to strike twice.