Good News/Bad News (2013 NFC South)

By Russell S. Baxter

Pro Football Guru

It may technically still be the offseason, but there’s never a bad time when it comes to reminiscing NFL-style.

Here’s the third of our eight divisional reviews of the 2013 season, in which we look at the positives and negatives for all 32 teams, with a twinge of recent history and trends as well. We’ve already taken a look at the NFC West and the AFC West.

Next up on the list is the division that no team has won in consecutive seasons: the NFC South.

Carolina Panthers (12-4)

Good News: The third time finally proved to be the charm for Ron Rivera (NFL Coach of the Year in 2013) and quarterback Cam Newton despite another stumble out of the gate by the Panthers. Once again, Carolina got off to a slow start, opening 0-2 and winning just once in its first four games. In both 2011 and ’12, the Panthers dropped eight of their first 10 contests before finishing 4-2 and 5-1, respectively. In 2013, Rivera and his squad prevailed in 11 of its last 12 games and won the NFC South for the first time since 2008. Ironically, that was also the last time a team in the league dropped its first two games and rebounded to make the playoffs…

Only the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks allowed fewer total yards and fewer points in the league than the Panthers this past season. But the NFC South champions did lead the NFL with 60 sacks, a feat they managed with that exact figure back in 1996, the franchise’s second season in the league. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year while Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy paced the club and finished third in the league with 15.0 sacks. The four-year veteran has come a long way in a short time. In his first two seasons in the league, Hardy totaled a mere seven sacks. In his final two regular-season games in 2013, the former sixth-round draft racked up (you guessed it) seven sacks.

Bad News: While Newton threw a career-high 24 touchdown passes and was picked off just 13 times in 2013, he was also sacked 43 times in 16 contests. This after the mobile signal-caller was sacked 35 times as a rookie in 2011 and 36 times the following season. Do the math and that is 114 sacks in 48 regular-season contests. Add in the fact that Newton has already totaled 364 rushing attempts (for 2,032 yards and 28 scores) and that’s a lot of wear and tear for a three-year pro playing behind center…

While the Panthers will enter 2014 as defending NFC South champions, they hope to overcome a pair of facts that don’t bode well in terms of the immediate future. As mentioned previously, not only has no team in this division won it in back-to-back seasons since its inception in 2002, Carolina (which entered the league in 1995) has never reached the playoffs in consecutive years...

New Orleans Saints (11-5)

Good News: Call it a comeback. The 2012 Saints allowed an eye-popping 7,042 total yards to opponents, the most in one season in NFL annals, breaking a record set by the then-Baltimore Colts in 1981. This past season under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, only the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals allowed fewer total yards than New Orleans and only the Seahawks (231), Panthers (241) and San Francisco 49ers (272) gave up fewer points than the Saints (304). In 2012, the clubs had allowed a whopping 454 points, topped only by the Tennessee Titans (471) that season…

Two years after setting a new NFL record with 5,476 passing yards in a season (a figure topped by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in 2013) and just one season after throwing for a league-high 5,177 yards in 2012, Saints’ signal-caller Drew Brees was at it again. While Manning broke his record total by one yard (5,477) in 2013, Brees threw for 5,162 yards. In the 94-year history of the National Football League, there have been eight 5,000-yard passing performances and Brees is the owner of four of them while no other quarterback has thrown for 5,000 or more yards in a season more than once. Finally, it’s also worth noting that 16 of Brees’ 39 touchdown passes in 2013 went to Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, who led the league in scoring grabs…

Bad News: Despite all of Ryan’s efforts, the improved Saints’ defense still had its shortcomings, especially against the run. New Orleans’ defenders ranked 19th in the league in rushing defense in 2013, a vast improvement from the previous season when they ranked dead last in the NFL but still a troubling number. Speaking of 19, it was also the number of takeaways Payton’s team managed in 2013, the fourth-fewest in the league. Since forcing 39 turnovers during their Super Bowl winning season of 2009, the Saints have totaled just 86 takeaways in their last 64 regular-season contests and forced no more than 26 turnovers in any of those four campaigns…

Atlanta Falcons (4-12)

Good News: When you go from tying for the best record in the NFL with a 13-3 record to a mere four wins the following season, finding a positive isn’t always easy. Still, in a year where wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez all fell short of 1,000 yards receiving for various reasons (all three reached that mark in 2012), wide receiver Harry Douglas enjoyed a career year for the club. Douglas (from…Louisville) led the Falcons with 85 receptions for 1,067 yards but scored only a pair of touchdowns. Never fear as the ageless Gonzalez was second on the team with 83 catches and led Atlanta with eight touchdown grabs…

Bad News: In 2012, only three teams in the NFL totaled fewer rushing yards than the 29th-ranked Falcons. On the other hand, Smith’s club also struggled to stop the run, ranking 21st in the league in rushing yards allowed. Things got even worse this past season as Atlanta ranked dead last in the NFL with a mere 1,247 yards on the ground (fewer than seven players in the league) while only the Chicago Bears allowed opponents to run for more yards. Be it injuries or a change in philosophy, it should be noted that no team in the league totaled fewer rushing attempts (321) than the Falcons in 2013…

Atlanta’s disappointing campaign also included the end of a streak of sorts for quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons’ signal-caller has thrown 16 touchdown passes during his rookie season in 2008, followed by 22 scores in 2009, 28 in 2010, 29 in 2011 and a career-high 32 in 2012. But Ryan managed only 26 touchdown passes in 2013, the first time in his career that he had not topped his total from the previous season…

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)

Good News: After opening the season with eight straight losses, the Buccaneers did manage a split in their final eight games. And rookie quarterback Mike Glennon also showed he may be able to get the job done. The third-round pick from North Carolina State started the team’s final 13 games and threw more than twice as many touchdowns passes (19) as interceptions (9). And after serving up two interceptions (1 touchdown pass) in his first NFL start, Glennon threw only seven interceptions in his final 12 outings…

Another huge bright spot for the club was the play of outside linebacker Lavonte David, who led team in tackles for the second time in as many seasons. The 2012 second-round draft choice totaled 145 stops, 7.0 sacks (second on the team), led the Buccaneers with five interceptions and also ranked second on the team with 10 passes defensed. Throw in a pair of forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one safety and David was a Goliath in 2013…

Bad News: Since finishing 12-4 in 2002 and capturing Super Bowl XXXVII, the Buccaneers are a combined 73-103 in the regular season and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007. Over that 11-year stretch, the franchise has had only four winning seasons and made just two playoff appearances in 2005 and ’07, both of those resulting in losses. Also worth noting that no team in the NFC South had even finished dead last in the division two straight years and now the Bucs have managed to bring up the rear each of the last three seasons.

Although Tampa ranked a somewhat-respectable 17th in the NFL in 2013 in both fewest total yards and passing yards allowed, the club surrendered exactly 30 touchdown passes for the third consecutive season. In fact, dating back to 2008, Buccaneers’ defenders have allowed 164 scores through the air. Of course, it’s also worth noting that the team has totaled just 168 sacks over that span, an average of just 28 sacks per season…