This February will mark ten years since Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith led the Carolina Panthers to the brink of greatness. Despite losing to an Adam Vinitieri field goal, the Panthers have established themselves as a ferocious team that is currently willing itself to return to its former heights. This relatively young team (founded in 1995) has endured some rough times as of late, resulting in picking first overall in the 2011 draft.
That draft pick changed everything. Selecting Cam Newton was a calculated risk on the part of the organization and a gamble in the eyes of the fans, including myself. Everyone, even the coaching staff couldn’t believe how well Newton performed in his rookie year, setting rookie and NFL records on his way to a Pro Bowl berth.
Newton, or Superman as they call him, reinvigorated the veteran Smith, guiding him to his best season in years, all the while aided by a resilient defense that lost defensive stalwart Jon Beason for the year. The Carolina Panthers may have only won 6 games last year, but the majority of their losses were by seven points or under, their most impressive defeat was losing to Green Bay by a touchdown.
Close losses do not earn you silverware however. The Panthers have a young and invigorated team who know they can do better in 2012. Through the draft they have added the industrious Luke Kuechly to their already impressive linebacking corps and in free agency acquired Mike Tolbert to give even more strength to an extremely dangerous running back committee.
A sophomore slump awaits for Cam Newton however. If it hits, it will hit hard, and in the ultra-competitive NFC South any string of losses will spell devastation for a campaign that promises so much after the flashes of brilliance we saw from first time leaders Newton and head coach Ron Rivera. One thing we do know about the 2012 Carolina Panthers however is that they will hit the ground running….fast.
2011 Record: 6-10
Head Coach: Ron Rivera
Off. Cord: Rob Chudzinski
Def. Cord: Sean McDermott
In Carolina it’s all about Cam Newton. Jimmy Clausen and Derek Anderson don’t exactly instil confidence as backups, which may be a problem if Newton goes down. Depth issues aside, Newton is one of the most exciting players in the game today. His combination of speed and agility, coupled with his arm strength give Newton a vast array of options to gain 10 yards.
In 2011 Newton ranked 10th in passing yards (4051), threw for 21 touchdowns, rushed for 14 TDs (second only to Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy) and had an 84.5 quarterback rating. Rookie mistakes were notable however, with Newton being picked off 17 times. The future is bright for this superstar. His superman impersonation is uncanny, and his million dollar smile has everyone in Charlotte looking forward to this season.
In the Backfield
Carolina’s running attack was one of the league’s best before Newton arrived. It got scary good in 2011. The trio of Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathasn Stewart led the Panthers to 2408 yards of rushing offense (3rd), 150.5 yards a game (3rd), 26 TDs in total (1st).
While none of this impressive trio managed to gain over 1000 yards, a feat Williams and Stewart have achieved in the past in the same season, they all contributed over 700 yards with only three fumbles between them.
The incoming Mike Tolbert will add a little more strength to the running committee. Tolbert himself rushed for just under 500 yards but added 8 TDs. His presence does ask questions of the viability of this a collection of rushers. Will one player be moved onto the trading block? We will have to wait and see. One thing that is for certain is that the threat of Newton to run, the fresh fast legs of Williams and the fresh strong legs of Stewart and Tolbert will keep defences honest and will tire them out quicker.
In 2011, the Panthers adopted the Patriot approach. Having Jeremy Shockey on the roster, Carolina traded for the Bears’ Greg Olsen to feature heavily in their offense. Together the pair contributed just less than 1000 yards, both had over 12.0 yards per catch on average and totalled 9 touchdowns between them.
The real star of the show however was rejuvenated veteran Steve Smith. With the strong armed Newton under center, Smith caught 79 balls for 1394 yards and an astonishing 17.6 yards per catch average. His 7 TDs were marred however by 3 fumbles, but in the grand scheme of things this matters little and his 2011 performance was enough to make the Pro Bowl.
Receiver depth has plagued Carolina in recent years. In their trip to the Superbowl, they had Smith, Mushin Muhammad and Ricky Proehl, all excellent receivers in their own right. With Smith on one side and a departed Shockey, Newton will have to hope Brandon LaFell, Armanti Edwards, or the recently acquired Louis Murphy can help take the pressure off Smith and become reliable targets.
The Big Uglies
Ah lineman. I’m not a fan of guarantees when it comes to sport. So when Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, who is without question one of the best centers in the NFL, says the Panthers will win the Superbowl this year, in the Saints house, I had to take it with a pinch of salt. Don’t get me wrong, the Panthers are a good team getting better, and with Kalil in the middle and Jordan Gross on the left side, the Panthers oline is good, but it’ll have to play a lot better to uphold Kalil’s promise.
Jeff Otah, once a prominent member of Carolina’s oline has been cut after a trade to the Jets fell through. The Panthers will need stellar performances from their big men in the trenches and should not rely on the fact that Newton can get himself out of pressure with his legs. In order to help Newton develop as a passer, he will need more time in the pocket.
Carolina’s defensive front looks a lot different from how it did in its Superbowl year and the years afterwards. Julius Peppers is gone. Kris Jenkins is gone. Today their best defensive lineman is Charles Johnson. Johnson registered a 9 sacks in 2011 which sad to say was nearly a third of the team’s entire total (31).
In 2012, players such Greg Hardy (4 sacks), Thomas Keiser (4) and Antwan Applewhite (2) will have to improve on the outside while the returning Ron Edwards and Sione Fua will have to step up and help Andre Neblett on the inside and keep double teams off Johnson. Overall this isn’t that talented of a unit, but one that will have to play out of their skin to keep blockers off their talented linebackers.
The linebackers run the show in Carolina. Opting to select the highly respected tackling machine Luke Kuechly instead of a more potent defensive tackle, the Panthers have solidified a position of worry after two starting linebackers bit the dust last season with injuries.
Jon Beason and Thomas Davis both previous first rounders for the Panthers are coming back from injury and will have to be monitored closely throughout the season, though there is doubt as to whether Davis will make it at all after tearing his ACL for the third time in as many years.
Anderson, the team’s leading tackler form a year ago (145 tackles good for sixth highest in the league) is back to anchor the corps with draftee Kuechly, a monster from Boston College. If Beason can come back strong, and the Panthers get some production from the ailing Davis, this unit will be one of the fiercest in football.
The Carolina secondary, like its defensive line, is hardly one of the league’s finest. With only 14 total interceptions, none of them returned for touchdowns, serious improvements have to be made in order to for the offense not to have to continually play catch up. Granted, the lackluster play from the defensive line may have attributed to these issues, but Chris Gamble, Charles Godfrey, Sherrod Martin and Captain Munnerlyn are hardly household names outside of Charlotte.
Darius Butler and Haruki Nakamura have been brought in from the Patriots and Ravens respectively, and the Panthers brass will have to hope either of these players will be able to contribute significantly to the unit.
On special teams two rookies will come in for the Panthers to try and compete for starting spots. Brad Nortman from Wisconsin and Joe Adams of Arkansas are both expected to take over the punting and punt returner roles respectively. Each of these new recruits will try and bring life to these units.
Receiver Kealoha Pilares will hope to continue his kick returner duties after a solid 25.7 yard return average and a brilliant 101 yard return for a touchdown against Detroit. Olindo Mare again expects to receive the kicking duties for the Panthers in his second season with the team, but will have to improve to solidify his chances.
The 2012 Carolina Panthers have a lot to look forward to. Their offense under Cam Newton should continue its fluidity with the heavy emphasis on running, while hoping to progress Newton’s already excellent passing skills.
The defensive line and secondary will be an issue for the Panthers, who hope their stellar linebackers can improve the quality of the play of those around them, while also staying healthy.
Their 2012 schedule sees six 8-8 teams and only three 2011 winning record teams playing Carolina, however as two of them are division rivals New Orleans and Atlanta, the Panthers will have their work cut out to try and secure the second available wildcard.
The truth of the matter is that the NFC is stacked with winners at the moment. There are so many good teams that the harsh reality is that the Panthers will need to fight with every available tooth and claw. This is an improving team however, one that should not be written off as an easy win.
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