Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 12/29/11
The 2011 calendar year was one of major growth for the Carolina Panthers. Wrapping up a dismal 2-14 season, team owner Jerry Richardson was facing a ton of pressure from his loyal fanbase. After going the "cheap" route in preparation for the looming NFL lockout, Richardson made several changes to his organization. As a result of these decisions, the future of the Panthers looks brighter than ever before, and it all started with something many felt would set the franchise back for several years.

Andrew Luck Returns to Stanford

Carolina held the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, and fans and pundits all over the nation fully expected Stanford star Andrew Luck to be the Panthers' quarterback of the future.  That is until January 11th, when Luck announced he would return to Stanford to earn his degree, as well as attempt to lead Stanford to a national championship. The Heisman runner-up broke the hearts of Panthers fans, and left the organization scrambling to find their next star.  Jerry Richardson went as far as calling Luck to be sure that Luck wasn't going back to school just to avoid being drafted by Carolina.

Once Luck was out of the running, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney was put in a spot that isn't one you'd like to be; find a suitable No. 1 draft choice in a year without a clear-cut top player.  LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson was heavily considered, as was Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley.  A grassroots following began to grow in Charlotte for Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, who led the Tigers to the BCS National Championship. Going into the Draft, no one knew who would walk across the stage at Radio City Music Hall on April 28th.

Cam Newton Rejuvenates Carolina

With the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and no major suitors for the selection, Carolina pulled the trigger on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. The selection ended up being better than most experts projected, as Newton lit up the NFL in his rookie season. Through 15 games, Newton has set the record for rookie passing yards (3,893), rushing touchdowns for a quarterback in a single season (14), and became the first player in NFL history to have five rushing touchdowns and five passing touchdowns in his first five games. Newton is now the face of the Panthers, and looks to lead Carolina back into playoff contention in the NFC.

Newton's play has exceeded expectations set this year and the ceiling appears to be higher than that of every other quarterback chosen in the 2011 Draft. His ability to thread the needle has revived veteran Steve Smith's career, leading to Smith's Pro Bowl selection this season.  Newton became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 400 yards in his first career start, and backed that up with another 400-yard performance against defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay in Week 2.  Newton has become recognized by his trademark Superman touchdown celebration, which has become a crowd favorite in Charlotte. Needless to say, Panthers fans have all but forgotten about a certain Stanford quarterback.

Ron Rivera Gets His Chance

Following the 2010 campaign, head coach John Fox's contract expired and he was not retained by the Panthers. After interviewing several candidates, Ron Rivera was chosen by Jerry Richardson and Marty Hurney to lead the franchise. Rivera was a well-known defensive coordinator, having spent several seasons in San Diego, as well as Chicago and Philadelphia. Rivera had been interviewed by several franchises in the past, but had never been picked to be a head coach. Perhaps Rivera's best personnel move was bringing tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski with him to be Carolina's offensive coordinator. Chudzinski revamped the Panthers' offensive attack, which ranked 32nd in 2010. Through 15 games in 2011, Carolina ranks in the top five in total offense, and fans are excited to see their Panthers every Sunday.

The Last Original Panther Gets Released

Ordinarily the release of an aging kicker rarely makes the headlines. John Kasay was the last remaining member of the original 1995 roster, and remains a fan favorite to this day. Kasay was released in favor of signing Olindo Mare, who would double his duties and handle kickoffs. While Mare's leg is stronger, his accuracy has been the subject of harsh criticism this season. Misses against Minnesota and Atlanta cost Carolina two potential victories, and there have been several blocked kicks in criticial situations.  Kasay was signed by division rival New Orleans in the offseason, and looks to have a chance to finally win a Super Bowl. Unfortunately for Panthers fans, it won't be in Charlotte.

Carolina Learns To Win

Through 10 games, Carolina struggled to a 2-8 record. Despite having leads late in games, the Panthers were unable to seal the deal against several opponents. Once the calendar turned to November, fans were growing impatient with a losing team. A road trip to then-winless Indianapolis proved to be the cure for Carolina's ailment. The Panthers defeated the Colts, and went on to dismantle the rival Buccaneers for back-to-back wins for the first time since 2009. Carolina followed it up with a heartbreaking defeat to Atlanta, but Newton led his team into field goal range before a late miss led to Atlanta's final score.

The next week, Newton and company traveled to Houston and defeated the Texans, and picked apart Houston's vaunted defense. This confidence allowed Carolina to return home on Christmas Eve and destroy Tampa Bay for the second time. These victories give fans and players alike hope and confidence going into 2012 as the Panthers look to get into the playoffs and make a potential Super Bowl run.
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