Panthers Show Potential On Paper, But Have A Lot Of Questions
By Blake Baxter
NFL teams are playing their last preseason games of the year, college football season is kicking off and you are doing last minute research for your fantasy draft. Yes, fall is here and the NFL season is just a week away. But let’s be honest, this is basically the best part of the year. No one has played a game yet, but every team has at least a little bit of hope and excitement about a clean slate. Once the season gets under way, it opens up the possibility for something to go wrong. For more teams than not, it is going to be a rough year. For some, the losses will pile up quickly, others will lose games that they are supposed to win and there will be still others that start strong, but falter down the stretch. Although this is the reality of the league every year, each team blocks it out because they know that even if the odds might not be in their favor, they have a chance to be the team that comes out of nowhere and shocks the football world. They know that everything will have to break just right for them to emerge, but the exciting part is that everything will break just right for one team.
The Carolina Panthers could be that team this season. While they are not exactly the trendiest sleeper pick, they do have the potential to sneak up on some teams. The Panthers are led by an über-talented quarterback that is primed for a breakout year in Cam Newton. After a stellar, record-breaking rookie season in 2011, Newton went through some growing pains and regressed a little bit in 2012. But in the third year of his career, Newton might finally be mature enough to handle putting a team on his shoulders when the circumstances call for it. And he might have enough talent around him to provide a smidge of support.
During the offseason, the Panthers attempted to add depth to their receiver corps by bringing in a couple of guys in need of a change of scenery. Former Giant Domenik Hixon and former 49er Ted Ginn Jr. give Newton two more potential targets to go with veteran WR Steve Smith and veteran TE Greg Olsen. If healthy, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert have the potential to be solid in the backfield, and if Jonathan Stewart (ever) comes back strong from injury, the Panthers will have three solid rushing options. That is not even counting Newton, who was the team’s leading rusher last season. The problem is that that is a lot of "if’s" and a lot of "might's".
There are plenty of uncertainties on the defensive side of the ball too, with most of them coming from the team’s secondary. Carolina parted ways with cornerback mainstay Chris Gamble in the offseason and the departure left a void to be filled with young and inexperienced players. To their credit, the Panthers did try to fill the hole with a pair of free agent cornerbacks in Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore. The key will be how well Captain Munnerlyn lives up to his namesake – well that, and whether they can get anything out of any of their safeties outside of starting FS Charles Godfrey, who is expected to be solid. The best news for the Panthers defense is that they have a potentially devastating front seven featuring the explosive LB Luke Kuechly. Last week in a preseason win over the Baltimore Ravens, Kuechly was a force of nature as he recorded an interception and seven tackles. Last season, the Panthers defense finished in the Top 10 in yards allowed per game with 333.1, but finished 15th in points allowed per game/total points. If the secondary steps up and performs well then the Panthers defense will likely give up less points and move up in the rankings. If the secondary does struggle though, Carolina’s linebackers and robust defensive line could still be enough to make the Panthers an above average defense, at the very least.
The biggest "if" for the Panthers might not even be on the field. For the past two seasons, head coach Ron Rivera has not done a whole lot to prove that he is capable of turning around this team. Sure, they won four more games in Rivera’s first season than they did in the season before he was named coach, but with just two wins in 2010, the bar was set pretty low. The Panthers expected more in 2012, but got off to a disastrously bad start. After beginning the season 2-8, word began to spread that the second year coach was on the hot seat. However, on Monday Night Football in late November, the Panthers beat the similarly struggling Philadelphia Eagles and then finished their season by winning five of their last six games, including wins over division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans. The Panthers improbable second place finish in the NFC South likely saved Rivera’s job, albeit temporarily. His team’s play this season will almost certainly decide his fate. If they get off to another slow start – the 2011 Panthers also began the season 2-8 – it could be devastating for team morale.
And yet, even though there are a lot of "if’s" and "might’s", it should comfort the Panthers to know that they are not the only team with numerous question marks. No team is perfect, but they all have potential to do some damage – at least they do right now. And that is why, in some ways, the most exciting part of the year is before the season even starts.