Just Who Are These Carolina Panthers?
By Blake Baxter
These days, nothing adds up in Carolina. Coming off a 35-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings that felt even more lopsided than the score shows, spirits are high on this Carolina Panthers team. With a 2-3 record, Carolina is one of the more disappointing teams in the league. The Panthers just crushed a team that went to the playoffs last year. Carolina’s suspect secondary has cost them two of their games. Carolina’s front seven is among the most imposing and effective in the league. QB Cam Newton has made some horrific mistakes at inopportune moments this season. Newton has made some undeniably spectacular plays this season. When the Panthers win, they have outscored their opponents 73-10. The Panthers have not been blown out all season. The Panthers can't win close games. None of it makes sense. It begs the question, just who are the Carolina Panthers?
One thing is clear - the Panthers are a team that has been striving for consistency while looking for an identity. They are on the cusp of reaching the latter but through six weeks, it has been just out of reach. At the start of the season, embattled head coach Ron Rivera stubbornly stuck with a conservative game plan that drew the ire of fans. In Week 2, Rivera’s decision not to go for it on 4th and 1 in the fourth quarter hurt his team and put the game on the shoulders of a secondary whose shaky status had been well documented. Naturally, it cost them the game and put them in a dangerous 0-2 hole in what was predicted to be a competitive division.
The following week, Rivera and the Panthers answered their critics by pounding the life out of the New York Giants. They took more chances and played with a little bit more flair, but it was hard to tell if it was because Rivera was shaking things up, or if it was just because they had a massive lead. Nevertheless, it was good sign to see Rivera go for it on 4th and 1 and get a touchdown out of it.
Entering October, it appeared things were looking up. The Panthers were coming off a bye week and they had four average to subpar teams on their docket. However, the Panthers stumbled against the Arizona Cardinals and fell to 1-3. On the bright side, Rivera did elect to go for it in the first half, except WR Brandon LaFell failed to haul it in, so the call was wasted. But not to be deterred, Rivera rolled the dice twice the following week against the Minnesota Vikings and it paid off on each occasion.
Although the Panthers may not have completely tapped into their identity, they are a better football team than their record shows. They do have some weapons - it has just been a process figuring out how to use them properly.
Carolina's rushing attack was heavily maligned prior to the season, but it has been surprisingly consistent. In fact, three weeks into the season, DeAngelo Williams was the third leading rusher in the entire league. Carolina’s backfield as a whole has been strong in short yardage situations. The Panthers receiving corps, on the other hand, has been inconsistent and noticeably lacks depth. The team is designed to go for it on fourth down, run the read-option and take chances. As of late, it appears that Rivera has made this realization, but he likely will not win over his skeptics until his commitment results in more victories in close games.
Trust takes time. Thus far, the 2013 Carolina Panthers have not given anyone a good reason to trust them. Their season has been too much of a rollercoaster, featuring thrilling highs along with lows as unexciting as they were dispiriting. Fully committing to becoming an aggressive team would give the Panthers an identity, which would be a big step towards consistency for a team that could desperately use it.