Panthers Say Bye To Yesterday, Hello To Tomorrow
By Blake Baxter
The Carolina Panthers are headed for a bye week after a jaw-droppingly dominant victory over the once-mighty New York Giants. As we head into Week 4 without a game on the horizon this weekend, now seems to be as good of a time as any to assess where exactly the Panthers stand.
Hall of Fame head coach and two-time Super Bowl champion Bill Parcells famously once said, “You are what your record says you are.” In general, that is a hard thing to dispute, but after just three weeks, record is not the most effective way to chart a team’s progress. That is just not a big enough sample size to understand everything.
After three weeks, seven teams are undefeated. That is certainly a good sign, but it does not mean that those teams will sustain their success. There are too many variables in play. The next echelon contains the eight teams that stand at 2-1. This is a rather diverse group. At the top end, there is the defending champion Baltimore Ravens – a team that has held its opponents to nine points the past two weeks, but gave up a whopping 49 in its first week. At the bottom, there is the Tennessee Titans – a team that few expected to start 2-1. There are also seven teams that have yet to win a game, the majority of which are not expected to win many. But sandwiched between the generally hopeless dregs and the diverse one-loss teams are, perhaps, the most intriguing lot – the 1-2’s. Here, you have teams that might be a little lucky to get a win in the first place like the Oakland Raiders, but you also have a few teams that were supposed to be better, such as the always-competitive Green Bay Packers and the Super Bowl runner-up San Francisco 49ers. And this is also where you can find the Carolina Panthers.
It is amazing how fast a season can turn around. After two gut-wrenchingly close losses, it appeared that third-year Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was a dead man walking. Carolina management (and ownership) gave Rivera a vote of confidence after a disappointing 2012 season, but made it clear that if the Panthers failed to show improvement, then he would be gone. Over the course of two rocky seasons under Rivera’s direction, the team possessed a knack for losing close games. In Week 1, the Panthers lost a close one to one of the best teams in the league in the Seattle Seahawks. In Week 2, Carolina blew a very winnable game to a young and inexperienced team in the final seconds of the game. To make matters worse, Rivera made numerous questionable decisions that backfired in that game, such as a decision to not go for it on 4th and 1 when a first down would all but seal the game against the Buffalo Bills. His conservative style did not seem to be suited to his team and it was hindering them. But against the Giants, everything changed.
Finally, everything clicked. Carolina’s ferocious front seven surpassed its potential and completely shut down New York’s offense. They overwhelmed the Giants’ offensive line, sacking QB Eli Manning seven times. Carolina’s makeshift secondary, which featured a combination of backups, guys from the practice squad and recent NFL free agents, did not make the mistakes that sunk the Panthers late in games in back to back weeks. On the offensive side, QB Cam Newton snapped out of his funk and had his best game of the year, throwing for three touchdowns and 223 yards while running for one touchdown and 45 yards. He connected with six different players for receptions, four of which had three or more receptions. RB DeAngelo Williams also had his best game of the season, looking like the feature back of old, with 120 yards on 23 carries. The 38-0 win was the most lopsided in Carolina’s history while the loss was New York's worst of the Tom Coughlin era.
Suddenly, things are looking up for the Panthers. Newton is telling the media “I told you so” and Rivera’s hot seat is a few degrees cooler. One ESPN columnist even posited that the Panthers could finish 10-6.
Let’s not go overboard here. The Giants game was an impressive and uplifting achievement, but it was only one win. There are still thirteen games left to play. If the postseason started today, the Panthers would be on the outside looking in. And they still have plenty of question marks. Can the seemingly rejuvenated but depleted secondary keep this up? Can DeAngelo Williams stay healthy? Will Rivera push the read-option or go back to his conservative style?
But all of that does not diminish the importance of the team's lone win. The game put Carolina in second place in the NFC South and it restored confidence in a team that was at the risk of deflating after a couple of tough losses. Yes, there is a chance that it was anomaly – they might not be able to put everything together like that again – but there is also a chance that it is a sign of things to come. Only time will tell.