Carolina Panthers: A Season in Review

The Panthers season has now come to a close and it was one that left everyone in the organization excited about the future. It was a season full of ups and downs, but there is no question that Carolina has the talent to be an annual playoff contender for many years to come.

One of the bright spots of this year was definitely the play of rookie quarterback Cam Newton. He shattered Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record and also broke the record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. And as of right now he is an essential lock for Rookie of the Year. Cam came into the season with a lot to prove. Many people around the NFL, as well as college scouts, said he did not have the skills needed in order to develop into a successful NFL quarterback. However, Cam was constantly proving to everyone that he belonged in this league. Not only did he succeed, but did so at a level that put him in the company of some of the best quarterbacks in the league, as he was voted in as a Pro Bowl alternate (but seeing has how Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers will most likely be playing in the Super Bowl, he is pretty much a lock to get in).

Cam provided a complete 180 to the Panthers passing game. This was a team that finished dead last in passing offense last year, and Cam transformed it into the 13th best passing attack in the league with pretty much the same personnel (except for the addition of Greg Olsen). And no one was more excited about that than star receiver Steve Smith. Smith had one of the best seasons of his career, as he caught 79 passes for nearly 1,400 yards. He maybe getting up there in age, but he is showing no signs of slowing down, and Cam Newton is to thank for that. Cam was a nightmare for defenses. Not only did opposing defenses have to respect his ability to complete throws downfield, but they also had to respect Cam’s ability to make plays with his feet. He ran for over 700 yards and 14 touchdowns, and also led the NFL in yards per rushing attempt, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.

The Panthers rushing game in general was very explosive this season. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Cam Newton, all had over 700 yards rushing, and they also were all among the top four in the NFL for yards per carry, as they averaged 5.4, 5.4, and 5.6 yards per carry, respectively. There was a lot of talk about how good Carolina’s rushing attack was back in 2009, when both Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams ran for over 1,100 yards. But I find it very interesting there is not as much buzz around this year’s run game considering how Carolina ran for over 2,400 yards as a team this season (which was only 90 yards less than what they rushed for as a team in 2009) and was ranked third in the NFL in rushing. Williams, Stewart, and Newton formed a dynamic three-headed monster that gave defensive coordinators all sorts of problems. One of the things that have made Carolina’s run game so effective is all the different formations they can run the ball out of. The Panthers (as well as the Denver Broncos) have introduced the option play into the NFL, and as of right now defensive coordinators are a little confused as how to stop it. This formation allows Carolina to line up Williams, Stewart, and Newton all in the backfield at the same time. Usually NFL defenses only have to worry about the one running back in the backfield when it comes to the run game, but in this scenario it has to worry about three ball carriers, who all possess the ability to make a big play with their feet.

The biggest disappointment of the season was the defense. But that can mostly be blamed on injuries. The Panthers had 18 players fall to the injury reserve list, and nine of those were on defense. The key losses were definitely Jon Beason, who is the leader of the defense and one the best linebackers in the league, and Ron Edwards, who was suppose to provide veteran presence to a defensive line that was one of the youngest in the NFL. Thomas Davis suffered his third ACL tare of his career, so I believe it is time for Carolina to cut ties with Davis and find someone to fill his position.

The offense was good enough to be a 10-6 team, but the defense’s inability to get stops made that record flip flop to a 6-10 finish. The defensive line was unable to get constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks, nor could they free up the linebackers to allow them to tackle the ball carriers. The linebacker corps played solid for the majority of the year, despite being hit by the injury bug the worst. That was in large part due to the play of James Anderson, who shined brightly with Beason and Davis being sidelined all year with injuries. Other than Chris Gamble I saw nothing that resembled the talent that should make up an NFL secondary. Every game there would constantly be opposing receivers catching passes with 5-10 yards of separation. Charles Godfrey had a decent season, totaling 84 tackles in 14 games, but he still wasn’t very good in coverage.

One position that the Panthers should look into making some changes at is Free Safety. Sherrod Martin was constantly getting beat deep by opposing receivers and as a safety that is one thing that you just can’t let happen. He looked out of position all year and never positioned himself in the right spot to make a play on the ball. Another position that could use some new faces is Cornerback. Other than Chris Gamble there are no cornerbacks on that roster that should be starting on Sundays. Captain Munnerlyn plays hard and gives a lot of effort, but he simply does not have the size or skill to guard the top wide receivers in the NFL. Darius Butler is a washout from New England, who showed no signs of revitalizing his career in Carolina, and R.J. Stanford is just a body to add depth to the position. One guy at that position that I would like to be given a chance at a starting spot is Brandon Hogan, a rookie 4th round draft pick, who was suppose to be a late 1st or early 2nd round draft pick until he tore his ACL in his final collegiate game. He spent most of this year on the PUP List, and coach Ron Rivera seemed a little reluctant to give him much playing time during the final weeks of the season.

As far as Special Teams are concerned, I believe that there is a lot of work that needs to be done. The Panthers gave up four special teams touchdowns this year. Their kickoff coverage, as well as their punt coverage, was very subpar. They need to find guys who are good special teamers, that know how to stay in their lanes and make plays on the ball carriers. Olindo Mare had a bit of shaky start, but once coach Rivera brought Adi Kunalic in as competition, Mare soon got his act together. Kealoha Pilares did a respectable job for the Panthers as a kickoff returner, having returned one kickoff for a touchdown. However, punt returner should definitely be an area of concern for Carolina, seeing as how Armanti Edwards finished last in the league, averaging a meager 5.5 yards per return.

All in all, this was a hell of a lot better year than the previous season, which saw a quarterback carousal that included starts by Brian St. Pierre and Jimmy Clausen, and an offense that produced twice as many turnovers as touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was an offensive mastermind, and brought a sense of much needed excitement to the offense. Ron Rivera well do everything in his power to retain Chudzinski for next season, and him staying will play a big part in Carolina’s goal for a playoff run for next year. This is a team that is headed in the right direction and has a bright future ahead of them. If they can get healthy and add some defensive talent through the draft and free agency, then this should be a playoff contending team for many years to come.

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Tags: Cam Newton Captain Munnerlyn Charles Godfrey Chris Gamble DeAngelo Williams James Anderson Jon Beason Jonathan Stewart Rob Chudzinski Ron Edwards Ron Rivera Sherrod Martin Steve Smith Thomas Davis

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