By most standards, a 6-10 season is abysmal, disappointing and one to forget. On the other hand, if a team can say they've tripled their win total from the previous season, then it's wildly successful. In regards to the Panthers' season, I feel much more of the latter. When you look what Carolina faced during the season, where they wound up looks much better than a 6-10 record might indicate.
In general, the NFC is a much more competitive conference than the AFC. The Giants are the first team to repeat as conference champions in 11 years, a feat that I believe speaks more to the strength and parity across the conference rather than any weakness. In the NFC, the South is probably the strongest division. During the 2010-11 season, the Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers tallied a combined record of 34-14. This was better than any three teams in any other conference in all of football.
Okay, so those upstart Bucs completely imploded this past season, but entering 2011 those 2-14 Panthers had a daunting task ahead of them. Holding the league's toughest schedule in a division that saw three teams win double-digit games? No easy task, but the Panthers played some of their best football in divisional games. They racked up two Ws against Tampa Bay and nearly picked up home wins against Atlanta and New Orleans, showing they can compete in one of football's toughest divisions.
To say the Panthers' defense was hampered by injuries is a major understatement.They lost starting DT Ron Edwards before the season even started, then watched All-Pro linebacker Jon Beason fall by the wayside week one. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis followed with his third knee injury in as many seasons, so did CB Captain Munnerlyn and DT's Sione Fua and Terrell McClain. Safety Charles Godfrey fought injuries all season long, and fourth-round pick Brandon Hogan didn't get on the field until Week 15.
The defense was supposed to carry the young Cam-lead Panthers as their rookie quarterback developed in the NFL's worst offense of the 2010 season. Instead, they couldn't stop a nosebleed. Despite the gaudy and embarrassing numbers, I'm not too concerned. Injuries heal and head coach Ron Rivera is a defensive whiz. He coached up defenses of the Bears and Chargers to the top of league as DC, and with a full offseason and draft to retool, we'll definitely see improvement next season.
CAM RUSHED IN
As football fans, I don't think we realize just how important offseason development can be for players, especially rookies. We all know the NFL labor saga, so there's no need to rehash it all. But for Cam to come in with basically two weeks of training camp and no real mentor at quarterback and still do as well as he did? Really incredible.
With all these challenges and more facing the Panthers last season, I would call their 2011 campaign a success. Despite their struggles early on in the season, they finished strong, with wins in four of their last five games. I thought they displayed the kind of gutsy performance we saw out of the Lions two years ago, who (after a 2-10 start) won their last four games in impressive fashion. Next season? A 10-6 record and a playoff berth. I'm not going to come out and say the Panthers will make it back to the postseason in 2012, but they're certainly on the right path.