5 Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Carolina Panthers in 2012
Optimism. Until your team plays a game, it can be the most beautiful thing in the world.
The Carolina Panthers closed out the 2011 season by winning four of their final six contests. They enter 2012 as one of the league's chick picks to go dark-horse candidate on us all.
What reasons do we have to look at the Panthers with such exquisite optimism?
There are plenty, more than can be contained in a few simple slides.
We're going to cover the major ones, including a few that have you subscribing to the Panthers Team Stream here at Bleacher Report to begin with.
Glass half-full types. Click ahead to find out why it's going to be a special year for the Carolina Panthers.
Cam Newton Will Be an MVP Candidate in 2012
What else would I lead with here?
He's young. He's exciting. He's got the opportunity to change the way the game is played. It all starts and ends with Cam Newton, and if he was in another NFL city I would probably be covering another NFL team.
After setting nearly every rookie quarterback record on the planet, his sights are set on an encore presentation that your grandchildren will ask you about witnessing.
Ron Rivera says that Newton will avoid a sophomore slump due to his work ethic:
“I will say this about a sophomore slump – if there’s anybody that’s going work through it, he’s going to work through it,” Rivera said. “When the season was over, one of the things he said was he wanted to find a way to make sure he didn’t have one. I think the less we talk about it, the less we get caught up in it, the better. It’s like the Madden curse, he really wanted to be the cover. I think that’s the thing. Instead of running from it, saying, oh, I hope it doesn’t happen – it’s not going to happen. I’m not going to let it happen. I think that’s his approach to the sophomore slump.”
Cam Newton doesn't seem like the type to worry about avoiding negative performances but rather attacking the opportunity to achieve new heights. Any type of "slump" is probably the furthest thing from his mind. And the unthinkable is probably the first thing that crosses his mind when he's brushing his teeth in the morning.
The reasons for optimism are obvious. Barring injury, it's fine to buy Newton as an MVP candidate in 2012 and possibly the finest player in the league. The Panthers might be a few players short, but never underestimate the run a team led by Newton could make.
Ron Rivera Is the Right Man for the Job
It all starts with the head coach and the quarterback. We've discussed one, and the second reason for Carolina Panthers optimism in 2012 is head coach Ron Rivera.
Mild-mannered and well-reserved, Rivera seems to be a coach who will earn the respect of his players over time. Many coaches give off the vibe in a press conference that "they know best because they're the boss." I've never had that impression of the former defensive coordinator in watching his postgame press conferences and interviews.
Looking around the NFL, there are teams who have talented rosters but will hit a wall because their coaches will gridlock them on Sundays. Rivera is not going to be one of those men.
Rivera has the "it" factor that I believe will lead him into a successful run as the Panthers' head coach. There seems to be a careful and dynamic mix of aggressive and conservative calls on game day; and the rookie head coach won an impressive six games in his debut campaign in 2011. That's no short order with the division the Panthers play in.
Steve Smith said the following after meeting Rivera for the first time:
"When I met Ron I would say they maybe sold him short. He's great, a great guy," Smith said. "My first meeting with him was pretty good, it was outstanding. I walked away very impressed."
Smith isn't one to mix words, and the compliment is one paid to a coach that veterans and young players alike will go to battle just a little harder for.
Rivera might not have been the sexy pick at the time of his hiring, and he didn't go to the NFC title game like Jim Harbaugh. But I think time will prove the Panthers' head coach to be an excellent man for the job, and his future holds titles within the position.
The Panthers' Defense Has Been Rebuilt
The unit is by no means a finished product, but if I were a betting man (I am) I would be willing to wager that the Carolina Panthers' defense will be much improved in 2012.
Much of this improvement was not done with a quick-fix of a few high-dollar free agents, but rather the old-fashioned right way: through the NFL draft. The Panthers selected under-the-radar players to add depth at key spots of need, and the Panthers might have landed a new cornerstone.
Mel Kiper touched on it in a recent article:
Newton could turn into the pick of the decade. His brilliant rookie season makes people forget how much we still didn't know when he was taken. The 2012 draft -- Kuechly, DE Frank Alexander and CB Josh Norman specifically -- should invigorate the defense. -- Kiper
I'm excited to see Alexander and Norman for the first time, and first-round selection Luke Kuechly attracted my attention consistently on NCAA Saturdays this past fall.
No one has forgotten that the Panthers get Jon Beason back from a serious injury that cost him the entire season last year. That's akin to trading for one of the biggest stars in the league and adding him to the middle of your defense if he returns near full-strength.
Chris Gamble had the offseason to rest his legs, which looked like they had a good amount of spring still left in them. Gamble accumulated 51 tackles and three interceptions last season to go along with 10 passes defended. At 29, he can still be a shutdown corner in this league while helping youngsters like Norman learn on the go.
The Panthers gave up almost 27 points per game in 2011. This coming season, that number will be lower. Cam Newton will get more chances. The defense will collapse less.
We're being optimistic, right?
Mike Tolbert Throws His Name in the Hat
That No. 35 is a bad, bad man.
That was my rhetorical thought when I would watch Mike Tolbert get the football in his days as a San Diego Charger. And now he's coming to Carolina.
Tolbert is the type of player who can make an already dominant offense all-worldly. With 19 touchdowns on the ground in the past two seasons and 54 receptions out of the backfield in 2011, he probably got looks from fantasy owners across the nation.
The biggest thing I like about the new Carolina running back is that he'll relieve hits inside the red zone that the franchise quarterback was taking before he arrived. Rob Chudzinski's offense called for a lot of Cam Newton designed runs inside the 20 last season, and I cringed when I saw a lineman get a good shot on him or a linebacker bend and contort him as part of the pile.
Enter Tolbert, a player who will be delivering those shots in the opposite direction as he crosses the goal line. The 243-pound bowling ball will see plenty of downs where he will run wheel routes as well as options and draws. With the creative wrinkles of Chudzinski's offense, Tolbert could see wishbone formation sets with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart regularly.
Already deadly in the red zone in 2011, Carolina fans can realistically expect their team to be in the top three in the league in 2012 for good reason.
And if your team's defender doesn't get low enough on Mike Tolbert, get the meat wagon engine started.
The Great Demise of the New Orleans Saints
To get a home playoff game and to come out of the NFC as the Super Bowl representative, the Carolina Panthers must go through the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints have become the NFL's biggest mess in a hurry, and the door is now prepped to be kicked down by a team on the rise in the NFC South division.
If you've been living in a cave this offseason, it's time you learn about the Saints' troubles. This short outline is a good start.
I. New Orleans Saints Demise
D. Drew Brees is "frustrated" by contract
Conclusion: The Saints are in serious trouble, and the Panthers are going to reap the benefits.
While every game still must be played and accounted for, the Panthers can be seen as a more likely division favorite now. Atlanta has had trouble getting out of the starting blocks in the past few NFL playoffs, and their window could be seen as closing.
What's more optimistic than a window that's just opened? Or a door that's ready to be kicked down?
The Carolina Panthers have an excellent shot at winning their division and hosting a playoff game in 2012 based on the ugly offseason that the Saints have faced. It's going to take the Saints' franchise some time to recover off the field no matter how much talent they have on it.