The Carolina Panthers finished third in the NFC South last season, but in 2012, they will continue to improve under their second-year coach Ron Rivera.
Sure, they won just six games in 2011, but with adequate time to improve his young squad, Rivera could turn Carolina into a playoff-caliber team.
Here are four reasons why the Carolina Panthers will be the talk of the NFL in 2012
The New Orleans Saints will be without head coach Sean Payton and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma for the entirety of the 2012-2013 NFL season. And with those two crucial elements out of the mix, the NFC South is officially up for grabs.
In the past decade, the division has developed a reputation of producing a different champion year after year, and 2012 should continue that trend.
Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons are the favorites to win the South, but don’t count out Cam Newton and his Carolina Panthers just yet. They may have only won six games in 2011, but they tripled their win total from 2010, proving they could compete with teams like the Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans and New York Giants.
Carolina lost both games to New Orleans last season, but with the crippling suspensions of Bountygate, that could mean two more victories in 2012—two more wins inching the team closer to its first playoff berth since 2008.
Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan have been the two most recent victims of the infamous “sophomore slump,” and as expected, analysts have begun to question Cam Newton’s second season in the NFL.
Will he suffer the hangover of his record-breaking rookie season? Or will Newton continue to outperform defenses against new and improved systems designed to shut him down?
Despite throwing for over 4,000 yards and rushing for over 700 yards, Newton threw the sixth most interceptions (17) in the NFL, and defensive coordinators may test Newton’s accuracy even more in 2012.
Ranked 15th in the league in completion percentage, Newton’s accuracy is nothing special at this point in his career, and teams will try and turn that into the Achilles heel of the offense.
Newton, however, will finally be able to undergo a true offseason this year, something he and the rest of his team desperately need.
At an average age of 25 years, the Carolina Panthers are the youngest team in the NFL. And while that means their future is promising, it doesn’t say the same about the present.
Last year, they suffered having to rely on such inexperienced players.
Before NFL drafts and combines, we always talk about the vast differences between college and professional football, and for the Panthers, that discrepancy was only further intensified by the lockout scare and shortened preseason of 2011.
Players were unable to reap the benefits of their very first training camp, and quite possibly even more concerning, first-year head coach Ron Rivera couldn’t communicate with his brand new roster.
Rivera, who has served as a defensive coordinator in the NFL for six years, was never able to polish his defensive unit before the season kicked off. It was evident Carolina was lost.
The Panthers’ defense ranked 24th in passing and 25th in rushing in 2011, but with injured players Jon Beason, Ron Edwards and Thomas Davis returning, Carolina has room (and more importantly time) to improve the weakest aspect of their game.
Recently, running back Jonathan Stewart told Bryan Strickland via the Carolina Panthers website of the difference in training camp between 2011 and 2012:
This is a definite advantage. We're able to grasp things quicker now and help the young guys grasp them, and it's an opportunity to get to know your teammates and develop chemistry.
It's been real productive, especially compared to last year when we weren't able to be out here with the players and coaches. It's definitely a step forward.
Unlike the incoming class of 2011, rookie LB Luke Kuechly will be able to experience a normal NFL offseason. Kuechly, who was the ninth overall pick this year, was the NCAA’s 2011 Defensive Player of the Year and should be of great value in helping Rivera’s cause this upcoming season.
You won’t want to pick these three for your fantasy football squad, but nevertheless, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and newly acquired back Mike Tolbert have the potential to be the best backfield in the NFL.
Splitting carries three ways won’t help their individual stats, but it should add a whole new dimension to the Panthers’ offense.
At first glance, it seems unnecessary to stack a lineup with three powerful runners, but then again, this trio of backs will be crucial in lifting the burden off Newton’s shoulders in his sophomore season.
An improved running attack could open up the field for Steve Smith, Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, as well as take pressure off the defense by increasing the team’s time of possession.
With two running backs under the age of 27 (Tolbert and Stewart), the Panthers will surely keep defenses on their toes with their versatility to run and catch the ball any which way on the field.