Carolina Panthers' head coach, Ron Rivera
This was indeed true as the Panthers played a lot of close games in the 2011 season, but fell short. The Panthers lost at least six of their games by just one score.
So, why would anyone think that the Panthers will become a playoff threat in 2012?
Let's begin with two obvious reasons. First, Panthers' key players (like Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and David Gettis) are coming back from season-ending injuries. And secondly, the Panthers have made some serious upgrades—through the draft and free agency—to some of their weakest areas, like special teams and defense.
There's another reason why the Panthers will be better. The Panthers' hard work last season will definitely pay off in 2012, as they will not only have gained valuable experience but have the benefit of keeping a lot of their key players who have gotten more comfortable in their coach's systems.
As Gabriel mentioned in his article, the Panthers played hard, and every opponent the Panthers will face can expect that and even more from them in 2012. Furthermore, playing hard last season also gave the young players some experience that was way more valuable than the experience they got during their 2-14 season.
Two individuals should be given credit for the Panthers' hard work last season. The first one is obviously Cam Newton, who showed the NFL he was not going to be patient—he wanted to win and he wanted to win right away.
But, I believe a lot of credit should also be given to Ron Rivera. Before the first preseason game in 2011, senior writer Bryan Strickland, from panthers.com, wrote an article about what Rivera expects from his players. Rivera really had one thing to say:
"If we do anything on Saturday, I really expect us to play hard. That's the only thing I can ask of our guys—play hard—and we'll go from there."
Keep in mind that one of the reasons Rivera was hired head coach for the Panthers is because he, like Jerry Richardson, have the same philosophies. Meaning they both believed that nothing is more valuable to a player’s success than experience.
The Panthers don't just sign a bunch of high-paid veterans, they develop their young players into a really good ones. And, judging by the way the Panthers looked towards the end of last season, they are definitely on their way to developing some good players.
Take, for example, the Panthers' defensive line—Sione Fua, Terrell McClain and Frank Kearse—who are all entering their second year as Panthers in the 2012 season. Rivera and Marty Hurney could’ve easily made attempts at replacing these guys after they gave up so many rushing yards in the first half of the 2011 season.
So, why didn't Rivera and Hurney find better defensive tackles through the draft? Because these defensive tackles' hard work was paying off and they were gradually improving. By the end of the season, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and his defense were finally beginning to click.
In Bryan Strickland's article on panthers.com, Rivera explained why he didn't chose to draft more defensive tackles:
"I agree that we weren't good enough there, but we weren't good enough until Week 12, when you started seeing things come together. Why? Because we had enough guys in place that finally got it and understood it."
Of course, the defense wasn't the only area that was gradually improving. In fact, one might argue that the whole team improved. The Panthers started winning more of their games, despite starting out 2-8. After that run, they ended up winning four of their last six games.
On a final note, what will also make the Panthers' experience a big part of why they become playoff threats is the continuity they'll have next season. By "continuity," I mean that a lot of their players who gained all that experience last season will be returning.
That means with all the same coaches and players, the Panthers will have the opportunity to get even more comfortable in their roles.
This last point is especially important, considering all the changes in rosters and coaching staff going on in the NFC South. For instance, both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints are dealing with some significant changes to their coaching staff.
To some extent, one might also point out the Atlanta Falcons might need to do some major adjusting with their offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter. Though, at the same time, it doesn't look like the Falcons have undergone too many changes (in comparison to the Saints and Buccaneers), and they just might be the one team the Panthers might have to worry about. Time will tell, though.
However, with the way the Panthers played last season and the experience and continuity gained, it seems that the Panthers are the real legitimate threats in the NFC South.
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