From draft day to the final loss of the season at New Orleans, the 2011-12 Carolina Panther campaign was unlike any that the young franchise had experienced.
The move to draft Auburn quarterback Cam Newton breathed new life into a team that was reeling from a three-win stinker in 2010. The buzz became reality when the Cats hit the field to begin last year’s play, as Newton proved to all of the nonbelievers that he was the real deal under center.
Veterans like Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams had career seasons riding the wave of vitality that the young quarterback provided.
But this year, the secret is out. Cam is joined by more young talent on both sides of the ball. The vets return to finish the job. Can they do it? Can the Panthers come out of a tough division, let alone score back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history?
Here are seven bold predictions for the Carolina Panthers in this 2012 season.
This is not by any means to say that the Panthers have an easy schedule.
In fact, they have the most difficult schedule in the NFC South. That said, taking a look at the first five games of the season sheds some light on the possibilities it offers.
The Cats open up on September 9th with a road trip to rebuilding Tampa Bay, followed by home games versus New Orleans and the Giants. The latter two teams do not, at all, offer an easy realization of my conjectures; however, the volatile situation in the Bayou casts serious doubts upon the possible success of the Saints.
The Giants, in my opinion, may prove the toughest opponent during the first quarter of the season, followed closely by the Cats' Week 4 opponent—the Atlanta Falcons.
The high-powered New York and Atlanta rushing attacks will definitely test a young and unproven Panther defense. If Carolina can make it through this test, they face a downturned Seattle Seahawks team in Week 5.
It stands to reason that this is by no means an easy schedule, but the moves made in the offseason to improve this young and beaten-down defense tell me I’m not far off and also bring me to my second bold prediction for the season.
Let’s face it.
Last year’s Carolina defense was not close to “top” in anything, except maybe sacks allowed or cheeseburgers eaten during the week.
Jokes aside, the Panthers were a meager 28th in total defense in 2011, something head coach Ron Rivera is definitely not used to, especially after his former Chargers squad was at the top of this list in 2010.
Coach Rivera will be making this side of the ball an absolute priority this season, and he got started with some staff moves. The Cats bid adieu to secondary coach Ron Meeks, replacing him with Charlotte-native Steve Wilks, who hung his hat on the same rack with Rivera in San Diego as well as Chicago.
The addition of Wilks to the team coupled with a full offseason including OTAs and minicamps surely has made the staff’s job of implementing new defensive schemes an easier one. The Panthers also look to return a few top defenders from 2011—some of whom missed a fair share of playing time due to injury during last year’s campaign.
Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are set to return—the latter hoping to become the first player to successfully come back from three (yes three) ACL tears.
The addition of Boston College LB phenom Luke Kuechly via the draft should prove to be the last step to bringing the weakest part of the Cat’s 2011 squad to prominence, as perhaps, its strongest in 2012, as long as the pass rush can live up to past expectations, especially Charles Johnson.
Since being drafted by the Panthers in 2007, defensive end Charles Johnson has been considered a steal in regards to his draft position versus his skill level.
That is, until he was signed to a six-year, $72 million contract with $32 million guaranteed. According to ESPN the Magazine, he was the highest paid player in the NFL during the 2011 season with a total salary of $34 million. That said, it's time for the money man to pay the piper and live up to expectations.
The rest of the defensive line is made up of players who are either young and inexperienced or returning from injuries. Veteran nose tackle Ron Edwards was lost for all of last season to a triceps tear that he suffered in training camp.
Rookies Terrell McClain and Sione Fua pretty much hit a wall after playing way more than they were expected to in Edwards’ absence. Johnson is the only proven pass-rusher whom the Panthers have at this point, and he's going to have to show up for this unit to live up to expectations.
He was only one sack away from double digits last year, and Johnson should get some help out of the rookie Sooner Frank Alexander, who will get a chance to play almost by default.
Johnson’s need to prove himself coupled with some extra help on the line and a shored-up linebacking corps should free him up to hit the bank in sacks for the Cats this year.
The Panthers were horrible on special teams last year.
Not many other terms could adequately describe the play on the field. Top veteran kicker Olindo Mare was anything but a “top” anything, except in touchbacks (he was first with 53).
The Panthers, in response to other special teams woes, virtually cleaned out the whole cupboard and started over with the unit. They signed Haruki Nakamura, Mike Tolbert, Reggie Smith and Kenny Onatolu, all leading special teams tacklers on their former teams.
In addition to improving their coverage, the Cats spent two of their draft picks on specialists: former Arkansas Razorback Joe Adams, who led the country with four punt returns for touchdowns last season and punter Brad Nortman, who was a four-year starter at Wisconsin.
Injuries took a toll on this unit last season, as 18 players ended up on the injured reserve list, forcing second- and third-teamers onto the key special teams spots.
With the additions in free agency, the drafting of new top-caliber talent and competition at both kicker and punter, this unit is set for nothing but success in the 2012 campaign.
I know, I know.
Our sporting culture has become obsessed with the concept of the “big three” in recent years. But this one is legitimate.
In the 2011 regular season, the Panthers finished third overall in team rushing yards with 2,408. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton ran for a combined 2,303 yards.
Two running backs and a quarterback together ending up that high in the rankings is impressive, even more so when you consider that they only ran the ball better and better as the season progressed.
Williams and Stewart have been widely considered one of the best one-two punches in the league, and the addition of the young quarterback Newton has added an entirely new dimension to the Panther rushing attack.
Newton’s accuracy throwing the ball downfield has virtually neutralized the old-school philosophy of stacking the box to stop the run, as rushers now have to account for Cam’s arm as well as the three-headed rushing monster in the backfield.
That coupled with Newton’s own ability to run the ball within their designed running scheme mandates that defenses respect him in the run-play action. The only thing keeping this attack from reaching its potential would be the offensive line.
The Panthers have recently been in talks to deal right tackle Jeff Otah to the Jets, but he has since been placed on the PUP list, according to ESPN. They have legitimate Pro Bowlers in left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil, and drafting sleeper Amini Silatolu in this year’s second round didn’t hurt either.
Cam Newton turned in one of the most impressive rookie performances anyone had ever seen and broke numerous records in 2011.
Many now doubt that he can repeat such amazing numbers, let alone improve upon them. You may say that defenses now know what to look for and know how to stop his incredible air and ground attacks.
Last season, Newton passed for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns. He completed 60 percent of his passes. He rushed for 706 yards and 14 TDs. It's very understandable for some to believe that Cam simply cannot reproduce these kinds of numbers in his sophomore campaign, and for most quarterbacks, this would be the correct assumption. But I contend that there has just never been a player in the league like Cam Newton.
He has size, but he’s quick and dodgy in the pocket. He has speed, but he can also use his strength to plow over defenders as he moves downfield. He's also not afraid to put the ball into small windows and reads defenses like Rainman reads textbooks.
He is the total package, and with receivers like Steve Smith fresh off a contract extension, Brandon LaFell who's money on third down, newly acquired Louis Murphy and a healthy David Gettis, Cam is set to smash the records that he smashed last year, in an even more impressive fashion.
You know, I thought I was breaking the mold with this one, but here I go to finish this article, and wouldn’t you know it? Center Ryan Kalil beats me to the punch.
He took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer with a slightly more ballsy version of this prediction, claiming that this would be a super year for the Panthers. And he may not be as crazy as people think.
With all the talk about his becoming a quarterback league, the fact of the matter is that defense wins championships. Oh yea, running games help out as well.
We have seen in two separate Super Bowls that no matter how high-powered your offense or seemingly unstoppable your quarterback (cough! Patriots! Cough!), a defense that can shake him up will come out the victor. Given my other predictions here, this could be a year to turn some heads both in the NFC South and the league as a whole.
Already this year, the rest of the division is in flux staff-wise. The Saints are down a head coach and defensive coordinator, the Falcons changed both coordinators and the director of player personnel and the Buccaneers have a new coaching staff altogether.
This coupled with Cam Newton’s proven ability to lead this team from scrimmage to the end zone effectively, a special teams unit that has been strengthened and a defense that has seen a breath of new youth and vitality, this is the year.
As center Ryan Kalil so eloquently put it, “A moment is upon us, where dreams become beliefs and yearning becomes conviction.”