The Carolina Panthers (2-6) have a long road ahead of them if they are to be mentioned in the same breath with the NFC contenders. That road is even longer this season, but there have been signs over the past few games that provide reason for optimism toward the team's future.
Perhaps as early as this season.
The Panthers are now looking to build upon their Week 9 victory over the host Washington Redskins, 21-13. Despite their unfavorable record, the Panthers have been playing very well of late. Their victory over the Redskins could serve as a stepping stone for adding a few more wins as the season progresses.
There have been changes on the field—some clearly evident, some subtle. Ultimately, Carolina has at last found a recipe for success and should continue to use it during the second half of the season.
I will present and break down five reasons why Carolina will turn around its season, based on changes it has made in recent weeks.
It doesn't take a diehard fan or a football analyst to see that the Carolina defensive front has been getting more pressure on the quarterback and making life difficult for opposing offenses in recent weeks.
The combined efforts of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy generated three sacks for the Carolina defense, and they have been making their presence known over the past few games.
Many believed the defense would take a huge hit with the absence of Jon Beason for the year, but rookie Luke Kuechly has stepped in and done an outstanding job as the middle linebacker and defensive leader. He seems to be involved in every play and has recorded double digits in tackles since making the transition from the outside.
Speaking of quality replacements, the same can be said about Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman picking up the slack for the injured Chris Gamble.
Despite the loss of perhaps the best corner on the team, Norman has risen to the occasion and made a case for what kind of player he could become. Over the past few weeks, he has picked off his first pass, stopped a two-point conversion and has done a good job of keeping in check the player he's been assigned to cover.
The defense is still middle of the pack in terms of rankings, but it is a lot better than it was when the season started. It is making plays and keeping the team in every game since the blowout loss to the New York Giants in Week 3.
Regardless of what many people may think about Carolina's offense, Cam Newton is only a part of it.
In order for it to be successful, Newton does not have to throw for over 300 yards a game or factor into every score. In fact, it seems that the Panthers set themselves up better for a win when there is an equal balance between the passing and rushing games.
Newton has thrown for over 300 yards twice this season—but both ended in losses. In both wins, he has thrown for 251 and 201 yards.
If the running game is on, then Newton finds himself in a far better situation as opposing defenses cannot focus primarily on him.
Speaking of the running game...
The highly touted duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart entered the season projected to be one of the best running back tandems in the league. Overall, they have been an utter disappointment.
Following a few lackluster performances that saw Stewart on the shelf and Williams fumbling at inopportune times, the two have started to reclaim their old "Double Trouble" persona and have been finding running lanes—and, in Williams' case, finding the end zone.
While some of that credit is due to the offensive line, there is no denying this duo is beginning to find its stride running out of a more conventional offensive scheme. After Sunday's game, it seems that it's a good thing Williams wasn't traded after speculation swirled that the team would entertain offers for him.
The Carolina running backs have yet to hit the century mark in rushing yards during a game, but as long as they are doing their part to score points and provide a legitimate threat in the offense, it may not be a major concern.
Though it's always nice to see the level of ball control that a 100-yard game suggests.
Nothing like being referred to as the "homecoming" team (via espn.com) to get an opponent fired up, especially one DeAngelo Williams. Williams used the event as motivation in a pregame room speech, referring to the game-day program handed out before the start of the Carolina-Washington matchup.
He even went as far as venting his displeasure on Twitter:
I've never been more insulted in the nfl until today! The redskins schedule us for their HOMECOMING game! This... fb.me/1WBNOevYk—DeAngelo Williams (@DeAngeloRB) November 4, 2012
Williams would back up his pregame speech with a score that put the Panthers in front. They would not surrender the lead the rest of the game.
While it's bad enough to be one of the worst teams in the league, it's even worse to be insulted, and the Panthers used the program as fuel to push them to victory. After such a game it is interesting to see what other sources of motivation the Panthers will use later in the season, but perhaps that is what is needed to lock up a few more wins.
They need to play angry.
Carolina's season may be all but done, but if the Panthers bring their approach and attitude in Week 9 to every game the rest of the way, it's not out of the question that they can hang with every team left on their schedule.
It's almost a certainty the veterans will have something ready for John Fox's return in next week's matchup against the Denver Broncos.
There was much criticism about the way coordinators Rob Chudzinski and Sean McDermott have gone about their play-calling early in the season.
Over the past few weeks, however, their respective units have turned things around and have become more of a presence on the field.
Chudzinski's offense was criticized for the constant deployment of the read-option offense and using Newton too much in the play-calling. The running game had been abandoned prematurely, and the Panthers struggled to move the ball and put up points.
The change has been evident lately as the Panthers have gone with a more conventional offensive approach, which has resulted in more scoring opportunities than before. As previously stated, this offense is dangerous when it is balanced.
On the other side of the ball, McDermott's defense has been playing well. The front line is getting pressure, and the linebackers are playing with a lot of aggressiveness and physicality. After seeing their performances the past three weeks, one wouldn't guess they are missing two key players on defense. It may be a patchwork defense in some places, but it is getting the job done.
There is no telling what is being said in practice or in the locker room, but whatever Ron Rivera's coordinators are doing on game day seems to be paying off.
It could mean the difference in Rivera and his staff being employed in Carolina after this season or not.