Carolina Panthers: Winners and Losers of the 2012 Season
The Carolina Panthers entered the season amid high expectations only to falter out the gate. Despite a strong finish, they found themselves missing out on the playoffs yet again.
However, not all was lost. The Panthers had great moments. Unfortunately, there were not enough of them, leaving the front office to figure out how they could get better.
The season was a loser overall, not only because of another sub-.500 finish but also because the high level of preseason expectations were reduced to dust by the time Thanksgiving arrived.
It was frustrating for Panthers' fans. The team's strongest unit at the start of the year became a liability. Cam Newton struggled, then played like an MVP. The running backs dreadfully underperformed, and the coaching staff was subjected to a mix of scrutiny and late praise.
This slideshow will highlight the best and worst of the 2012 season. Here are the Carolina Panthers' winners and losers of the past year.
Winner: Drafting Luke Kuechly No. 9 Overall
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The season of disbelief began in April when Carolina decided to take middle linebacker Luke Kuechly ninth overall in the draft. For a team that was in desperate need of a defensive tackle, this selection did not make any sense. A slow start by Kuechly playing at the weak-side linebacker position only added to the criticism of the pick.
Then Jon Beason was lost for the season.
After that, Kuechly was moved to the middle and dominated in every game. Displaying the same tenacity and nose for the ball he showed at Boston College, he seemed to be involved in nearly every play.
When the dust settled on the regular season, Kuechly found himself leading the league in tackles and was a fourth alternate on the NFC's Pro Bowl squad. Ron Rivera has made it known that Kuechly will remain at middle linebacker, with Beason most likely moving to the outside when he returns to the team in 2013.
This should have Carolina fans salivating at the thought of having the best linebacker trio in the league, with Kuechly, Beason and a Thomas Davis/James Anderson rotation comprising the unit.
Kuechly proved that his selection by the Panthers was not a mistake. He showed that he a bright future wearing the black and blue.
Loser: Ryan Kalil's Bold Prediction
Wonder if Kalil is predicting the team will be #2 in the division instead of #1
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Everybody loves a veteran leader Everyone tends to rally around him when he makes a positive prediction about the team before the start of the season.
Unfortunately, he loses support when the team struggles out the gate and makes that prediction seem like a Rex Ryan moment.
That is exactly what happened with Carolina center Ryan Kalil.
One can't blame the Pro Bowl center for claiming the Panthers were going to win the Super Bowl in a one-page ad in the Charlotte Observer. He truly felt his team was capable of making a run at the championship. So did many fans in Carolina.
His prediction would not have been so bad had Carolina qualified for the playoffs. But after starting the season at 2-8, the phrase "open mouth, insert foot" became synonymous with him. It was bad enough he was nowhere close on his prediction, but then he went down with an injury and was lost for the season.
Kalil wasn't wrong for making such a claim about his team in the preseason. Much like many of the fans, his expectations and confidence in the Panthers were so high that it was a reasonable assumption that Carolina would make a run at the Lombardi Trophy.
But in the end, the Panthers were not who they thought they were.
Loser: Failing to Close out Games
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What does Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Chicago, Seattle and Kansas City all have in common? They were all teams that defeated the Carolina Panthers by a touchdown or less. There is nothing more discouraging than losing close games.
It is even more frustrating to lose games in which your team is leading late in the game.
The Panthers became quite adept at blowing late leads. Those six teams represent seven games (count Tampa Bay twice) in which the Panthers could have won but were unable to hold the lead or get ahead, as was the case with the Chiefs.
Consider the following: If the Panthers had won those games, they would be in the playoffs as a division champion with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Winning close games is the the difference between being 14-2 and 7-9.
There were a lot of reasons for Carolina's shortcomings. The play-calling by the coaching staff was questionable. Despite its ineffectiveness, the offense tended to rely on the read option for most of the first half of the season.
The Panthers were also hurt by Ron Rivera's lack of a killer instinct or playing-not-to-lose mentality. However, the players need to shoulder part of the blame for failing to execute the plays. Remember the Cam Newton fumble on fourth-and-short late in the fourth quarter against the Falcons?
This characteristic of the Panthers really annoyed and frustrated the fanbase. It is not nearly as simple as saying Carolina is a bad team and was dominated all season long. With the exception of losses to the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos, they were in every game. If the Panthers can learn to close out games, they will be among the best teams in football.
Winner: Thomas Davis
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This is without a doubt one of the best stories in the league this season.
After suffering multiple knee injuries from 2009 to 2011, Thomas Davis enjoyed his first fully healthy season since 2008. Concerns about his level of play and motor were put to rest after he showed that he was capable of making plays and delivering hard hits to opposing players.
After Davis endured another setback early in the 2011 season, many felt he was close to hanging it up. Davis thought so, too. However, a team trainer urged him to rehab and try another comeback this season. He did and put together a quality season, logging 103 tackles (eight for losses), two forced fumbles and one interception.
Loser: Being Blown out on National Television by the New York Giants
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Whether it's Thursday night, Sunday night or Monday night, the opportunity to play on national television should motivate any team to step up its game in front of a large audience. In Week 3, the New York Giants did just that, but the Carolina Panthers must have missed the memo.
Led by third-string running back Andre Brown, the Giants cruised to a 20-0 halftime lead and never looked back. Brown annihilated the Panthers' rush defense, gaining 113 yards on the ground and scoring two touchdowns.
The Panthers never looked like a contender at any point of this game. Cam Newton was awful, throwing three interceptions and finishing with a quarterback rating of 40.6. Joe Adams lost two fumbles. The only bright spot was tight end Greg Olsen, who had 98 receiving yards.
In the end, the Giants won 36-7 and left many wondering if the Panthers had what it took to compete with contenders in their conference. Fortunately, Carolina would go on to win its next prime-time game on Monday Night Football.
But that win was over the Philadelphia Eagles, which, given their horrible season, doesn't say much.
Winner: Cam Newton Overcoming a Slow Start
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No other rookie from the 2011 class faced as much criticism and speculation about enduring a sophomore slump than Cam Newton.
The Auburn product took the league by storm in his first season, destroying the record books and redefining the quarterback position. Despite all his achievements, many critics, analysts and fans felt he would regress in his second season and not be as productive.
They were right...for a while.
Then, Newton started playing like it was 2011 all over again. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski simplified the playbook, went away from the read option and Newton transformed from a pouting kid to a team leader.
From November 18th to December 16th, Newton never had a quarterback rating lower than 95.8. Over that same stretch, he threw 10 touchdowns and did not throw a single interception. The Panthers went 3-2 and, had it not been for a blown 11-lead against Tampa Bay, they could have easily been 4-1.
Newton mirrored the Panthers in terms of performance. Both started slow but finished strong. His December numbers were impressive as the Panthers went 4-1. He was 91-of-157 passing for 1,168 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. His quarterback rating was a respectable 93.1.
It should be noted that those two interceptions were in games Carolina won. In recent history, every time Newton threw an interception, the Panthers would lose. Essentially, a negative trend was stopped in its tracks.
Considering the way he ended the season and the adjustments that were made to return him to his former self, there is no reason to doubt the potential Newton has to make the Carolina offense formidable for years to come.
Loser: Firing of Marty Hurney
Any time a front office executive is shown the door, chances are the team is not doing so well. That was the case with former Carolina general manager Marty Hurney.
He was instrumental in assembling teams that made playoff appearances and played in a Super Bowl. He was also responsible for orchestrating some less-than-stellar drafts over the past three seasons that seemed to have more negative ramifications on the Panthers than positive ones.
His first selection in the 2010 draft was Jimmy Clausen, who proved to be a disastrous pick as he struggled in his rookie year and found himself as the third-string quarterback after Carolina selected Cam Newton No. 1 overall.
Hurney made a series of trades that ultimately did not pan out. His best move was trading up to draft offensive tackle Jeff Otah. But after a stellar rookie season, he struggled to stay healthy and was never the same player afterward.
So, following the Panthers' horrible start, owner Jerry Richardson decided to make a statement and fired Hurney, his close friend. The dismissal sent a strong message to the team that nobody's job was safe.
Hurney left behind little cap room for the Panthers this offseason. He seemed to be able to find ways of working deals to keep the team under the limit and still have money to make free-agent acquisitions.
As of now, however, the Panthers have limited flexibility because of the large amount of money invested in players like DeAngelo Williams, Chris Gamble and Jon Beason.
It is safe to assume that if Hurney were still the general manager, there would be no reason for concern. But that is not the case, so the next GM will have to make some incredibly difficult decisions that may ultimately draw the ire of the team and fans.
Winner: Steve Smith Producing Another 1,000-Yard Season
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No player on the Panthers' offense has benefited more from the presence of Cam Newton than wide receiver Steve Smith.
The outspoken veteran had a second consecutive season in which he had more than 1,000 receiving yards. He only had four TD catches, but that is due to the early-season struggles of Newton, who could not connect with him the way he did later in the season.
This was the first time Smith had back-to-back seasons of more than 1,000 receiving yards since he did it four years in a row between 2005-2008. He also enjoyed another full season in which he played in every game, making it his fourth such year of doing so.
Smith did not get a Pro Bowl nod. But considering what he was able to accomplish despite Newton's early struggles and the way passes were spread out among the other receivers and backs, it's a testament that he is nowhere near slowing down.
Loser: Justin Medlock Being Released
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The Carolina Panthers haven't had the luxury of a solid, clutch kicker since the release of John Kasay. Since his departure, the Panthers have had three kickers try to take his place.
The second of the three was Justin Medlock, who put on a clinic in training camp and looked good in the preseason.
However, after missing field goals in three consecutive games, he was released by the Panthers on November 12th. Overall, his numbers weren't bad. He was 7-of-10 on field goals. But his misses came from beyond 40 yards. So if the Panthers were looking for a kicker who was accurate from long range, he was not their their man.
Medlock was replaced by former Washington Redskins kicker Graham Gano, who wasn't much better, making 9-of-11 field goals and missing an extra point in 21 attempts.
It is still undetermined if Gano remains in Carolina, but the Panthers clearly need someone reliable to handle kicks. It is difficult to replace a position like that in the middle of the season.
Winner: Sweeping the Saints
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The Panthers' most detested rival in the NFC South is the New Orleans Saints (though Tampa Bay and Atlanta could probably make an argument as well).
The Saints swept the Panthers in 2011. The first loss came in a close game that probably could have been won by Carolina had Newton not thrown a pick-six. The second loss came in a season finale that saw the Saints play their starters for much of the game, set offensive records and run up the score on the Panthers.
Needless to say, the second loss left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Panthers and their fans.
Carolina exacted a measurement of revenge in Week 2 this season when they won a close game at home. The key play was Jon Beason's interception on the Saints' final drive. The season finale was once again played in New Orleans, and both teams had a different look about them defensively entering the game. The only difference was the outcome.
The Panthers put up double digits in points in three of the four quarters and came back to beat the Saints 44-38. That win allowed Carolina to finish at 7-9 and in front of their hated rival.
Both the Saints and Panthers played hard and physical football that resulted in some questionable hits and saw Cam Newton miss time due to an injury.
For a team that did not meet preseason expectations, this was the ideal way for Carolina to close out the 2012 season. Additionally, it set the stage for the rivalry to become more heated over the next several years.
Winner: Carolina's December Finish
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The month of December was very kind to Carolina, which played five games and won four. Granted, only one of its December opponents had a winning record. But winning is the same regardless the opponent or stage of the season.
The Panthers averaged 30 points per game in the final month and allowed opponents an average of 18. Their finish allowed them to win one more game than a season ago and could have saved Ron Rivera's job.
Under Rivera, Carolina is 7-2 in December, which could help it when it is contending for a playoff spot or division title. It is still not known whether Rivera will return as coach, but one can't argue with the way his teams close out their seasons.
Loser: Questionable Coaching
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The Panthers were a mystery early in the season.
Their offense lacked the punch it had the year before. A lot fans began complaining about the overuse of the read-option offense. Making matters worse, it seemed as though the Panthers had been figured out.
Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski bore the brunt of the criticism because of his questionable play-calling and apparent misuse of the team's running backs. By the time he began to play to Cam Newton's strengths, it was far too late in the season for the Panthers to make a legitimate run at a playoff berth.
As head coach, Ron Rivera was criticized over clock management and play-calling late in games. He was ridiculed for his decision to go for it on fourth down late in the fourth quarter against Atlanta. While the initial play did result in a first down, Newton was unable to hold onto the football and it was recovered by Carolina behind the first-down marker.
The field position was good enough to allow Matt Ryan to make a big completion to Roddy White that set up the game-winning field goal.
It didn't help matters any when the players began questioning the coaching and it appeared, for a moment, there was a rift between the players and coaches.
If the coaching and decision-making in the beginning of the season resembled that of the month of December, Carolina would have been looking at a different outcome. Perhaps the dismissals that took place never would have happened.
Winner: Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy Each Hit Double-Digits in Sacks
The Carolina Panthers have long waited for a defensive-end tandem that would rival the days of Julius Pepper and Mike Rucker. The days of waiting are over, as Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy recorded double-digits sacks.
This is the first time since 2003 that the Panthers have had two players with more than 10 sacks each. The last two to accomplish the feat were Peppers and Rucker.
Johnson led the team with 12.5 sacks. Hardy had 11. They terrorized quarterbacks throughout the season and made a habit of harassing Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan in both meetings this year.
Their production seemed to ease concerns about Johnson's huge contract and the potential of Hardy. Both played at a high level. And with the young Frank Alexander available in a situational role, the defensive line is one stout defensive tackle away from being one of the league's best.
Bonus Winner: Carolina's Positive Media Exposure
Newton's Play 60 Ad
No Panthers have ever been the center of attention in commercials like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. That all changed with Cam Newton. While he has done promotional ads for Under Armor, Gatorade and ESPN's Sports Center, his work on the NFL's Play 60 campaign has been entertaining.
His appearance in commercials has shown a side of him that many fans in Carolina have grown to know and love. His most recent commercial featured teammate Steve Smith and offered a glimpse of how engaging and charismatic the young man can be.
However, nothing quite holds a candle to his Play 60 commercial, which is perhaps one of the better ones presented this past season.