Where Exactly Did It Go Wrong for the Carolina Panthers?

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterJanuary 3, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Head coach Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers looks on against the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on September 30, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Karma can be cruel.

After the Carolina Panthers won four of their last six games of the 2011 season and rookie quarterback Cam Newton grabbed more hardware than the typical Saturday suburbanite at Lowe’s, opinions were high as to just what this team could accomplish in 2012.

Too high.

The fanbase, along with the media, began to expect a playoff run. The players hearing all the hype started to buy in. Center Ryan Kalil may have bought in a little too much.

On July 25, Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer guaranteeing a Super Bowl XLVII victory. He probably shouldn’t have done that.

Because we have to.
For eighteen years we've wanted, hoped and tried...
But no more.
A moment is upon us, where dreams become beliefs and yearning becomes conviction.
How do I know?
Because I've seen it.
Looks closely and you'll see it, too. You'll see July 1st, 1993, when 40,000 of you bought club seats, licenses and luxury boxes, financing the construction of our stadium in a single day.
You'll see October of that same year, when the NFL owners unanimously selected Carolina as the league's 29th franchise.
You'll see two decades of seasons bad and good. But never of greatness.
Now, look closer.
At the daunting, unpaved path ahead, lined with detours, naysayers, and walls which seem insurmountable. But not for you. You'll ignore what you hear and break through ANYTHING that stands in your way. Because you see what's at the end of this...
One hundred-percent, sterling silver victory. The Lombardi trophy. And it reads:
Ryan Kalil

Guaranteeing the Panthers’ second trip to the Super Bowl was the kiss of death to the hopes of this 2012 team, a team that didn’t even get its second win until Week 9.

But Kalil’s optimism, as misplaced as it was, wasn’t the real reason Carolina didn’t make the playoffs. The first, and quite possibly the biggest, reason popped its ugly head up in Carolina’s Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Panthers spent $89.211 million putting together one of the best running back corps in the league. With DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert in the backfield, Carolina was sure to build on its 2011 success where it finished third in the league averaging 150.5 yards per game on the ground.

But Week 1 was a train wreck.

Wide receiver Kealoha Pilares was the team’s leading rusher with five yards. Newton was next with four yards. Tolbert finished with two yards while Williams carried the ball six times for negative yardage.

The entire rushing attack—Stewart was inactive due to injury—put up 10 yards on the day and nine of that came from a wide receiver and a quarterback. This led to two very disturbing trends.

With 741 yards rushing, Newton became the first quarterback since Donovan McNabb in 2000 to lead his team in rushing. Injuries played a small role in the $89.211 million trio only gaining 1,256 yards combined, but head coach Ron Rivera quickly started taking heat for mismanaging his stable of backs.

The Panthers had one of the most potent rushing attacks on paper in the NFL and Rivera had his sophomore quarterback throwing the ball at will. Rivera’s decision to let Newton throw his way to success backfired. Six times in the first nine games Newton threw the ball 29 times or more. He had 10 interceptions and just eight touchdowns to show for it.

Williams, Stewart and Tolbert combined for 568 yards in those first nine games, averaging 63.1 yards per game. At this point in the 2012 season, 16 individual NFL players had rushed for more yards than the three Panthers all together.

Doubt started to creep in.

It showed on the sideline at times when players got into verbal altercations (Newton and Steve Smith). It showed up in the locker room (both Brandon LaFell and Captain Munnerlyn) when players started questioning the coaching decision in the media. And it showed when general manager Marty Hurney was fired.

After a Week 11 loss to the Buccaneers, the Panthers sat with a 2-8 record and no one felt safe. But then a strange thing happened. Rivera sparked a response in his team. Newton quit turning the ball over and started playing at an MVP level. The Panthers started winning.

Carolina won its last four games and five of its last six, possibly saving Rivera’s job and definitely fueling the hype train for the offseason leading into the 2013 campaign.

But there was no recovering from the poor start that led to the 2012 season. Only hope for 2013 and beyond remains.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.


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