Prior to the start of the 2013 NFL season, many analysts and fans speculated about the level of success the Carolina Panthers would experience on defense. The year before, the Panthers were a wreck on the interior of the defensive line and the secondary was inconsistent.
Free agency brought a bit of hope with the additions of Mike Mitchell, Quintin Mikell and Drayton Florence. However, they were not immediate upgrades to a questionable part of the defense. The NFL draft allowed Carolina to shore up its defensive line, and the Panthers wasted no time spending their first two picks on two quality defensive tackles.
The general consensus was the defense would generate enough pressure up front to allow the secondary to make plays in front of them. They were expected to be strong in stopping the run but be vulnerable against the pass. With the regular season drawing to a close, the defense is playing better than anticipated in both facets of the defensive game.
It's also a reason why the team is sitting at 11-4 and in a position to clinch the NFC South and possibly the top seed in the NFC. Unfortunately, the defense has seemingly gone unappreciated—at least in the eyes of fans voting for the Pro Bowl representatives.
Anyone who has watched the Panthers play football this year has noticed how effective linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have been and how disruptive the tandem of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have been to opposing backfields. Even the secondary has had its moments led by Captain Munnerlyn, who has made the most of his one-year deal.
Every position has seemingly done its part this season—veterans and rookies alike—with the sad reality being that the players' only reward will be limited to the local accolades bestowed upon them and mentioned in the same breath as one of the most underrated defensive units in the history of the league.
However, individual recognition is not what defines this Carolina team. The players on both sides of the ball have embraced a deep teamwork philosophy and have set a goal of bringing the Lombardi Trophy to the Carolinas.
Indeed, the level of humility has not been limited to the more seasoned players. Kuechly has been quick to credit his teammates not only for his success but for the success of the team in general, according to Bryan Strickland of Panthers.com.
You work hard during the week, and when it pays off, it's cool. Our D-line played great. When they play as well as they do, it makes our job a lot easier.
The more interesting tidbit about that response is that it came on the heels of a record-breaking day when he claimed the franchise record for tackles in a game with 26.
Kuechly may be the only defensive player to take home some postseason hardware, but according to coach Ron Rivera, he feels that a case for Defensive Player of the Year can be made for both Thomas Davis and Greg Hardy as well.
Rivera says Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Greg Hardy should all be relevant in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 24, 2013
Kuechly would probably be in the running for Most Valuable Player if Peyton Manning wasn't having a season for the ages in Denver. However, the combined efforts of his play and that of his teammates are the reason why the Panthers are in control of their own destiny and one win away from clinching their third NFC South title.
Still, it is shocking that no player from the Panthers defense has been a front-runner in fan voting for this year's Pro Bowl. The only players who have placed high in voting have been Kuechly (second among middle linebackers) and Mike Mitchell (fourth among free safeties). Perhaps the biggest insult to the team and the Carolina fanbase is the lack of attention for Thomas Davis.
According to ESPN's David Newton, Davis has not even placed within the top 10 despite posting a career best 142 tackles through Week 16. Considering the fact he has rebounded from three knee injuries, it's amazing how much the veteran linebacker has been overlooked.
The same could be said about the Panthers defensive front.
Considered one of the best in the league, a line comprised of talented rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short and proven veterans Johnson and Hardy, has not received the kind of love that goes along with a winning team. After all, this defensive line is one week removed from pressuring Drew Brees to the point where he was sacked six times (three of which were courtesy of Hardy).
The Panthers will be represented at Honolulu but not as well as they should be. However, Panthers fans would rather see this team travel to East Rutherford as a whole and play for a championship instead of a couple of players going to Hawaii to compete in a meaningless exhibition game.
A championship would validate the effectiveness and talent of the Carolina defense a lot more than multiple representatives at the Pro Bowl.