Pressure from Carolina's front four has been a marked change from last season.
Three preseason games completed. Three games, and the Carolina Panthers defense leads the league in total sacks at 18 and in total yards allowed at 184.7.
This shouldn't be happening. The defense was supposed to be its major weakness. Julius Peppers leaving, culling the team of veteran, albeit, average players, and without Jake Delhomme, the offense would be a wreck as well (maybe it still is).
All of these actions spelled doom for Carolina. An era was coming to an end. It was time to endure a long term "rebuilding process."
There was supposed to be no hope for the Panthers in the short term. New Orleans NFC South reign is underway as they are the current champs. Atlanta is on the rise. Carolina could finish behind Tampa Bay.
At least that's how the overwhelming sentiment from Charlotte writers and columnists as well as the national sports media has been since the end of last year's 8-8 season.
One nationally published article claimed that the Panthers, with the third youngest team on average (27 years of age), was too young to have any success.
The writer failed to note that 27 begins the few years of an athlete's career that most people consider their "prime."
It seems to be all too common that observations made about the Panthers by those "in-the-know" seem to go strangely awry. For example, one columnist of a Charlotte area newspaper reported, a national analyst believed Michael Vick would be a great fit for the Panthers.
Presumably, the analyst made this prediction based on the fact that John Fox employed the wild cat in the past.
A quarterback that could run the wild cat and throw. That's exactly what the Panthers want, right?
But looking deeper, in no way does anything in the Panthers' makeup justify such an observation. The team is loaded at the running back position. Beyond its two running stars, the third and fourth backs are both talented.
Saturday night, Mike Goodson asserted himself as the third string running back, returning a kick return and having a number of good carries against Tennessee.
Why would the team need a wild cat offense when the running game is one of the best in the league?
Interestingly, drafting Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards gives the team the same wild cat option without Vick's off-field problems, and they're also working with Edwards at wide-receiver which gives the team even more options than Vick could offer.
Also, the Panthers do their best to steer clear of problem players. Blame it on Steve Smith, but the wrong chemistry could destroy this team. They don't take too many character-issue players.
In the end, it wasn't a realistic prediction.
The same could be said for the fear that the defensive line would falter without Julius Peppers. He had a high production rate, statistically. The predictions exploded as to how the team would suffer without their star defender.
But as another national sports columnist labeled the aberration of a team playing better after a star player leaving a "theory," two preseason games in, and the defense looks to be the core of this team.
Once again, the evidence was in the nuances of the Panthers' depth chart and production.
The team burnt a future first round pick for Everette Brown. Brown didn't have a great rookie season, but he demonstrated a "refined" skill set on plays, a hint that he was learning and improving, and his preseason performances have been positive.
During games, the biggest defensive plays were coming from players not named Peppers, in particular, Jon Beason, Charles Johnson, and Tyler Brayton (their combine sack total trumping Peppers as well as being much more timely).
Add twenty million in payroll to play with, and arguably, holes could be filled.
Somewhere along the line, analysts missed some key elements. For the past few seasons, the heart of the defense has been Jon Beason. Less and less pressure had been placed on the defensive line.
More importantly than even the ends (i.e. Julius Peppers), teams exploited poor performances by defensive tackles, and if the tackles don't perform, then the offensive linemen can get blocks on Beason, Davis, or any other linebacker.
While Beason has become the leader of the defense, the secondary has been improving as well. Captain Munnerlyn, Charles Godfrey, and Richard Marshall have continued to progress.
The entire defensive composition has been changing.
Offensively, Jake Delhomme seemed to be the biggest quandary, especially to the local media. But this might have something more to do with the water near Charlotte than poor analysis. Followers of the Carolina Panthers are just more loyal than most.
It doesn't matter that the quarterback is putting up numbers more like a starter for the Cleveland Browns than that of a team that went 12-4 two years before; the response was commonly, "He's got one more season in him."
And as for the coach, John Fox's reputation seemed to be impeccable.
To be fair, Fox is a stable force; he drafts well, and for the most part, the players respect him. His defense has come along. He's developed a strong running game and has raised the overall value of the franchise (now 12th on the Forbes list of NFL teams ).
But three preseason games in, and the team can't seem to score no matter what players he puts on the field; he's too loyal to players that aren't producing (which hurts the team and affects morale), has trouble developing quarterbacks and receivers (two key positions with increasing importance in the pass happy era), and really can't seem to find anyone that can get their head around the special teams.
At some point, the question must be raised as to Fox's offensive acumen. Little is made of this fact. Instead, there's discussions as to what teams would desire Fox's services.
For whatever reason, few analysts could make sense of all of these variables. Defensive woes masked player improvements and smart draft choices. Delhomme's past blinded his current form. Fox's talents overshadow his inability to develop an offensive gameplan that utilizes his team's talents.
But shouldn't someone out there have seen the possibility of all of this happening?
In the NFL, there's little to predict which team will make it to the Super Bowl or which player will stay healthy for a season, so how can anyone keep track of a team few outside of Charlotte and the surrounding area are interested in?
There really is no answer as to why the Panthers are so misinterpreted.
But what fans can take away from all of this confusion is that no one knows what is going to happen to the 2010-2011 Carolina Panthers.
The team's collected a talented, young nucleus. The offensive line has stayed relatively intact (always a bonus even if they are struggling early on), and they've made efforts to improve in specific trouble areas (like wide receiver).
Furthermore, the team has a starting quarterback that, while not exciting, does exactly what the team needs: a game manager that doesn't turn the ball over as well as drafting a talented, up-and-coming second. John Fox just needs to figure out how to use that to his advantage.
In no way does all of this mean that the Panthers are destined for the Super Bowl though. A team can only go so far if its offense can't figure out how to score touchdowns.
But it does mean that they should be competitive once again this year.
Maybe they won't have another 12-4 season like they did two years ago, but the situation could be a lot worse.
But then again, my interpretation could be as misguided as everyone else's.