Coaches, players and the national media alike all seem to agree that with Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers are as exciting as anyone in the NFL. But while nobody’s denying the excitement he’s brought, very few really think his team is ready to compete this season. I strongly disagree with the latter part of what seems to be the collective sentiment.
Starting with this week’s trip to Chicago, the Panthers have enough talent to expect to win every game. I’m not saying I expect a trip to the playoffs—the schedule is brutal and the team still has a number of question marks. But the Panthers have way too much going for them to be ruled out of any game, regardless of the opposition.
Not Coming off a Typical 2-14 Season
Yes, I do realize Carolina went 2-14 a year ago and was easily the worst team in the league, record-wise. With the exception of Cam Newton, the same cast has returned this season, and that is what has people convinced that legitimate success for the Panthers is a season or two away.
The perception that the Panthers are "at least a year off" is no doubt based on the tendency to assume, usually correctly, that the NFL’s worst team from the previous season has been bad for at least a few seasons.
2009’s league-worst St. Louis Rams had won a total of five games in the two years before they took over the league’s cellar.
The infamous 0-16 Lions of 2008 went 7-9 and 3-13 the two years before that.
Before that, the story was the same with the Dolphins and Raiders, the league’s worst teams in 2007 and 2006. Miami’s 1-15 campaign followed 6-10 and 9-7 seasons, while Oakland’s 2-14 season came on the heels of 4-12 and 5-11 finishes.
But Carolina’s 2010 train wreck didn’t follow that pattern. Many of the players who suffered through the misery of 2010 still had the talent that propelled them to a 12-4 effort in 2008 and a .500 finish in 2009.
If anything, last year just showed how much a team’s fortunes can swing with those of its quarterback play. With adequate play from Jake Delhomme in 2008, Carolina won the division. With admittedly bad but still professional efforts by Delhomme and Matt Moore in 2009, the Panthers finished 8-8. But both Moore and Jimmy Clausen were historically inept last year, and it brought down the whole team.
Anyone who doubts that a major regression at quarterback can make such a difference need only look to Indianapolis. Without Peyton Manning, a Colts team perennially among the league’s best has gone from outstanding to pedestrian at quarterback, and now looks as hapless as anyone.
The miserable quarterback play that essentially derailed the 2010 season made it easy to ignore the talent that was and still is on Carolina’s roster. The Panthers boast four former Pro Bowlers—DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil—on the offensive side of the ball, and had a fifth at middle linebacker before Jon Beason was lost for the season in Week 1.
Not a Typical 1-2 Team, Either
Carolina is 1-2 far more because of self-inflicted errors than because of anything on the part of the Cardinals and Packers, teams Carolina beat in terms of total yards, 1st downs and time of possession—everything but the final score.
Newton’s record-setting debut against the Cards fell just a few yards short, and that’s after the defense and special teams broke down in coverage on touchdown passes of 48 and 70 yards and an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown. A week later, the Panthers turned the ball over four times and still nearly pulled even with Green Bay in the closing minutes, failing on 4th-and-4 from the Packers' 6-yard line.
I’m not saying that because the Panthers have held a bunch of statistical advantages over their first three opponents they should now be the favorite in every game the rest of the season.
But if Carolina can hang with Green Bay, widely considered the NFL’s best, despite losing the turnover battle 4-1 and doing a terrible job finishing drives in the red zone, I like its chances, regardless of the opposition, when the offense is semi-efficient near the goal line and the team can break even or win the turnover battle.
The Panthers should have gaffes like missed assignments in the secondary out of their system any game now. If the first three weeks of the season are any indication, with those errors out of the way, Carolina can expect to not only maintain the excitement—as expected—but do so in victories.