As the Carolina Panthers approach the halfway point of their season this weekend against the Minnesota Vikings, it's time to start handing out awards for the defining players and moments of the Carolina Panthers' season.
Best Offensive Player
There is no question that Cam Newton has played spectacularly at times for the Panthers, but he has thrown more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (eight), and it is debatable how well he would be performing without the diminutive Smith catching balls thrown over his head as if he were 6'5".
Thanks to Smith, it is foreseeable that Newton could join Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl in February. Cam is already a lock to join the list as one of the greatest rookie quarterbacks of all time, and if he is selected for the Pro Bowl, he will be the first rookie quarterback to hold that distinction since Dan Marino.
Worst Offensive Player
Who should be returning punts for the Carolina Panthers?
And the winner is...Armanti Edwards. It's not so much that he's bad, it's that he hasn't produced a thing since he was picked in the third round a year ago.
Edwards was a popular draft pick locally because of his successes as a dual-threat quarterback at nearby Appalachian State where he quarterbacked the team to a pair of FCS titles and the Mountaineers' memorable upset of the then-fifth ranked Michigan Wolverines in what was dubbed one of the biggest upsets in college football history.
That's all well and good, and I am certainly one for nostalgia, but he has been completely unproductive as a kick- and punt-returner and has barely made it onto the field as a wide receiver. Many hoped he would become a player like Devin Hester, but unless he shows significant improvement in the second half of the season, the ship has sailed on Armanti Edwards' career as a Panther.
Best Defensive Player
This is a difficult award to hand out on a team giving up the third-most points per game (26.1) in the NFL and one that is ranked only a single spot better at 29th in stopping the run, allowing 133.4 yards per game on the ground.
One of the bright spots on the defensive side of the ball has been the play of pass-rushing specialist, Charles Johnson. Johnson is earning his fat paycheck by applying steady pressure on opposition quarterbacks throughout the game and registering a team-high six sacks in the first seven games of the season.
How many games will the Panthers win this year?
Though he's made more noise in the media because of “Hat Gate” than he has on the field, Johnson is my pick for first-half defensive MVP.
Honorable mentions go to outside linebacker James Anderson, the only linebacker who has started every game of the season, and hard-hitting strong safety Charles Godfrey.
Johnson has come on strong lately, recording double-digit tackles in each of the past three games, and Godfrey has been solid defending the passing game and providing much-needed run support, though opposition tailbacks are frequently in the secondary before he has an opportunity to make the tackle.
Worst Defensive Player
I hate to say this about such a good young guy, but Captain Munnerlyn has been a liability for the Panthers’ defense all season long. I believe Cap has a spot on this team as an extra defensive back and/or as a return specialist, but he seems to lack the speed, strength and technique necessary to overcome his small stature at the cornerback position.
In fact, part of the reason Chris Gamble is having a resurgent year at the opposite corner position may be because opponents are focusing so much energy on attacking Munnerlyn in man-to-man coverage.
Will Cam Newton join Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers at the Pro Bowl?
He has frequently been burned deep this year and given up several big plays, most notably an 84-yard touchdown catch and run by the Green Bay Packers’ Jordy Nelson and a blown coverage against Atlanta Falcons wideout Harry Douglas in which he gave up a 34-yard completion on a crucial third-and-12 with the score tied, 17-17.
The Packers’ touchdown put Green Bay up by 14 in a game they won 30-23 while the Falcons went on to score four plays later and pulled away for a 31-17 Panthers loss.
Steve Smith's 54-yard touchdown catch vs. the New Orleans Saints is my choice for the Panthers' best play through the first seven games.
This play needs little description besides the fact that "Smitty" jumped about four feet off the ground, caught the ball, hung there for a few seconds like Dave Chappelle's Prince character from The Chappelle Show, dismissed Saints cornerback Jabari Greer like a rag doll and jogged the last 20 yards into the end zone.
Just watch the play.
Best Team-Building Moment
After Steve Smith's above-mentioned touchdown catch vs. the New Orleans Saints, safety Roman Harper blasted Smith in the end zone and a brawl ensued between players from both NFC South teams.
You hate to see fighting in most sports, but football is full contact and full speed, so I have no problems with guys throwing an occasional punch.
The best part was Jordan Gross and Cam Newton coming to Smith's defense and showing the Saints that the 2011 Panthers are not going to be pushed around.
Worst Play (Tie)
In the season opener, Panthers punter Jason Baker kicked the ball to rookie Cardinals cornerback/punt-returner Patrick Peterson, who ran the punt back 89-yards for a touchdown. Arizona won, 28-21.
Which unit will improve the most in the final 9 games of the season?
In the most mystifying play of the season, Baker again punted directly to a dangerous returner in Chicago, only this wasn't just any above-average punt returner. This was Devin Hester, the NFL's all-time leader in punt-returns for touchdown.
Well, he was tied for the all-time lead before Baker kicked it to him, and less than 10 seconds later, Hester owned the record by himself. Chicago beat the Panthers by five that day, 34-29.
Most Pleasant Surprise
Cam Newton set an NFL rookie record by passing for more than 400 yards in each of his first two games, something not even Peyton Manning can claim. Newton is averaging nearly 300 passing yards per contest and will likely break the record for most passing yards by a rookie in NFL history en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors.
vs. Washington Redskins. The Panthers led end-to-end and won 33-20 in their best performance of the season. Not coincidentally, Cam Newton had his most efficient passing game of the season, completing 18 of 23 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown, and he ran ten times for 59 yards and another score.
Who position should the Panthers address first in the 2012 draft?
vs. Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers blew a three-point lead in the fourth quarter to lose 31-17 in a game in which they were completely dominated in the final 20 minutes of play. After leading the team to scoring drives on three of their first four possessions, Newton could not get the ball moving and went three-and-out on consecutive possessions before throwing interceptions to close the team's last two drives of the day.
Best Coaching Move
Naming Cam Newton the Panthers' starting quarterback from Day One. Many fans were clamoring for late-addition veteran Derek Anderson to take the snaps for at least the first several games if not the entire season so Newton could learn from the sidelines.
Though Cam struggled terribly with his accuracy and decision making in the preseason, he has been one of the bright spots for the Panthers and is well on his way to Rookie of the Year honors and a possible Pro Bowl invitation.
Worst Coaching Move
Ron Rivera called a timeout at the end of the first half vs. the New Orleans Saints, allowing them to kick a field goal when they would have likely let the clock run out.
Rivera called the time out because he counted 12 Panthers on the field. Had there been enough time on the clock for the Saints to run a play, his decision would have made sense, but the Saints did not have time to get off the kick without a little help from the opposition.
The Saints won, 30-27, on a last minute touchdown pass by Drew Brees.
vs. Jacksonville Jaguars. I was at this game, and it rained as hard as I've ever seen it rain at a sporting event, yet the game went on. It rained so hard during the last five minutes of the first half that most fans, including me, left their seats and watched the game on television screens under the concourses at Bank of America Stadium.
The field was a total quagmire with so much water rushing out of the stands and flooding the sidelines that the water appeared to be about 6" deep from the edge of the stands all the way out to the players' benches, or about 10 yards wide.
What grade do you give Ron Rivera and the Panthers coaching staff so far this season?
I always liked playing in the rain and I'm sure the players enjoyed it to a certain extent, but the action on the field was nearly as sloppy as the field itself.
Somehow, Carolina managed to beat the Jaguars,16-10, securing the first Panthers victory of the Rivera/Newton era.
The rash of season-ending injuries to key players such as linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and offensive tackle Jeff Otah have decimated the Panthers run defense and have hurt the team in pass protection.
The defense has already started eight different linebackers, and the Panthers run a 4-3. As a result, the Panthers have been unable to stop the run this season, giving up over 200 yards to the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte and 100-plus to both Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew and Atlanta's Michael Turner. With league-leading rusher Adrian Peterson coming to Charlotte this weekend with the Minnesota Vikings, another big rushing performance seems inevitable.
With Otah out at offensive tackle, the Washington Redskins sacked Newton four times in the first half, including one crushing tackle by the Skins' Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo, in which he came around the corner untouched and buried his facemask into Cam's lower back, creating a whiplash effect and eliciting "ooooohs" from the crowd that were audible to the Panthers' quarterback.
Panthers win 6.5 games in 2011. Over/Under?
Newton is a big guy, but if he is to stay healthy for an entire season, he can't take many hits like that.
The Best is Yet to Come
If the Panthers can beat the visiting one-win Minnesota Vikings this weekend, they will reach the midway mark with a respectable 3-5 record, a two-game winning streak and a realistic chance to reach .500 at some point this season.
With the Saints playing well and the Falcons and Buccaneers still in the division, Carolina has likely dug itself too deep a hole to have a shot at the 2011 NFL playoffs, but this season is already a drastic improvement over 2010 for the Panthers.
Hopefully all of the Panthers "worsts" have already taken place and the season's most important, memorable and exciting moments are yet to come. If the second half provides as many memorable moments as the first half, it's going to be fun to watch the Panthers on Sundays.