Carolina Panthers: 10 Biggest Surprises of the First Half

Jimmy GrapponeCorrespondent IOctober 31, 2011

Carolina Panthers: 10 Biggest Surprises of the First Half

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    At the season's midway point, the Carolina Panthers (2-6) have already equalled last season's win total and have created more big plays, had more memorable moments and generated more excitement than they did in all of 2010.

    Though everyone expected improvement from last season and philosphical change with the new Ron Rivera regime, not all of the changes to the 2011 squad through the first half of the season were anticipated or expected.

    Here are the ten biggest surprises of the Carolina Panthers' season through the first eight games.

10. Olindo Mare

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    After having only one kicker, John Kasay, for the franchise's first 16 years, Carolina parted way with its long-time kicker and picked up Olindo Mare for his ability to kick field goals and touchbacks on a consistent basis.

    Kasay, kicking for the New Orleans Saints, received a warm welcome from Panthers fans when his team came to Charlotte in Week 5, but Mare has performed well for most of the season in his stead, converting on 13-of-16 field goal opportunities and booting 27 touchbacks in 42 tries.

    Mare finally made headway with Panthers fans after his 4-for-4 performance in a 33-20 win against the Washington Redskins in Week 7, though he may have lost as many fans as he gained in Week 8 after missing a 31-yard field goal attempt that would have sent the game against the visiting Minnesota Vikings into overtime.

    Instead, the Panthers lost, 24-21.

9. Must See TV

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    Carolina Panthers fans will attest that 2010 was a terrible year to be a fan of the club. Not only did the team go 2-14 and have the NFL's worst offense, but the games were abysmal to watch.

    Indeed, it took a die-hard Panthers fan to stay awake in his or her recliner while watching the games each Sunday, much less to keep from changing the channel.

    Flash forward to 2011 when not only have the Panthers been watchable, they have become down right entertaining and must-watch television for any football fan in the Carolinas.

    The Panthers have one of the league's most exciting offenses and they have been in every one of the games with a legitimate chance to win entering the 4th quarter.

    Though watchability does not always matriculate into wins, it has translated into games that are fun to watch.

8. Chris Gamble's Improved Play

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    Many Panthers fans wrote off Chris Gamble as a shutdown cornerback because of his shaky play in recent seasons.

    However, Gamble has emerged as one of the bright spots on a struggling Panthers defense this season and he tied Eric Allen's franchise record for interceptions with the 25th of his career in a Week 7 win against the Washington Redskins.

    Perhaps he is the beneficiary of teams attacking Carolina's other starting corner, Captain Munnerlyn, but when faced with the opportunity to cover the opponents' best receivers, he has performed well and kept them all in check, which is more than Panthers fans expected at the start of the season.

     

7. Trade Deadline Inactivity

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    Despite their improved play in 2011, record not withstanding, the Panthers have needs for improvement at several positions, including cornerback, defensive line, kick/punt returner, kick/punt coverage and No. 2 wide receiver.

    Many folks clamored for and halfway expected a trade to be made to bring in a top-flight player like then-Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Lloyd or Philadelphia Eagles' cornerback Asante Samuel to improve the Panthers' passing attack and/or their passing defense, but Marty Hurney and the Panthers' front office did nothing of the sort, preferring to develop players in-house and via next season's draft.

    Lloyd was traded to the St. Louis Rams the day before the official trade deadline and Samuel remains an Eagle.

    If the players on the current roster, as well as those who will be picked up as free agents for the remainder of the season, are unable to perform well enough to make the Panthers viable during the current campaign and again next season, then the aforementioned issues will have to be addressed on draft day and/or or through post-season free agency.

6. Key Injuries

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    The Carolina Panthers have been decimated this year with season-ending injuries.

    Though it was not expected, it should come as no huge surprise that linebacker Thomas Davis and offensive tackle Jeff Otah ended their seasons in early games due to recurring injuries. The receiving corps was also hurt when likely No. 2 receiver David Gettis was lost for the season with an ACL injury suffered in the pre-season.

    However, the loss of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason was completely unexpected has certainly had a detrimental impact on the defense' performance so far this year, especially against the run.

    Once regarded as being among the best defensive units in the NFL, the Panthers defense is doing its best to avoid surrendering the most points per game in the entire league.

    Every team in the league is affected by injuries over the course of a 16-game NFL season, but on a young team with little room for error, losing four of its best players until next season is especially painful.

5. Cat Scratch Fever

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    Carolina Panthers fans have been exponentially more supportive of the team in 2011 than they were just a year ago.

    This team is the talk of the town, including radio, print and word of mouth, and much has to do with the fact that the offense is among the league's best this season and due to the fact that most fans believe that every game–sans Atlanta–was a winnable contest.

    And not only are fans and local and national media discussing the team once again, supporters are showing up in droves to Bank of America Stadium and most are staying to watch the entire game as it unfolds, something that has happened regularly since 2008.

4. Steve Smith's Resurgence

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    The Panthers' Steve Smith has been revitalized in offensive coordinator Rob "Chud" Chudzinski's adabtable West Coast offense and he leads the NFL in receiving yardage with 918 yards on 46 receptions through the first half of the season.

    Charlotteans have long known that Smith is the Panthers' greatest offensive weapon, but the diminutive 32 year-old seems to have aged about five or six years younger this season and is well on his way to the best season of his career. He will likely earn a trip to Hawaii alongside the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson as a starting wide receiver in the NFL's Pro Bowl game if he replicates his first half performance over the last eight games.

    Smith struggled in 2010, playing with quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore, but he and rookie sensation Cam Newton seem to have developed quite a rapport though the first eight games of the season.

3. Cam Haters

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    Despite the rookie quarterback's impressive performance, his Heisman-winning background and his status as the No.1 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, Cam Haters run abound in Charlotte, North Carolina and throughout Panthers Country.

    Not only do the Cam Haters exist, but they are vocal, they are loud and they are about as informed about football as the Occupiers are about finance and the Tea Partiers are about the United States Constitution.

    Each has his reason, though most like to rehash old stories about Newton's father's alleged attempt to bribe Mississippi State to pay the quarterback to play for the Bulldogs last season, or Newton's stolen laptop incident at the University of Florida for which he was dismissed from the team by Urban Meyer.

    I sense that many older, more traditional fans simply don't like the idea of a modern, athletic quarterback at the helm who challenges their ideas of order and sensibility.

    For whatever reasons they may have to dislike Cam Newton, the Cam Haters have been surprisingly loud and vocal, though their ignorance can be seen for miles around.

    Membership in the Cam Hater Club is sure to dwindle once the haters learn to watch Panthers games objectively and recognize Newton's immense football skills, but they will never completely go away.

    Somewhere out there is a guy who still thinks Michael Jordan was an overrated basketball player.

2. Big Play Offense

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    Fox Sports called it the "Newton Effect" during the telecast of Week 8's game versus the Minnesota Vikings.

    New Panthers offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, a mostly-healthy offensive line and receiver Steve Smith can also take a large share of the credit for Carolina's big-play offense.

    Carolina already has more plays of 20+ yards in 2011 than it did in all of 2010 and the team's offensive yards per game average has improved by over 150 yards.

    Chudzinski's creativity, rookie quarterback Cam Newton's rare skill set and Steve Smith's acrobatics have helped turn the Carolina Panthers into one of the most exciting, big-play offensive teams in the NFL.

    If only the offense would teach the big play to the defense and return teams, Carolina could well win at least half of their remaining games on the schedule.

1. Record-Breaking Rookie

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    No one was surprised when the Carolina Panthers selected former Auburn quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, Cam Newton, with the first overall pick of the 2011 draft.

    By all accounts, Newton was the most naturally-talented player in the draft, though he was not the consensus No.1 quarterback in a draft that included Andy Dalton, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and several others drafted in the first several rounds of the draft.

    However, no one could have ever anticipated Newton's early success as a record-breaking rookie en route to the best statistical season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history.

    He can run and he can throw, that much we know, but that he can read complex defenses–and that he can lead at his young age–is a blessing indeed.

    A blessing which Panthers fan are sure to count for many, many years to come.