The Carolina Panthers (2-6) will resume their 2011 NFL schedule with renewed optimism at home this Sunday against the Tennessee Titans (4-4) following a well-timed and much-needed break at the midway point of the season.
Normally, a 2-6 start would be cause for both frustration and disappointment among the Panthers fan base, players, coaches and front office, and it has been nerve-wracking to watch the team collect five of its six losses by a touchdown or less after entering the fourth quarter with a chance to win in each of its first eight games.
However, the Panthers' improvement in skill and execution over last year's John Fox/Jimmy Clausen-led squad, which finished the 2010 season with a league-worst 2-14 record, is both obvious and encouraging, and there seems to be a renewed sense of community and pride among the Panther fan base following last season's abysmal performance.
Talk of the town
The optimism among Panthers fans is obvious on local sports radio, in local businesses and bars, and in the parking lots outside Bank of America Stadium. It can also be found inside the stadium on game days in which Carolina supporters have largely outnumbered the opposition—an advantage not always enjoyed by the home team in Charlotte—and have remained in their seats until the games' final outcomes.
Despite the rosy feelings in Charlotte and throughout the Carolinas concerning the team's apparent upside and improvement during the first half of the 2011 NFL season, the Panthers have left the field with legitimate opportunities to win at least six, if not seven, of their games heading into the final minutes of each contest, and they are determined to show the league they are more than just a flashy team with an exciting rookie quarterback and highlight-reel wide receiver in Cam Newton and Steve Smith.
A fresh start
Panthers fans and players are excited about the second half of the season, despite the team's last place standing in the NFC South.
First-year head coach Ron Rivera's team is returning to the field for the second half of the season with a chip on its collective shoulder and with a readiness to show the rest of the league that it is a team on the rise and one not only to be contended with, but one that's ready to win.
"It's a clean slate," tight end Greg Olsen told Panthers.com. "Our bye broke at exactly the halfway point. The first half of the season didn't go obviously as well as we hoped, but we've got eight games left, and we want to try to win them all.
"[To win each game] has to be our goal," Olsen said, "but at the same time we've got to start out 1-0. I know it's kind of a cliché, but we've got to take it one game at a time. We've got one more home game before we hit the road for a while, so it would be nice to start the second half with a win against Tennessee."
Practice what you play
Rivera had the team practicing at full speed and in pads Monday after a four-day weekend away from the team and football responsibilities, and the coach's mood was upbeat heading into preparations for the visiting Titans.
"It was a great practice. You don't want to get overly excited about a Monday practice, but it was good. It was a lot more crisp than I would have anticipated. I'm very pleased with how it came out," Rivera said.
"We got after it a little bit [today]," linebacker Dan Connor said. "We definitely got better. It's going to steamroll us into Wednesday and into a good week."
Though a good week of practice is meaningless if it does not produce positive results on game day, the Panthers are determined to turn "almosts" into wins in the second half of the 2011 season.
The Panthers will get their next opportunity to put practice into play when running back Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans come to town this Sunday at 1 p.m.
The quotes in this article were excerpted from Bryan Strickland's article posted on the Carolina Panthers homepage.