Carolina Panthers: 5 Reasons the Panthers Will Improve Their Record in 2012
I predicted a 10-win season for the Carolina Panthers when the 2012 NFL schedule came out on April 17, and I will stand by that prediction when Carolina kicks off its season at Raymond James Stadium against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 9.
It All Starts With the Draft
The Carolina Panthers are an organization that likes to build its team in the draft, and the Panthers addressed both wants and needs in last month's 2012 NFL draft.
The Panthers may have drafted the NFL's next Brian Urlacher with first-round pick Luke Kuechly, and they selected a potentially game-changing offensive lineman in Amini Silatolu in the second round.
The Panthers addressed specific needs on the defensive line, in the secondary and on special teams with the selections of Frank Alexander (DE, Oklahoma), Josh Norman (CB, Coastal Carolina) and Joe Adams (WR/PR, Arkansas) on the final day of the 2012 NFL draft.
And It Shows Up on the Field
Beyond the draft, the Carolina Panthers will be more experienced, more talented and, hopefully, healthier on both sides of the ball in 2012.
And as the Detroit Lions showed NFL fans by winning their last four games en route to a 6-10 record in 2010 and improving to 10-6 in 2011, young teams in the building process that finish a losing season on a winning streak are teams to look out for in the following season.
The Carolina Panthers were a young team in the building process in 2011, and they learned how to win late in the season with victories in four of their last six games.
They will take that experience to the field as a much improved, playoff-caliber team in 2012.
Here are five additional reasons the Carolina Panthers will improve their record this season.
No. 1: Healthy Defense
I say this with a bit of trepidation because no one ever knows what is going to happen when it comes to injuries in the NFL, but barring any freak accidents or training camp injuries that have become de rigueur for the Carolina Panthers, they will have a healthy defense loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber performers in 2012.
Charles Johnson and Ron Edwards will anchor the D-line.
Chris Gamble will captain a young but talented secondary as he plays across from either rookie cornerback Josh Norman or second-year DB Brandon Hogan.
And the Carolina Panthers just may have the strongest linebacker corps in the NFL with Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, James Anderson and the No. 9 overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft, Luke Kuechly.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera knows a thing or two about coaching defenses, and there is no way Carolina's D ranks anywhere near the bottom-quarter of NFL defenses as it did in all four major categories—points allowed, total yards allowed, passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed—in 2011.
No. 2: Cam Newton's Sophomore Improvement
Sophomore slump in Carolina?
Forget about it!
Though several quarterbacks who enjoyed rookie success in recent seasons, i.e., Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, backslid in their second seasons, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will be a better player in 2012 than he was in his first NFL season.
In fact, he will become the first NFL quarterback to reach elite status in his second season since Dan Marino.
Though he may not replicate his passing totals from 2011, Newton will be a more efficient passer, a better decision-maker and a more dynamic player in 2012.
Newton has a stronger receiving corps with David Gettis replacing Legedu Naanee, an improving Brandon LaFell, a swift slot receiver in rookie Joe Adams and returning All-Pro Steve Smith.
The Panthers also upgraded their offensive line and backfield in the offseason, Newton is in the midst of his first full offseason with OTAs and mini-camps, and the playbook will open up immensely in his second season with offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
Now, if Newton had been selected to be on the cover of the 2012 Madden football game, the sophomore slump may have been too much to overcome, but I'm betting on Cam becoming a top five or six quarterback this season.
No. 3: Better Field Position
Much like an NBA team has difficulty winning when it is crushed on the boards, NFL teams which consistently lose the field position battle generally do not win many football games.
Case in point, the 6-10 2011 Carolina Panthers.
Though the Panthers finished the season ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring with 25.4 points per game, they were among the very worst punt-returning teams in the entire league and constantly started possessions from deep inside their own territory.
Can you imagine how many more points the Panthers could have scored and how many more games they could have won if they actually began a drive in or near their opponents' territory?
Thankfully, the Armanti Edwards punt returning experiment is over, and rookie slot receiver/punt returner Joe Adams should take over those duties in 2012.
Adams was electric at Arkansas, and he should have no problems improving upon Edwards' 5.5 yards per return average.
With better field position comes more scoring opportunities.
With more scoring opportunities come more points.
And with more points, the Panthers will have more wins in 2012.
No. 4: Renewed Commitment to the Run
When the Carolina Panthers run the ball more often than they pass, they win football games.
At least that seemed to be the winning formula in 2011, particularly when they won four out of five games late in the season.
In the Panthers' 48-16 home victory against the Bucs in Week 16, Carolina ran the ball 31 times while Newton was 12-for-17 passing.
The Panthers' front office must have gotten the memo because Carolina appears to be even more committed to the running game in 2012 with the offseason addition of fullback Mike Tolbert and second-round draft pick offensive guard Amini Silatolu.
If the Panthers can run the ball at least 35 times per game and pass about 25 games, or at least keep a similar ratio, Carolina has a chance to control the tempo of the game, cut back on turnovers and wear down opposing defenses.
The biggest question is who will reach 1,000 rushing yards first: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart or Cam Newton?
No. 5: More Creative Play-Calling from Chud
Rob "Chud" Chudzinski is widely considered one of the most innovative offensive play-callers in the NFL.
In his first year as the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator in 2011, Chud helped transform the Panthers' offense from the worst in the NFL in 2010 to one of the league's best a season later.
He also played to Cam Newton's strengths as a rookie quarterback and called the plays that helped the Panthers' quarterback break a handful of records on his way to earning 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
In addition to creating mismatches for the Panthers' offense and designing plays specifically for his rookie signal-caller, Chud enjoyed some success calling off-kilter plays like the fumblerooski and the Legedu Naanee to Cam Newton pass that resulted in a touchdown and a near score, respectively.
Though trick plays and gimmicks can never be the basis for any high-powered NFL offense, they serve a purpose when they catch defenses off guard and, if nothing else, they force opposing defensive coordinators to spend extra time in practice discussing potential chicanery.
Expect to see even more wrinkles in the Carolina Panthers' innovative playbook in 2012.
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