Sometimes, difficult decisions made by an NFL organization can shift the entire paradigm of a franchise. As a result of such moves, the Carolina Panthers are now on the verge of the franchise's second Super Bowl appearance if they can overcome the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.
Last season, the Panthers surprised many when they released veteran cornerback Antoine Cason on Dec. 2. The move came after the team signed him to a one-year contract nine months earlier and he started 11 of the first 12 games in the 2014 season.
At the time of Cason's release, Carolina owned a 3-8-1 record. The team struggled through a six-game losing streak, and its hopes of competing in the floundering NFC South were fading. After a 31-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 30, changes needed to made.
This point defined the team over the next year. The Panthers ripped off four straight wins to end the 2014 season and capture an NFC South crown. Multiple moves made throughout the second half of the campaign contributed heavily to Carolina's success this season.
Cason's departure became the most obvious.
Unto itself, it wasn't considered an earth-shattering move, but it signified a change in philosophy within the organization that extended into the current campaign.
By releasing Cason, the Panthers placed full confidence in cornerback Josh Norman. At that point, Norman had already moved into a starting role after two seasons of up-and-down play, and he became settled as Carolina's No. 1 cornerback.
These were the first steps in Norman's progression, as the 2012 fifth-round pick gained confidence and developed into one of the game's best corners. Since taking over as a starter, Norman's received a 19.3 grade from Pro Football Focus and ranked among the league's best this season.
Two other significant, albeit under-the-radar, moves occurred two weeks prior to Cason's release.
The Panthers cut veteran wide receiver Jason Avant and placed right tackle Nate Chandler on injured reserve. These two transactions allowed a pair of key performers to step into starting roles.
With Avant no longer in the lineup, the team expected an undrafted rookie, Corey "Philly" Brown, to contribute more to the offense and provide a deep threat. Head coach Ron Rivera discussed the decision at the time, via the Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones:
In all fairness to [Avant], it has nothing to do with what he didn’t do or did or anything like that. This had everything to do with what we see in Philly and the potential in him. When you have veteran guys who play a lot in front of younger guys that have potential, sometimes you stunt their growth. This is something we felt we needed to do to give Philly an opportunity to be on the field more.
Rivera might as well have been speaking for his entire team, because the Panthers experienced a midseason youth movement.
Brown and Norman became a big part of the franchise's plans moving forward, but they weren't the only ones.
Carolina's offensive line was a much-maligned group over the previous season-and-a-half. The team needed to turn to a pair of rookies at guard and a first-time starter at right tackle. But the group didn't come together until late in the year, when injuries eventually allowed the Panthers to find the right combination.
Another undrafted free agent became a key cog when Andrew Norwell officially took over at left guard in Week 8 of the 2014 campaign and started 22 of the next 25 games.
He made his presence felt in the divisional round of the playoffs this season against the Seattle Seahawks. During the game's first offensive play, running back Jonathan Stewart ripped through Seattle's defense for a 59-yard run. Norwell led the way with three blocks at all three levels of the defense.
Norwell started the play with a double-team block before scraping to the second level. Meanwhile, right guard Trai Turner pulled and opened the initial hole for Stewart.
Like his counterpart at guard, Turner didn't immediately become a starter. The 2014 third-round pick dealt with injuries and inconsistency before the coaching staff inserted him into the lineup on a permanent basis.
The LSU product officially took over at right guard in Week 11 of last season and hasn't missed a start since. This year, Turner developed into one of the league's best blockers, and he earned his first Pro Bowl berth.
Many realized how talented the young guard really is when he pancaked all-world defensive end J.J. Watt in a Week 2 contest against the Houston Texans, as captured by Coach Matt Jones:
"Sometimes, those 'wow' plays don’t happen," Turner said, per Panthers.com's Max Henson. "Sometimes, you just do your job. But there are those plays where it’s like, 'You just showed every ability you have on that one play.' It happens, but it’s not something I think about."
Turner certainly displayed his ability during the aforementioned play, and everyone took notice of just how well he performed this season. But an offensive lineman is only as good as the man beside him. For Turner, Mike Remmers became the team's solution at right tackle.
"The guy who plays to the right of me is a big part of it, too," Turner said. "He’s my focus, if that makes sense. He keeps me level-headed."
With Chandler on injured reserve last year, Remmers became the team's last resort on the strong side. Carolina plucked the Oregon State product off the St. Louis Rams' practice squad in 2014, and he never started a game before Week 13 of last season.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup, though, Remmers hasn't missed a single snap. Before this season, he discussed what drove him, per Panthers.com's Bryan Strickland:
Specifically for me, knowing this is my sixth team, there's no such thing as being comfortable. You're competing every single day. Anything and everything you do, the coaches are watching, so you've got to always be at your best.
You've got rookies and undrafted guys coming in every year, so the biggest thing is just giving that 100 percent effort, because you know what? When your time comes and you're not playing anymore, at least you can look in the mirror and tell yourself that you gave everything you've got.
Each of these moves—bigger roles for Norman and Brown, along with a revamped offensive line—helped build a strong foundation around the franchise pieces already in place. Quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly are the heart and soul of the Panthers, but even elite players need the right supporting pieces to succeed.
Of course, Newton's ascension to an MVP-caliber quarterback deserves plenty of praise, but his unheralded offensive line continually did the dirty work and set the tone up front.
After all, the Panthers finished second overall in rushing offense during the regular season. Newton is part of that production, but offensive coordinator Mike Shula regularly concocts run-heavy game plans to suit his personnel. The talent starts up front with a physical offensive line, which offset some of the team's issues at wide receiver and running back in 2015 that arose due to injuries.
Brown finished fourth on the team with 31 receptions and four touchdowns in 14 games (11 starts). But as the wide receiver corps attempted to jell without an injured Kelvin Benjamin, the offensive line continually won at the point of attack and allowed Newton to thrive.
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Meanwhile, on defense, Norman displayed the ability to shut down half of the field. This allowed the unit to overcome multiple injuries at cornerback, too.
Robert McClain only played in three games during the regular season, yet he started opposite Norman in the divisional round due to multiple setbacks, including those to Bene Benwikere (broken leg) and Charles "Peanut" Tillman (ACL).
A shutdown corner allows a defense to provide more help to the other side of the field. McClain did surrender seven catches and a touchdown against the Seahawks, according to Pro Football Focus, but he wasn't completely overwhelmed—even during Seattle's second-half comeback.
The confidence Rivera and his staff showed in these young players a year ago made the team better prepared to handle all kinds of adversity this season. As a result, the Panthers have won 16 games and have a chance to play for a Super Bowl.
"Choices are the hinges of destiny," poet Edwin Markham wrote. The wordsmith likely didn't envision his notion being applied to a burgeoning sport that would advance to unimaginable levels after his death in 1940, but the sentiment is applicable in the Panthers' situation over the past year.
The organization made the right decision to get younger, faster and more athletic during a period when it could have relied solely on its veterans in hopes of turning things around last season. It didn't, and the team developed into a legitimate Super Bowl contender as a result.