A lack of a game this week is no excuse not to have a MMO to kick off the week! I'm looking at the last 8 weeks in terms of where we started this season to where we are now, and focusing primarily on expectations vs. reality. We all had preconceived notions leading up to this season, and while some concerns were upheld others were smashed. Concurrently there were some areas that we didn't think 2011 wouldn't be a problem, but have since reared their ugly head. So let's look at the 1st half of the season, shall we?
Cam Newton- Extremely Optimistic Like almost the entire 2011 season it begins and ends with Cam Newton. What the rest of the NFL world saw as a huge risk the Panthers had utter confidence, and right now they're laughing. If you think Newton is overrated then you haven't seen him play, because if anything he's been under-rated by many outlets. The fact is he's looking as good as any QB in the NFL right now and he's doing it as a rookie. Sure, the argument against him is 'The Panthers haven't won', but intelligent fans know that is a by-product of terrible defense, while Cam is the sole reason Carolina are competing.
Through his 1st eight games Newton has totaled 18 touchdowns, which would make him responsible for 216 pts on the season if he keeps this pace. In 2010 the Panthers totaled 189 pts as a team... let the gravity of that difference sink in.
More after the jump
Steve Smith- Extremely Optimistic What more is there to say about Steve Smith? All he needed was a spark, and our rookie phenom QB is that spark. During last week's game vs. Minnesota he was caught saying to Cam "You make it easy for me." and that simple sentence reflects the entire season for Smitty, doing amazing things and making it look simple. As productive as Smith was with Jake Delhomme during his time in Carolina there was always a feeling he needed to work three times harder to get his yards than he is right now. He's the best receiver in the NFL right now, and it's great to see he's having fun playing football again.
Charles Johnson- Extremely Optimistic The big money didn't go to the head of 'Big Money'. For the second straight season it looks like he'll eclipse the numbers of the man he replaced, Julius Peppers and unlike Peppers you see Johnson giving 110% on every down in both the run and pass game. Despite not having any real support from the defensive tackles, and getting double teamed consistently we see Johnson consistently making a difference.
James Anderson- Extremely Optimistic At times JA has been charged with being too much like Will Witherspoon, a talented but not game-changing player. While the Panthers' beleaguered linebacking corps has been mediocre as a unit, Anderson has been stellar as he helps keep the group together without Jon Beason in the middle, or Thomas Davis across from him. He has stepped up and become a leader on defense while quietly putting together a monster season of 66 tackles and a sack in the first eight games on the season. I'm not sure he can be labeled a 'JAG' anymore.
Greg Olsen/Jeremy Shockey- Extremely Optimistic On both occasions the TE duo have been better than advertised. They're on pace to combine for over 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. While Greg Olsen has been a reliable go-to receiver in tough situations, Shockey has been the consummate professional and an outstanding teammate. It's great to have these two on the roster.
Chris Gamble- Extremely Optimistic A much maligned and misunderstood lock-down corner, Gamble fails to raise the needle because his abilities never show up on a stat sheet. Regardless, he's been brilliant in 2011 and one of the soul bright spots in the secondary. It's impossible to criticize the contract extension he receiver now, as he's making fairly modest money for his probowl ability. I can't wait to see Gamble matched up against Calvin Johnson this season.
Brandon LaFell- Somewhat Optimistic I think we're all in agreement that we should see more of LaFell, but it just isn't in the cards right now as all signs point to Legedu Naanee being vital in communicating the offense in the huddle where needed. Regardless, when LaFell sees the the field he has a knack for making huge catches in important times. Long term he looks like he has a role to play in this vertical offense.
Greg Hardy- Somewhat Optimistic The Kraken has definitely earned his spot as a fan favorite in 2011. His play has been quite good as a whole, and while I'd like to see him get better as play recognition he definitely has the chance to become an elite NFL pass rusher in time and with a little more confidence.
Defensive Tackles- Extremely Pessimistic While it's not completely the fault of our rookie DTs that doesn't mean the position gets a pass for the first half of 2011. They're definitely starting to put it together, but as a whole they're pretty mediocre. Running backs have had field days against the Panthers this season and it's the primary reason we're losing games right now.
Safeties- Extremely Pessimistic I give this position a fairly harsh critique because of how much better we've seen Godfrey and Martin play in the past. Thus far they've looked anemic on defense, consistently out of position, taking bad angles and looking lost a lot of the time.
Special Teams- Extremely Pessimistic This is part and parcel of having a team devoid of depth needing to thrust players into starting positions. This in turn caused a vacuum where the Panthers are relying on guys coming in off the street to play special teams. Perhaps the return of Brandon Hogan will help, but overall the special teams have been terrible this season.
Legedu Naanee- Extremely Pessimistic All I can judge as a writer is what I see on the field, and from Naanee this is pretty mediocre play for the first half of the season marred with dropped passes and poor awareness. This situation is complicated with the revelation that Naanee has been vital in the huddle in helping communicate the offense to the team, but overall on the field he's been pretty mediocre.
Double Trouble- Somewhat Pessimistic I still have all the love in the world for D-Will and J-Stew, but thus far they haven't been running as we've been accustomed to. Combined they only have 690 yards, and neither have ran for more than 5.0 YPC. They are having flashes here and there, but overall they've been a little worse than we're used to seeing.
The sky is the limit for the Carolina Panthers. While it wont all come together in 2011, there's a very real chance we'll see the core of this team revolutionize what we know the Panthers to be. I truly believe this is the nucleus that could finally get the Panthers a Lombardi trophy, and with Cam Newton at the helm there's a renewed sense of optimism across the Carolinas and a sense of pride in the Panthers.
60% optimistic for the remainder of 2011
100% optimistic for the future of the organization