Carolina Panthers Monday Morning Optimist- 12/12/11

The play-clock reached 00:00, the Carolina Panthers were headed to the locker room with Steve Smith eclipsing the 10,000 career receiving yard mark, the defense was stopping the Atlanta Falcons, and Cam Newton looked dominant; it appeared that Carolina were on pace for their 5th win of the season, and getting to play spoiler to the Falcons' playoff aspirations. Sadly, there was still another half in Charlotte to be played and we never saw any of those things go right again in yesterday's game.

It's fair to characterize the Panthers' 2011 season leading up to yesterday in one simple phrase:

"A young phenom at QB orchestrating a dynamic offense who is being let down by his defense and special teams."

However, yesterday was the inverse of what we've become accustomed to out of the Carolina Panthers. The time of possession was essentially balanced, the running game was effective, the defense were getting enough stops and the receivers were sure handed. In the end it came down to a single player's shoulders, #1's- and he wasn't up to the task. In a week where we lauded the rookie signal caller for not accepting defeat as presented in his ESPN interview we saw the nasty side to having a 'never accept defeat' attitude, Cam became mired in it. The great quarterbacks have an ability to learn from their mistakes, but also forget them immediately. Ultimately Newton failed at both parts of this equation as he looked like a defeated player for much of the second half, and played like one who couldn't get out of his own head.

More after the jump

It's my belief that Cam Newton will revolutionize the QB position in time. I can see the raw potential he has to use his size, strength, athleticism and instincts to be a nightmare for opposing teams. However, I don't believe he can re-invent the wheel when it comes to the mental aspects of playing the QB position. This obsession with not accepting defeat on a drive will need to maturate into an understanding that you can't win every drive, and while you can synthesize a bad series and turn that into future successes you can't dwell in what's already happened. Following Newton's first bad interception which he gifted to the Falcons he was in a serious funk that lasted until the final drives of the game. Not only was Cam missing throws and putting balls in un-catchable areas, but he was also skipping over and completely missing reads that could have resulted in big gains. Furthermore, he didn't seem comfortable chancing anything and allowing his WRs to make plays. It was this quality I found most disconcerting because it was something we saw from Jimmy Clausen for much of 2010.

To ground this a little though we need to accept and realize he's a rookie, even if at times he hasn't played like one. Yesterday Cam played like a rookie QB and he cost his team the game. It's not the first time it happened, and it wont be the last. For the moment though I think it's time to drop the Superman act and learn that sometimes it's okay to crawl before you walk, and walk before you fly. I have no doubt in time Cam Newton can transcend the NFL, but for now he needs to emulate Aaron Rodgers, not try to eclipse him- part of this is learning that failures will come, and it's how a player responds that means everything. Without being tongue-in-cheek all Tim Tebow does it fail at the QB position, but he looks 'tabula rasa' every time he walks on the field, and that's something Newton could stand to learn.

Optimistic

Steve Smith, Extremely Optimistic Smitty didn't get the ball enough on Sunday, but when he was able to make plays he did so. Finishing the game with 6 receptions for 125 yards it was a typical Sunday for Steve Smith. His ability to help a QB is uncommon in the NFL, and he is one of those transcendent players. It's a shame that his best still could be yet to come, but age may catch up with him. All we can do is enjoy what we have out of #89 for the remainder of his career.

As a fan whose seen all 10,000 of Steve Smith's receiving yards it's been an absolute pleasure watching not only the best receiver in team history, but the best player in team history. The moment from yesterday that best summed up who and what Steve Smith is was when he came to the defense of Byron Bell who was violently driven out of bounds by an overly aggressive block; ready to dictate the rules and regulations he rose to the defense of the rookie, and in doing so told you more about who he is as a player, teammate and a man than a spin of the ball, or snap of the suspenders ever could.

Thank you #89

Defensive Line, Extremely Optimsitic Wow... it's hard to imagine we'd ever get to this point. I think people have been wondering what happened to result in some fairly stout run defense yesterday. I think it's a combination of two things, firstly the interior offensive line of the Atlanta Falcons is a mess, and that can't be understated because it should be a cautionary tale for anyone looking to derive long term opinions from yesterday's game. They were playing a beat up group of guards and centers who have been struggling all season.

The second part probably plays more of a role. When it comes to Andre Neblett and Jason Shirley they've had the benefit this season of having a singular focus- learn Sean McDermott's scheme. While Terrell McClain and Sione Fua have been splitting their time honing their craft AND watching positional film in preparation for the week's opponent, the aforementioned Neblett and Shirley have been able to just learn their gap assignments and roles. This was evident yesterday as neither did anything truly special, but they did what was asked of them. This was enough for the linebackers to close on Michael Turner, and Charles Johnson to get around the edge.

Brandon LaFell, Extremely Optimistic Whenever a critical play happened it was LaFell who was in the thick of it. Either he was making big catches, making critical blocks or running good routes. I still believe his future is as a slot receiver, but he's starting to look like an absolute gem in that role that used to be held by Ricky Proehl.

DeAngelo Williams, Somewhat Optimistic It's hard for me to decide how to rank DeAngelo based on yesterday's game. On the one had he broke a giant run, on the other he hand he averaged just 2 yards per carry on his other 6 carries. In the end I'm comfortable ranking him thusly. It was a solid game as a whole, but not an amazing game.

Greg Olsen, Somewhat Optimistic For much the same reason as D-will I'm not giving him the highest marks. His TD reception was amazing, but the remainder of the game he was fairly quiet.

Pessimistic

Cam Newton, Extremely Pessimistic For all the reasons mentioned in my preamble I can't grade Newton any higher. He was given an extremely basic task in the second half- manage the game and not hand it to the Falcons... he did neither.

Rob Chudzinski, Extremely Pessimistic It's really hard to accurately critique play calling because it's difficult to know whose philosophy was being applied. It's entirely possible Ron Rivera asked the play calling to be dialed back as Newton was struggling, but for the purpose of this article we're assuming it was all Chud.

There are better ways to settle a quarterback that screen passes out outlets. A heavy dose of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for much of the third quarter would have likely made Cam hungry to make plays again, rather than the apathetic passes we saw. On offense the team played like they were desperately trying to hold on, and in the end they were defeated for it.

Olindo Mare, Extremely Pessimistic I fall somewhere between the two camps on this one. Personally, I don't believe keeping John Kasay was the answer here as he was taking up two roster spots and couldn't kick off. In terms of touchbacks Mare is third in the NFL, and that's an under-appreciated aspect to his game. In terms of kicking percentage Mare is 31st in the NFL, which is abysmal and Kasay is 18th which is mediocre.

Like the woes of the defensive line the Carolina Panthers waited too long on preparing a kicker of the future to be ready and clung to nostalgia too long. Those years we were using Rhys Lloyd to kick off should have been populated with a young kicker being groomed to take over. When he was signed there was no reason to think Olindo Mare wouldn't be a good kicker, because he's been good for over a decade- but this season he's been utterly terrible and it's come time to really think about cutting ties here. This wont likely happen until the end of the season, but we can't continue with these bad kicks.

Captain Munnerlyn, Extremely Pessimistic Dead horse: consider yourself beaten. Nothing more to say here.

Jason Baker, Somewhat Pessimistic 42.7 yard average isn't going to cut it... it's just not.

Overall Outlook

There are other guys who deserve some credit; guys like Chris Gamble, Charles Johnson and Jordan Senn all deserve credit for yesterday, but just didn't crack the top this week.

Next week we face the Texans, and how the team responds is all about how Cam Newton responds. This should be seen as the worst loss of his pro career so far, and it will be curious to see whether he'll be able to put it past him or get caught up in it. One thing's for sure, the Texans' defense is a lot more talented than the Falcons' is and that could be interesting.

30% Optimistic heading into next week's game.

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