Some of you may already know that prior to the 2002 season, the Panthers along with the Falcons and Saints were a part of the NFC West and the Bucs were in the NFC Central. Expansion to thirty-two teams in 2002 ultimately created the necessity for realignment and thus, the NFC South was born, and so was a peculiar phenomenon. Starting with the inaugural season of the NFC South, the worst to first fever fortuitously flourished for five consecutive years. This oddity was only temporarily suspended for one year when the last place '07 Falcons(4-12) finished second the following season. Of course, the '09 Saints continued the trend the very next season when they completed a one-hundred and eighty degree turnaround of their own. Even when the last place '09 Bucs finished third in '10, their record improved from 3-13 to 10-6 in that span, and they barely missed the playoffs as well. What does this mean for our very own last place Carolina Panthers? I'll give you my opinion after the jump.
If you don't already know, I am a positive thinking optimist who refuses to believe the worst of outcomes in almost any circumstance. So, it will come as no surprise to you that my overall outlook for the '11-'12 Carolina Panthers is quite favorable. I will not go so far as to tell you that they will go from worst to first this upcoming season, especially considering the recent accomplishments of our other three divisional opponents. But, I will tell you clearly that I don't believe that they will finish last. You might just say that I'm off my rocker or out of my mind, as some already have, for speaking such laughable ludicrousness. Just remember that, if the Panthers do, in fact, finish last this upcoming season, it will be the first time that a team in our division has ever finished last in consecutive seasons. If you feel bold enough to predict such an outcome, I won't hold it against you. I just can't bring myself to believe such an outcome, considering what I feel to be some excellent moves in the last few months. Allow me to elaborate.
1. Ron Rivera
There isn't any previous head coaching experiences to draw upon with Mr. Rivera, but there is some excellent history of accomplishments as a defensive coordinator in Chicago and San Diego. The side of the field he was responsible for finished first in overall defense two different times from '05 to '10, and proved to be almost as formidable by finishing second and third one time each in the same category during those same years. These statistics coupled with how impressed I've been with his overall confident demeanor during various interviews, has given me enough confirmation that he is and will continue to be an outstanding leader of men. Furthermore, there isn't any doubt that his previous success as a player has undoubtedly assisted him during his highest achievements as a coordinator. The ability to identify with his pupils in this very mutual way, distinguishes himself from other coaches who haven't reached the levels of success that he and his fellow Super Bowl winning Bears attained. There is no question in my mind that he can lead us to sustained success.
2. Cam Newton
How many of you believe that the talent level we currently have on this team rivals or exceeds the opposing players of our own division foes? You probably already know how I feel, but I can imagine that there are more than a few pessimistic readers out there who are wondering how I could even ask such a question considering the record we so infamously put up last year. I'll even venture to take it up another notch. Some of you may feel quite confident and justified in concluding that the gulf between the Panthers and the Super Bowl winning Packers is extremely wide. I beg to differ. Blasphemy. I would like to submit to you that the only major chasm that currently exists between the Panthers and Packers talent level is at the quarterback position. Please note that I used the present tense only because Cam Newton has yet to take his first snaps as a Panther. I believe that when he finally does take the field, the great divide between us(the inferior) and them(the superior) will shrink faster than many so-called experts might predict. We all know that, generally speaking, the most vital component to any successful team is an elite level franchise quarterback. This is what separates the pretenders from the contenders. If Cam continues to work as hard as he appears to be, we may very well have our man, and that is something to be excited about.
3. The Supporting Cast
We all know that the leading actor in any critically acclaimed movie can't successfully carry the entire length of a movie(Tom Hanks may have come the closest) without the supporting cast. In other words, the quarterback can't do it on his own. In the same way that a quarterback can make or break a team, the supporting cast can play an equally crucial part in the success or failure of any given NFL team. This is where our talent level can match some of the elite teams out there. There isn't a team in the NFL that can equally compare to our existing stable of running backs. The majority of general managers and coaches would jump through hoops to obtain the collection of linebackers we field from week to week. As we've learned on CSR in recent weeks, our defensive backs are one of the more underrated groups in the NFL. The same could be said about our offensive line. Furthermore, we also have a young receiving corps with a considerable amount of potential. I am confident that the supporting cast will only be elevated under the leadership of a hungry new coaching staff and the addition of a dynamic new quarterback.
I do realize that there is a very real possibility that we may lose any one or more of the following players to free agency or trade: DeAngelo Williams, Charles Johnson, Thomas Davis, James Anderson, Steve Smith, etc, etc. I feel, as many of you have stated or written previously, that if we were to lose D-Lo, we have two studs, in J-Stew and M-Good, waiting for their time in the spotlight. I believe that we will promptly pursue and sign a formidable DE such as Cullen Jenkins, Ray Edwards, or Mathias Kiwanuka, if CJ were to seek greener(straight cash homey) pastures elsewhere. TD isn't going anywhere. Anderson could bounce, but we should be able to replace him through free agency. I would love to see one of my favorite players of all time stay with us, but if he doesn't, we will go after some players like Sidney Rice, Vincent Jackson, Braylon Edwards, or Santonio Holmes.
In closing, let me be redundantly clear about where I stand when it comes to the current state of the Carolina Panthers. We are on the rise. That isn't too courageous, considering the catastrophic season that earned us the number one overall pick. But, as "Luck" would have it, we were able to draft another quarterback who has the potential to push the limits of what was thought possible from that position, and subsequently taking the Panthers to places that they have never been before. Sure, it would be easy to give you a more sensible prediction that puts the Panthers dead last in the NFC South, with a 5-11 record at the most. But, I don't like being sensible. It makes me uncomfortable. I prefer to be brazen because this is the only way that I can declare to you that we won't finish last in the division(barring an inordinate amount of injuries). Have I completely lost my mind or am I on to something?