Carolina Panthers Monday Morning Optimist- 1/2/12

When it's all said and done what could we have expected? The Carolina Panthers were facing the #1 offense in the NFL with 17 players on injured reserve, with 9 of those players on defense and on Sunday we were without 5 defensive starters, including our #1 pass rusher. Too often in the NFL games come down to who cares more, and it was abundantly clear the Saints cared more about personal stats than the Panthers cared about winning, and the second half typified that.

Carolina are a young team with a lot of growing up needed before they're ready for the limelight, but I am immensely proud of the 6-10 Panthers; a team who not only tripled their win total from a year ago, but who found their franchise QB in the process. Cam Newton isn't perfect, and the maturation process will continue for him throughout the off season. The jump he'll need to make between years one and two are mostly cerebral, and mostly off the field rather than on it. Cam will need to learn how to lead by example better, and understand why it's better to pull everyone along with you when they're playing bad, rather than turn your back. As we've said on several occasions his competitiveness is both his biggest asset, and his greatest weakness; it's what will keep the Panthers in games and lead them to victory, but it will also cause them to implode when he loses control of his emotions, yesterday Cam lost control of his emotions.

More after the jump

Note: If you have read a post-season MMO before then you know I refrain from handing out grades on the final game. It's my belief that we should all head into the off-season even-keeled and ready to go, so no matter how ugly yesterday's game was I will skew this towards the positive, although I will mention the bad too.

It's too easy to critique Cam for being young and foolish at times, so there's no real point to harp on it. At this time of year I'd much sooner point out what he's done well, rather than wax poetic on what he failed to do. So let's take a second to review his entire season:

310/517 (60% completion), 4,051 yards passing, 21 passing TDs, 17 INTs- QB rating of 80.5

126 rushing attempts, 706 rushing yards, 5.5 YPC, 14 rushing TDs

Those numbers should be enough to silence critics, though I know they most certainly wont. Whether it's jealously, racism or just tall poppy syndrome, people hate, and will continue to hate Cam Newton for a variety of reasons, it's something we as fans will need to deal with for his entire time on the team.

One thing is clear though, Newton is our deus ex machina. For the riddle which was the Carolina Panthers it was Cam who saved this team. If he wasn't able to get the grass roots excited in the Carolina's, or if we went defense with that first pick we'd be sitting here now, ho-hum, likely at 4 wins are debating whether we should take RGIII or try and fix another problem on the team. There would be no excitement, no new PSL's and not much optimism heading into 2012. Right now I'm sure yesterday still stings a little, but if you can't see the forest for the trees and still believe this is a terrible football team, then you're beyond hope.

Meet Steve Smith- your all time leading Panthers receiver

During this off-season Smitty won our 'best panther ever' vote in a landslide. Can he act like a jerk sometimes? Sure... but he's our jerk. Like Newton he's the kind of player whose emotions can get the better of him, but he has been able to pull this team along when things were bad. Smitty was the player who could slap Jake on his helmet and bring him out of his funk, and he is the player who made Cam Newton's ride into the NFL easier than it should have been.

As 2011 closed, and 2012 dawned this is how the career of Steve Smith currently stands:

699 receptions, 10,278 receiving yards, 59 TDs

Smitty is a legendary Carolina Panther, and likely to be the next in the ring of honor. I applaud our all-time leading receiver, and can't wait to enjoy the remainder of his career with Cam Newton at QB.

It should also be mentioned that James Anderson broke a record of his own when he set the mark for most tackles by a Carolina Panther in a single season. His mark of 145 bested Jon Beason's record from 2009 when he totaled 142. It's hard to say how much of this was really Anderson dominating, or being the 'next guy up'. One has to imagine that if the roles were reversed and Beason was in, with Anderson on IR then he's beat his own record... but enough of 'ifs and buts'. Heading into this season I was the most iffy about Anderson's big contract extension, purely because 4-3 OLBs seem to be a dime a dozen, unless they're the truly transcendent 'game changing' ones (of which there aren't many). Thankfully though Anderson affirmed to me why the Panthers ponied up and showed him the money. He's been resolute, reliable and trustworthy at a position where you need that kind of player.

Unfortunately, and obviously this game was a blowout so I'd be remiss if I didn't mention more of the bad. Clearly the defense was the primary reason we lost, but with backups and PS players facing what is tantamount to one of the NFL's best ever offenses it was clear it was going to go badly from the Saints' first drive. The only reprieve Carolina could have gotten was if New Orleans chose to rest their starters, which became abundantly clear they had no desire in doing. The secondary was absolutely abysmal, and a great deal of that was due to a lack of talent at the CB position. With Captain Munnerlyn on IR, Darius Butler breaking his arm early in the game and Jordan Pugh inactive we were left piecing together a secondary from PS players, with RJ Stanford playing corner. While Stanford got a good pick, he was pretty much picked on from there on out.

Special mention needs to go to Sherrod Martin who regressed in 2011 more than any player we saw on the entire roster. A promising rookie season gave way to the definition of 'sophomore slump' as the SS tumbled from being one of the league's best in stop rate and YAC allowed, so one of the poorest safeties in the NFL. If there's one saving grace it will be that we can hope he mirrors Charles Godfrey, he too had a terrible second season fraught with miscues and blown coverage, but he managed to regain his footing in his third year. However, based on the importance Rivera places on his safety play, coupled with his propensity to bench players quickly for poor performance could lead to Martin never really getting another shot... time will tell.

Now we can look forward to the off-season, with all the intrigue and curiosity it brings. We no longer need to discuss whether or not the Panthers should be winning because thanks to the Dolphins we have won the 8th overall pick organically, and it could be one of the most curious drafts in recent memory. There have been two occasions the Panthers have picked 8th in their history, and the players run the gamut from bust to probowler as both Tim Biakabutuka and Jordan Gross were the selections. We'll have plenty of time to prognosticate the possibilities, but as it stands I see a chance for there to be a veritable feeding frenzy for the Panthers' pick, whether that's because RGIII is still on the board, or desperate teams want to move up to secure Landry Jones- there are at least three teams directly behind us (Miami, Seattle, Buffalo) all of whom could be looking for a franchise QB.

We'll have the better part of four months here on CSR looking forward to the draft, and it will be a much more exciting off-season with the QB position secure, and no risk of a lockout. I'd like to thank each and every one of our readers for giving me your Monday Morning this season in my own vain attempt to make it a little brighter. Panther faithful it's time to get excited because 2011 was just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the pre-draft process we heard one transcendent name attached to Cam Newton's... Magic Johnson. It should be noted that Johnson was the #1 overall pick in 1979, the Lakers won the NBA championship in 1980. At this point there's no reason not to dream, right?

100% optimistic heading into the 2012 season. The future is so bright I'm looking for my shades.

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