At the start of the season, most of us did not know what to expect from the NFL or our home town Carolina Panthers. The lockout caused a lot of grief with the fans, a loss of valuable training time between coaches and players and an air of uncertainty of how it would affect the season. Fortunately, only one meaningless game (the Hall of Fame game) was cancelled while owners and players squabbled over the issues. With the completion of Week 17, another regular season is in the books. We saw a lot of surprises and records go down. As Panthers fans, we saw the unthinkable unfold and we were given reason to believe and be optimistic for the future. We were treated to joy, heartbreak and a renewed energy to watch every game during the season. After the jump, I will highlight some of the things that defined not only the Carolina Panthers' season, but the league as well.
I will start with the NFL. The lockout started in March 2011 and lasted into August. The good news was that no regular season games were lost but valuable time for OTAs and training camps was. The lockout took its toll on the fans too. The last thing most of wanted to see was a fight between billionaires and millionaires. In the end, the lockout would shape how some teams fared and how well players would get adjusted. The latter focusing more on those franchises with new coaching staffs. Veteran and rookie players alike had to get acclimated to a new coaching scheme and there were concerns about how long it would take for everything to start clicking. The lockout was especially hard on the rookies because they were not going to be afforded the time or opportunity to work with the coaches until after the lockout ended. In April, there was a brief window that allowed coaches to meet with first round players so they could be issued their playbooks but after it closed, it was every man for himself. As for the rookies, well, let's just say the analysts aren't always right.
At one point before the end of the 2010 season, many had Auburn's Nick Fairley as the consensus number one pick. Given the woes the Panthers had on the defensive line, it made sense. However, soon after the college season ended and the Super Bowl was wrapped up, the focus for the best player available shifted to another Auburn standout. That person would be QB Cam Newton. In the days and weeks leading up to the draft, much was debated on who should go number one. By the time April rolled around, most "experts" thought that the Panthers should draft DT Marcell Dareus out of Alabama. Of course, we all know what happened but what happened afterwards was unexpected. Many QB starved teams used their first pick on quarterbacks who were not projected to go so high (Blaine Gabbert to Jacksonville, Christian Ponder to Minnesota). Two rookies teamed up in Cincinnati to guide the Bengals to a playoff berth. Georgia WR AJ Green and TCU QB Andy Dalton did something that no expert or most fans thought possible. Dareus was decent in his first year but it was shortened due to injury. LSU CB Patrick Peterson wasn't as imposing on defense but he made amends on the special teams. Cam Newton was the success story in this draft, rivaled only by the accolades of Green and Dalton. Newton proved critics wrong and broke records along the way.
Anyone who has read my previous post knows how I feel about the divisions and I feel a realignment is in order. Last year a division winner went to the playoffs with a 7-9 record, while a 10-6 team (non-division winner) stayed at home. This year, a mediocre Denver Broncos team won their division at 8-8 wrapping up the number four seed. I feel this is problematic for two reasons. A) The Tennessee Titans who finished 9-7, who will be watching the games at home obviously had the better record and B) How in the world does an 8-8 team get a home game when both the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) and the Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) have better records? It's like awarding a team for mediocrity. In the spirit of fair play, better records should account for something. If there cannot be a realignment, then there should be an exception to the rule in playoff seeding. Essentially, the seeding needs to be based on records vs division titles. Why? Because these divisions aren't created equal. I will not totally dismiss the Broncos, but I hope they can make a deep playoff run to debunk what I just said here.
Records are made to be broken. If there was ever a year to break a record in the NFL it was 2011. During the Panthers-Saints game, I believe it was three different records were set (most receiving yards by TE, most all purpose yards, and most completions in a season) while one (most passing yards in a season) was padded. Minnesota's Jared Allen came within 1/2 sack of tying Michael Strahan's mark of 23.5 in a season. Then, there is Cam Newton. He set records for most rushing TDs by a rookie and a QB. He threw for over 4000 yards and rushed for over 700. I know there are few more out there that I have missed and this is not an intentional slight on my part.
At the start of the season, I predicted the Panthers would finish 5-11. They proved me wrong by finishing 6-10, but I will take being wrong about that any day of the week. As fans, we saw our owner shell out a lot of money in free agency by bringing back all of the core players and TE Jeremy Shockey. We saw a trade made with the Chicago Bears to acquire TE Greg Olsen. The topper of them all; retaining Steve Smith amidst reports he wanted to be traded. That move alone proved to be crucial in developing Newton at the pro level. New head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinksi turned one of the league's most pathetic offenses of 2010 into a top ten juggernaut. This would be one of many surprises for Carolina fans during the 2011 season.
Surprise Surprise Surprise
- Steve Smith enjoys a revitalized career hauling in 79 catches for 1394 yards and 7 TDs. He would finish 10th in the league for receiving and get a Pro Bowl nod.
- Double Trouble transforms into Triple Threat...the combined talents of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton gave many defensive coordinators and their defenses headaches. With Newton's running ability, the Panthers had the luxury of mixing up plays and catching defenses off guard. This allowed the Carolina offense to gain an average of 6.2 yards a play (setting a franchise mark I believe). Williams and Stewart not only proved deadly in the running and passing game but Newton was a threat as a receiver. Granted, it was only one play but the fact is Newton brings that kind threat to the game anytime he is under center.
- Scout team players stepping up. From Thomas Keiser to Jonathan Nelson, players from the scout team made the most of their playing time. While they weren't spectacular they did enough to keep the defense competitive. OT Byron Bell filled in decently for the injured Jeff Otah.
- The solid play of the linebacking corps. Yes, this unit was decimated with injuries. Their was a void in leadership with the absence of Jon Beason. Thomas Davis left many wondering about his future after injuring his knee for the third year in a row. I have to give credit to James Anderson, Dan Connor and Jordan Senn for playing hard. The defense was a disaster but these guys did well given the circumstances.
- The release of John Kasay. Enough Said
- The turnaround of the offense in one season that was being run by a rookie QB. Amazing.
There will be a lot of discussion on what changes need to take place. While Carolina will compete in 2012, the only way for that to happen is to address the defense and instill a confidence in closing out games. I think the front office is going to do their best to bring in the best talent possible not only to start, but to produce as well. I expect a few free agent signings though I do not expect a big name player to sign with Carolina. I think that is something better left for discussion after the 2012 season. My prediction for the future is this. In five year, Carolina makes multiple appearances in the playoffs and Cam is awarded a long term contract up there with the elite crop of quarterbacks in the league. We saw a lot of great and wonderful things these past seventeen weeks. There is reason for hope and optimism for the future of our young team. The Panthers have great fans in everyone here at CSR and throughout the world. Let's continue showing support for our team and give them reason to come out and play hard each and every Sunday. This season was fun and I am looking forward to what this upcoming year brings.