Win, lose, or draw -- it's inconsequential. Any game we get to see Mike Tolbert dance is a good one, and a contest we see TWO dances, including a 'truffle shuffle', well that's just sublime. The San Diego Chargers are imploding, the Carolina Panthers have found their stride, and while it's too late for 2012, Panthers' fans should feel very good about next season and beyond.
This wasn't a game where Cam Newton threw for 300 yards, or had any highlight runs -- but he did all the small things well. The offensive line was, as expected, struggling. Given they were dealing with a third-string center, and a third-string right guard it's a wonder Newton didn't get hit more than he did. We saw Newton's maturation continue on Sunday afternoon, and it was beautiful to see. When the pressure was getting to be too much, Cam threw it away. When there was an open hole to run, he hit it hard. We may never know what took so long, but Cam Newton has arrived. Call it a spark, a light bulb, or just experience -- whatever it is, the Carolina Panthers now have their complete quarterback.
On defense it's more of the same. Luke Kuechly is great, it will be criminal that Thomas Davis wont win comeback player of the year, but it goes beyond that. D.J. Campbell may not have had a huge stat line, but he continues to look like a valuable contributor, and a possible diamond in the rough. It will take a few more weeks to get a complete idea of who he is, but so far it's looking very good. We have also seen Greg Hardy complete his metamorphosis into a three-down defensive end. In 2010 and 2011 his weakness was sealing the edge against the run, though he was a talented pass rusher -- the Panthers have coached him up, and Hardy has responded. Now the sky's the limit.
Cam Newton -- Extremely Optimistic
There's not much more to say about Newton other than 'he's arrived'. If you've watched Cam for two seasons then you know what that means. We knew about the arm strength, the athleticism, and the raw talent -- what we hadn't seen was the poise, the decision making, and now he has those things.
Steve Smith -- Extremely Optimistic
Smitty being Smitty. You know why he's here.
Thomas Davis -- Extremely Optimistic
The Panthers have plenty of role models, but Thomas Davis could be the biggest of all of them. His message of perseverance and resilience is a great lesson to young Panthers fans. Ten tackles on the day, and he's been amazing in 2012.
Luke Kuechly -- Extremely Optimistic
It's hard to really say much more about Keek. He's been everything Panthers' fans ever could have hoped for at middle linebacker, and then some. With another eight tackles against the Chargers he's having a huge season.
Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy -- Extremely Optimistic
Not going to nitpick a 24-point win.
If the Carolina Panthers' team we've seen over the last six weeks started this season, then they'd be cruising to the playoffs. It's a case of 'too little, too late'. A win is great, though -- and there's nothing taking away from that. Has Ron Rivera done enough to keep his job? Maybe he has. It's not that five wins is acceptable, but how hard this team is playing for Rivera is very important.
Right now it's up in the air. Rivera hasn't done much to deserve another season, but he may have done enough to stave off a coaching search for a first-year GM. Yes, general managers like their own guys, but a smart GM wont rush a hiring just because. It took this coaching staff far too long to learn from their mistakes, but at least they learned from them.