A bittersweet end to a bitter season. Such is writing the final Monday Morning Optimist of the 2012 season. Next time you read about the good, bad, and everything in between, the Carolina Panthers could have a new head coach, will definitely have a new general manager, and hope will be restored heading into the 2013 season. Thank you for reading the column this year, and remember we'll have all of your news, draft preparation, and training camp analysis in the new year.
In beating the New Orleans Saints hope was renewed. Bringing the season total to 7-9 may not mean much to fans of the Panthers hoping this team would still be playing in January, but this was a vital step that every player was pushing for. It's unlikely simply finishing 7-9 is enough to save Ron Rivera's job, but the progress Carolina have shown over the last two months certainly may be.
Sunday's game wasn't pretty, it didn't brim with amazing moments, but it showed a lot of heart. Down late in the third quarter, the Carolina Panthers dug deep in a way they couldn't early in the season and they found a way to win. It's a testament to how well Ron Rivera has motivated this team, and how hard they're playing for him. Putting the pedal down, the Panthers jumped out to a big lead, and over 500 yards offense. A late push from New Orleans wasn't enough.
Based not only on yesterday's win, but on the last few weeks credit has to be given to DeAngelo Williams. It's important not to have a too 'all or nothing' approach to his play this season, and understand that far more about the team's successes and failures running the ball fall on Ron Chudzinski, rather than the running backs themselves. It's not worth rehashing yet another, tired, D-Will vs. J-Stew argument, but let's just say that if Stewart could play since the offense was fixed, he'd have similar success.
DeAngelo Williams - Extremely Optimistic
There's a chance Sunday's game could have been DeAngelo's last as a member of the Carolina Panthers. If a new general manager elects to part ways with D-Will he really played himself off with class. A new single-game rushing record in Carolina, it's apropos.
Mike Tolbert - Extremely Optimistic
Three freakin' touchdowns. Mike, I'm not sure it was always difficult on Sunday, but you're my favorite refrigerator.
Luke Kuechly - Extremely Optimistic
It was a man crush that began in February pre-draft, and Luke lived up to my crush all season long. Finishing with a wholly ridiculous 164 tackles, it looks like Marty Hurney left in style drafting Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly in back-to-back drafts.
Brandon LaFell - Extremely Optimistic
While Steve Smith finished with more receiving yards, it was Brandon LaFell who moved the chains whether it was Cam Newton or Derek Anderson throwing the ball. Also, LaFell gets a bump for an amazingly loud invective caught by the TV mics!
Greg Olsen - Extremely Optimistic
The best season by a tight end in team history. Olsen had huge ups on the field, and personal battles off it - in the end he was a consummate pro, and everything fans could have hoped for. Finishing with 843 yards, he wasn't that far off Ron Rivera's prediction.
The offensive line had struggles, as did the secondary - in the end though I'm not nitpicking a win like that. Not this season.
I can't recall a time where the Carolina Panthers could be in flux more than this off-season. There are questions surrounding head coach, general manager, and whether much-loved veterans will return, but there's so much to be excited about.
This isn't the same situation as last year, even if it feels a little like it. Last year's team was all flash, little substance. The 2011 iteration of the Panthers couldn't win when the chips were down, and didn't have the fortitude to weather a storm. This team was able to, they did manage to make something out of their injured, broken roster, and still found ways to win. These 2012 Panthers had little to do with last year's squad. Early, stupid mistakes, and unimaginable promise of what could have been - if only they worked it out sooner.
Thank you again for reading the MMO. It has been a pleasure, and hopefully next year I'll be writing them for you deep into January.