Here's what I see in our team: a young talented quarterback with some flaws, a defense that can't get itself off the field, a collection of veterans that are just not quite getting the job done, and a talent shortage that has crippled us for years.
We have convinced ourselves after last season that we were just on the verge of greatness. We only needed to improve our defense and we would be set. This season has disproved that. A combination of turnovers in crucial moments by the offense and an inability to get off the field on defense has seen a staggering number of 4th quarter leads slip away under head coach Ron Rivera. Those failings will likely cost Rivera his job along with the rest of the coaching staff in Carolina, but will the future be any better?
I began to think back through the years and what disturbs me is the similarities between ourselves and another NFL team down the road who not too long ago was the epitome of inconsistency. You could never tell with this team. One year, they would look like a dominate force in the NFC, putting up some staggering offensive numbers led by one of the most electric quarterbacks in the league's history in tandem with two great running backs. When this team fell apart, it was partly because of their quarterback. His accuracy was never special and he struggled to protect the football. At other times, the defense couldn't lift itself off the bottom ranks of the NFL. But when things were working together, they were a strong force, one that gave us fits for nearly a decade.
However, they never pulled it together. Despite the talent on the team, they were never able to put together back-to-back winning seasons and never did they make a deep playoff run or appear in the Superbowl during this time. I'm sure you've guessed by now, but I'm talking about our I-85 archrivals, the Atlanta Falcons.
Now, I'm not going to compare Cam Newton to Michael Vick. In fact, I'm not really going to compare the personnel at all in this article. The similarities I see are the broader, bigger picture: lots of talent in the superstars, little depth behind them, and few successes as a result. During the Vick-era of the Falcons, the team was either great or terrible. If Michael Vick and his co-stars were healthy, they were a dangerous team for anyone in the NFL. If not, they were a powder puff squad. It wasn't until nearly a decade later, in 2010, that the Falcons really started to look like a real perennial force in the NFL and who now look like one of the best teams in the league.
And that is my fear. It's a fear that the Panthers, despite their talent, will never climb out of this cyclical struggle. It's that we will see 6 years fly by and have nothing to show for it. This is what happened to the Falcons, constantly up and down throughout those years. In 2010, we thought, "if only we had a decent quarterback." Then in 2011, we thought, "If only we had a decent defense." In 2012, we're thinking, "if only we had decent coaches..." Maybe the problems we have are deeper than that. Maybe it'll have to get worse before it gets better, and maybe we'll see some of our most beloved stars leave in order to make room for our own success... But if the Panthers don't start to get it right next year, they will be in for a long struggle.