Myth: The defense is horrible
Each year and especially during the off-season, experts and fans alike make their predictions about how certain teams and/or players will fare during the upcoming season. Just like those who talk about their team and predict their success or in some cases the lack of, there is talk and speculation about how other teams will fare during the year. Such speculation has found its way into various discussions about the Carolina Panthers. We have all seen many people offer their opinion about how our team will do and if it weren't for the ones who make ignorant comments or fail to do their research, this post would not be necessary. Ironically, the myths in which are to be debunked in this post are in a way speculation from a fan's standpoint but one that should dismiss the different claims as to why the Panthers will fall short in 2012.
Anyone who follows the Panthers knew the biggest reason for their shortcomings on defense were due to multiple injuries. Veteran players like Ron Edwards, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis sustained injuries which hurt the team in stopping the run and providing an effective pass rush. The defensive tackle position became a revolving door of interior linemen similar to the QB carousal of 2010. The stream of injuries plus the lack of help for Chris Gamble in the secondary caused the Panthers to rank near the bottom of the league defensively; 27th overall, 130.8 rushing and 248.6 passing.
Reality: The Panthers gave up 377.6 yards per game in 2011 but only 335.9 in 2010. The difference between the two units was the 2010 defense stayed mostly healthy. After the 2010 season, many felt the Panthers were looking to shore up the defensive line but instead chose to draft their franchise quarterback. That same feeling appeared this year too, but Carolina threw a curveball and selected LB Luke Kuechly out of Boston College. While this pick was met with bewilderment and mixed reactions from the fan base and analysts alike, as of now it seemed like the right choice to make. With the addition of Kuechly, it allows the linebacker corps to have an effective unit regardless of who is on the field and allows Davis to serve as a rotational player. Ron Rivera likes what he saw from his young defensive tackles last season and with a year's experience under their belt the defensive front should be stronger than before. Free agent signings of Reggie Smith and Haruki Nakamura give the secondary a much needed boost and that entire section may have improved the most this past offseason. Looking at the numbers, if Carolina can rank defensively similar or better to their 2010 season then combined with their explosive offense should be a legitimate contender in the NFC South this year.
Myth: Cam Newton will suffer from the sophomore slump
The critics and detractors (mostly haters) are adamant that Newton's rookie year was a fluke. After shattering league records and helping improve Carolina's record by four games from the previous season, most believe the talented quarterback will be knocked down a peg or two and at best repeat last year's record of 6-10. Some of the more optimistic expectations have Newton leading the Panthers to an 8-8 or 9-7 record but ultimately missing the playoffs.
Reality: Where to start on this one? For starters, there is no reason to doubt Newton's ability to improve from last year. Granted, most likely his numbers will be down but if that means decreased passing/rushing yards but more TD passes and fewer interceptions, then so be it. Newton has been working very hard this offseason and there is no reason to doubt he will succeed. Finally, the offense is not designed solely around Newton but feeds off the talents of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and newly acquired H-back Mike Tolbert. The only way this offense fails is if it becomes one dimensional. Bottom line, there is too much talent here for opposing defenses to solely concentrate on one aspect of the game; i.e. stacking the box or playing coverage defense most of the game. That being said, the only strategy that should continue is the constant double teaming of Steve Smith. Newton may not throw for 4000 yards this season but if he improves his TD/INT numbers, then it will not matter.
Myth: The Panthers cannot compete in the NFC South
It was only four short years ago the Panthers were division champs and were highly touted as the team to beat. Anyone who knows anything about the NFC South understands this division is unpredictable and can be very competitive regardless of records (last year's Buccaneers excluded).
Reality: No one knows how a division will play out. If last year is any indication the New York Giants were not suppose to win their division let alone the Super Bowl. Entering the season rival New Orleans will be hamstrung by suspensions which will no doubt affect their defense. That being said, the Saints brought in a new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to replace Greg Williams. There is a good chance the Saints may need one full season under Spagnuolo's watch in order to completely make his defensive scheme work. Plus, Sean Payton is out for the season leaving head coaching duties in the hands of assistant Joe Vitt. The Atlanta Falcons pose the only real threat but they had a down year last season compared to their 2010 campaign. It will be interesting to see if they progress or regress in 2012. The one thing going against the Panthers in this rivalry is their lack of success against the Dirty Birds. The I-85 rivalry has been a bit one sided in the Falcons favor since 1995, so that needs to be taken into consideration. Finally, there is Tampa Bay. They had a great offseason signing talented vets like Vincent Jackson but it may not be enough to come out on top in this division. Carolina owned the Bucs last year and while the games should be closer, the Panthers still emerge victorious.
Myth: The Panthers will not win due to strength of schedule
Out of all the items covered so far, this one has merit. Too many people are prone to dismiss the team based on their strength of schedule. However, it does not necessarily mean anything. The Panthers round out the top ten in strength of schedule with their opponents winning percentage at .508. As of now, they are scheduled to play five quality opponents in 2012.
Reality: Carolina usually has a tough schedule just through division games alone. However, they have proven they can compete with the league's best. Last year, they played close games against Green Bay, New Orleans (first game) and Detroit. They even defeated AFC South champion Houston on the road. That being said, the Panthers can win regardless of who they are playing. Plus, the last time the Panthers played the AFC West they won their division. So there is a little bit of positive history on their side.
Bonus Myth: The special teams will be the Panthers undoing
Olindo Mare misses easy field goals and the Panthers lack a legitimate return man.
Reality: While the former cannot be disputed the latter can. The Panthers drafted Joe Adams to help give the punt return unit a much needed boost. Most wouldn't be surprised if he thrives in the role. Adams may find himself teaming up with WR Kealoha Pilares on kickoff returns. This unit will become better and could rival the return teams that featured Steve Smith or Rod Smart. As for Mare, he knows he is on the hot seat. Coach Rivera will have no problem replacing him with a younger, hungrier kicker who can make the easy kicks. This season will be do or die for Mare.
Those are the myths in which have been commonly thrown around by those who either don't know what they are talking about or by those seriously underestimating the team. While it is too easy to point to a team's flaws, their strengths need to be addressed too. This team may not make the playoffs in 2012 but entering the season can be considered a dark horse. Opponents will not take the Panthers lightly and the Panthers themselves will place high expectations on each other to go far this season.