Redzone or Twilight Zone?
On July 25th Carolina Panthers Center Ryan Kalil takes out a full page ad in the Charlotte Observer declaring that the Panthers were going to win the Superbowl – this year. A ballsy prediction for sure, but one that did not seem farfetched to either his teammates or his fans - at the time. Even his coach, Ron Rivera, known on CSR as "BAMF" stood by him and agreed that every player should share Kalil’s confidence, with the understanding that it was going to take a combination of hard work and staying healthy to achieve the lofty goal.
Unfortunately for CSR, that moment seemed to be the peak of fan optimism, as only a few short weeks later CSR’s own staff don’t even believe that the Panthers are the best team in the division, let alone worthy of being Superbowl contenders.
So what changed the spirit of the most devout Panther fans seemingly overnight?
In reality…not much. Brash cornerback Josh Norman ( a fifth round pick) suffered a "tweaked" hamstring, as did the other promising CB Brandon Hogan, who spent much of last year on the PUP list, earning him the label of "injury prone". The only superstars that are questionable are Jon Beason and Thomas Davis – and Davis has never really had the question mark for his return removed. Beason on the other hand, would be a significant loss, but Luke Keuchley was obviously drafted as insurance in case Beason isn’t able to take the field since there were other glaring needs the Panthers could have addressed in the draft.
So does a minor injury to a fifth round draft pick (Norman) and a possible (but reasonably anticipated) setback to Beason really warrant downgrading the Panthers from Superbowl contenders to third in their division – which would make them unlikely to even make the playoffs? Not on paper. Do the Panthers need a strong second corner to compliment Gamble so that they can move Captain Munnerlyn to cover the slot receiver – absolutely. That might be our "weakness" - but an Achilles heel worthy of writing off the entire season? Not in my opinion. The Panthers brought in Nakamura and Smith to push Godfrey and Sherrod Martin and so far, from all reports, the bar has been raised and the intensity has risen as well. With Ron Edwards back and Charles Johnson motivated (by BAMF calling him out) the Panthers "D" may not be spectacular this year – but it’s almost inconceivable that they’ll be any worse. Even a slight upgrade should lock in several more victories in 2012.
On offense, the naysayers are predicting that with a years worth of film on Cam Newton opposing defensive coordinators will be better able to game plan against us. How’s that working out for the defenses going up against Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady last year? Not enough film? Hmmm… While we lost Legadu Nanee we gained Mike Tolbert and Louis Murphy – both of whom appear to be ready to contribute from day one (there’s also no "film" on who Tolbert will be used by offensive genius Chudzinski – so there’s that). Already ranked as the general of the fifth most potent offense in his rookie year, is Cam going to improve or succumb to the so-called "sophomore slump" (which was already debunked on CSR)? The odds and probabilities are that he’s going to personally improve, plus have a nice infusion of new (or improved targets) - almost too many to list.
That leaves Special Teams, where there was no place to go but up – and up they did. Almost every addition they made seem to pay tribute to the needs – Adams as a returner, Tolbert, (Reggie) Smith and Nakamura as gunners/tacklers, and if the comparison between Medlock’s leg to a cannon gets any more ubiquitous he should get an endorsement opportunities from the camera/printer company.
So…back to reality. Are the Panthers going to win the Superbowl? WTF knows. But is the day before their first "real" game (which it isn’t – that comes in September) the time to bail on Kalil and start sounding "sophisticated" like ‘ol Mr. Negativity himself, Scott Fowler? People have the right to their opinion – even CSR writers. If they want to come off as "mature" and "level headed" by tempering lofty expectations set by the teams Center and Head Coach, it’s certainly their right. Do I think it’s sad and pathetic that they would spend six months of the offseason building hype and expectations and facilitating dialogue that they would then pop and abandon faster than Jeff Otah would run away from a low-fat veggie burger? Yes…I’m disappointed and frustrated. Especially in the absence of any major changes. If Cam were injured, sure, that’s a deal breaker and we’re probably missing the playoffs. But last I saw, he still has an "S" under his jersey and he’s itching to pull it back and show it to us and start littering the end zone seats with souvenirs.
So, I’m staying optimistic until proven otherwise, and all the "mature" people can be "realistic" and be pleasantly surprised if we’re not last in the division.