A look back at the 2012 Carolina Panthers season

The 2012 Carolina Panthers: Reaching for the goal, and coming up just short. - Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Let's take a look back at the Carolina Panthers' 2012 season and relive the ups and downs of a disastrous 2-8 start that somehow inspired the team to finish the year on a high note and salvage a 7-9 record. And while we're at it, why don't we throw in a few relevant quotes from Stephen King to spice it up a little?

Unfortunately for Panthers fans, the 2012 season is over in Carolina. A disappointing 7-9 effort wasn’t good enough to advance to the NFC playoffs this year, and now we have to wait until the team convenes at Wofford College in late July before we have a chance to see the Panthers involved in substantial football activities.

That’s a long time to wait, but thankfully we do have something we can discuss between now and this summer to fill the void that the offseason brings us, because now we have the opportunity to look at how we got to where we are now and what that may or may not mean going forward into 2013. It may not be the best topic for discussion given the way our season left us desperate for more, but it’s better to talk about our sorrows than to sit around and talk about nothing at all.

Whether it’s the best topic for discussion or not, we’re going to talk about it anyway because that’s what we do here. So, without further ado, here’s your 2012 season in review. (Sorry, I didn’t intend for that to rhyme.)

When I was a kid I believed everything I was told, everything I read, and every dispatch sent out by my own overheated imagination. -Nightmares and Dreamscapes

The 2012 Carolina Panthers season started out with the highest of hopes. The 2011 squad had finished strong by winning four out of their last six games, and had injected a sense of confidence into the fan base for the future. It didn’t hurt matters that two of those wins were blowouts against the division rival Buccaneers, and one of the other two was a convincing 28-13 victory over the playoff-bound Houston Texans. Nevermind the fact that the Texans were starting their rookie 3rd string QB and didn’t have Andre Johnson; the Panthers still were able to beat a playoff team, and that in itself should have sparked confidence heading into 2012.

The experts bought into the hype. Many sportswriters and talking heads picked the Panthers as their dark horse playoff team based on the upward trend from the end of 2011 and the expected growth of Cam Newton and the rest of the offense. We were told that the Panthers were a sleeping giant ready to wake up and take the league by storm, and that 2012 was going to be the year it happened.

Our ego was stroked by the likes of Gregg Rosenthal , Adam Rank, and Bucky Brooks when they predicted that the Panthers would make the playoffs. (Rank even thought they would win the division and Rivera would win Coach of the Year. LOLZ! That's funny, amirite y'all?) Hearing these things said about our team gave many of us confidence that this would finally be our year to get over the hump that has held us back since 2008, and for the first time in a long time our confidence was legitimized by what the experts thought.

Most of the time, this kind of confidence leads to disappointment, and such is the case of the 2012 Carolina Panthers. Thanks to the prognostications of football scribes across various media outlets we had great expectations heading into the season after the way 2011 ended, and even though there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove that how one season ends will determine how the next begins we ignored that because "the experts said we would be good this year".

Analysis from people who know more than we do and get paid to tell us such convinced us that Cam no longer being a rookie quarterback would be the final piece to the puzzle that would lead us to the promised land. Couple that with the draft picks that the Panthers brought into the fold (notably LB Luke Kuechly), and the potential for growth from an offense that ranked among the top ten in the league for the first time since Jake Delhomme was good at playing quarterback and it’s no wonder that the fan base was full of hope and excitement for what 2012 had in store.

...there’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst. - Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption

Excitement is a good thing, so long as it refrains from being blind to reality. Stephen King was right when he wrote that there’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst. It’s absolutely okay to hope your team wins the Super Bowl. In fact, it’s decidedly not okay for a fan to not have that hope; otherwise there wouldn’t be fans.

The problem arises when fans fail to follow the second half of the rule. We always hope for the best, but never prepare for the worst. It’s against our nature to think that our team is going to be epically bad, regardless of any evidence that is presented to us to prove that it might actually happen. We see the evidence (in this case our lack of quality depth and the possibility of losing two starting LB's to injury), and because of our predisposed position (i.e. - our homerism), we casually brush it off and continue hoping that the evidence is wrong and the picture we’ve painted in our minds based off the information from the experts we agree with is indeed correct.

Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. -Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption

I’ve yet to find a single good reason why Ryan Kalil took out that Super Bowl ad in the newspaper, and I’ve yet to find a single good reason aside from blatant homerism why anyone believed it was true. Not only did that ad give a sense of false hope to the fan base, it also set the team up for failure as they were now striving for an unattainable goal. In spite of what some talking heads projected, we all knew deep down in our hearts that no matter how much we wanted it to be true the Panthers weren’t going to be a Super Bowl contender in 2012.

Well, at least we knew that before Kalil’s ad showed up on the back page of the Observer. That $4500 ad created an unusual attitude of bravado amongst Panthers fans, as if we were now expected to be a Super Bowl team because one of our players was brave enough to pay nearly five thousand dollars to let everyone know that he thought the Panthers were contenders. He confirmed what the experts had predicted by putting his name on a statement that guaranteed a championship, and if fans were the least bit agreeable to what an NFL.com expert had to say, they sure as hell weren't going to ignore a Super Bowl prediction by one of the guys in the locker room, creating a chasm in the fanbase between those who were cautiously optimistic and those who had already pre-ordered their Super Bowl Champions gear.

Fans started shouting from the rooftops about how great the Panthers are and how stupid everyone who thought differently was, because how could anyone believe that the Panthers weren’t God’s gift to football fans after one of their own took out an ad in the newspaper? I mean, if it were some group of PSL owners taking out the ad it wouldn’t mean much, but because it was Ryan Kalil it had to hold some sort of weight didn’t it? After all, he does have an inside track to the team’s progress since he’s there day in and day out, so his words - as brash and hopeful as they are - must mean something, otherwise he wouldn’t have wasted his money. We kept telling ourselves that, and eventually we started to believe it in spite of how nonsensical it sounded.

That’s where our problems began.

We lie best when we lie to ourselves. -It

As fans, we wanted that ad to be true. We wanted it to make sense. We wanted Kalil’s words to inspire us. We wanted his words to be truthful. We wanted this so much that we were willing to invent reasons to make it so. We came up with reasons that didn’t make sense to us at first but after repeated efforts to convince ourselves of their legitimacy, they finally made us believe that Kalil would end up being right in the end and we would be able to sit back and laugh at all the doubters when it’s all said and done.

How many people other than Panthers fans thought that the Panthers didn’t need to worry about depth because their starters were so good that depth wouldn’t be an issue? How many Panthers fans eliminated the Saints and Bucs from the picture before the season even started because of Bountygate and the fact that Greg Schiano was a rookie head coach from a small college in New Jersey?

We said these things to convince ourselves that Kalil was right. We mortgaged our sanity to fall into the trap of belief that we were really going to win the Super Bowl, and by the time we realized that we were wrong it was too late because we were already sinking into another lost season of broken promises and haunted nightmares that has become all too familiar to fans of the team in black and blue.

However, objective people knew the ad was bogus. A few analysts be damned, on paper the 2012 Carolina Panthers were a middle-of-the-pack team at best, and frankly they would consider it a success to break the .500 mark (a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 2008, in case you’re scoring at home) because they still had a young quarterback, a lack of depth at many key positions (most notably on both lines and in the secondary), and a second-year head coach with an Offensive Coordinator who has never put together two consecutive years of success and a Defensive Coordinator who was replaced by an Offensive Line Coach by his previous employer.

Nothing about this screams dynasty, but because a few guys in the media said the Panthers were good and a few hundred words were printed on the back of my parakeet’s toilet paper, Panthers fans ignored these undeniable facts and chose to believe that this band of misfits would indeed climb to the top of the mountain and knock off the legitimate contenders standing in their way en route to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.

We ignored the fact that all defenses suffered in 2011 due to the lockout shortened offseason. We ignored the fact that defenses had no idea how to contain Cam Newton until midway through the year, and while his offensive stats were great for fantasy football players (myself being one of them) the team as a whole wasn’t built to contend in 2011, and it wouldn’t be built to contend in 2012 because it was the same exact team give or take a few players. We ignored the fact that Jerry Richardson gutted the team in 2010 of all its veteran talent, leaving behind a collection of young kids who had never proven anything on the field other than they were better than the young kids sitting at home watching football on television.

We ignored all these things because ignoring them made us feel better about our chances at winning the big prize. Taking those factors into account diminished our hopes of seeing our boys celebrate at the end of the season, and the idea that we wouldn’t be throwing Super Bowl parties after the game was over is something that none of us were willing to accept. We attacked anyone who provided evidence to dismiss our delusions of grandeur, and we developed an inferiority complex towards other teams and players when talking heads chose to discuss the teams who actually had a legitimate shot at becoming champions in 2012; all because of an ad on the back of the newspaper.

Regardless of what we were willing to believe and not willing to believe after Kalil’s blunder, the reality of the situation for the 2012 Carolina Panthers was that expecting to see anything other than a good season of growth was asking for too much. There was nothing wrong with hoping that the stars would align and several key teams in the NFC would be riddled with injuries and/or bad performances to give the Panthers a chance to sneak in the back door of the playoffs, because even I did that. The problem was when those who hoped for a Super Bowl Champion to arise in Charlotte failed to look at the worst case scenario, which ultimately led to a lot of disappointed fans searching for answers to questions they never thought they would have to ask.

"Chüd, this Chüd, stand, be brave, be true, stand for your brother, your friends: believe, believe in all the things you have believed in... believe that courage is possible and words will come smoothly every time; no more losers... believe in yourself, believe in the heat of that desire." -It

The first half of the 2012 season was an utter disaster. Fans were enraged that the Panthers dropped the opening game of the year to the Buccaneers 16-10 when many thought the Bucs would struggle early due to having a rookie head coach fresh out of college, and also because they were the team that dropped 10 straight games to close out the 2011 season after they quit on former coach Raheem Morris. The offensive playcalling was the biggest scapegoat of the game, and with good reason: Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski fell in love with the read option and decided that it would be a great idea to use that as the base offensive attack.

Well, it didn’t work. Like a fart in a spacesuit, the read option as the base formation of the offense was a bad idea from the start, and after it was deployed it only got worse as time passed by. But, that didn’t stop Chud from relying on it heavily through the first half of the year, even after an embarrassing 36-7 loss to the Giants on Thursday Night Football at home in Week 3.

What’s most upsetting is that casual fans of the team saw the glaring weaknesses in the playcalling by the end of the third game, and despite seeing a 1-2 record (with the lone win coming against a Saints team with no head coach and one of the worst defenses in NFL history) because the Panthers couldn’t put sufficient points on the scoreboard, no changes were made until it was too late.

For want of a nail the kingdom was lost. -Eyes of the Dragon

It’s both frustrating and fascinating to think of what might have been had the coaching staff realized before the Panthers dropped five straight games to the Giants, Falcons, Seahawks, Cowboys, and Bears that something wasn’t working. Sure, we can argue ad nauseam that there were other factors involved in the Panthers losing those games, especially since they were (save for the Giants debacle) all within five points of being victories instead of defeats.

We can blame the defense for surrendering big plays (like Haruki Nakamura allowing Roddy White to catch a 50 yard prayer from Matt Ryan), and we can blame the officials for screwing the Panthers over (like in the Cowboys game when they gave Dallas a timeout after the play clock had hit zero and also gave them a bogus pass interference call that set them up for their final score), but if we really look at what happened in those losses, we can see that had the offensive gameplan been slightly modified the Panthers would have won at least three of those five games.

I’m not saying that had the offense been used differently that the Panthers would still be playing and I wouldn’t be writing this season review with the bitterness of a scorned 15 year old girl, but I am saying that if some of the things that happened on Chud’s side of the ball been handled differently by both players and coaches we would have avoided a 2nd consecutive 2-8 start and would have spared ourselves from a lot of frustration and grief. After all, 5-5 is a whole lot easier to swallow than 2-8, isn’t it? Especially when we know that it should have been closer to 5-5 than 2-8 if not for a few simple mistakes that even the least educated football fan could point out.

Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness I can't even imagine, or maybe I just don't want to. Five hundred yards... that's the length of five football fields, just shy of half a mile. -The Shawshank Redemption (film)

As bad as the first 10 games of the 2012 season were, the final six were some of the best football we’ve seen from the Panthers since their 2008 campaign when they finished 12-4. After finally making some adjustments with personnel and game-planning, the Panthers averaged 28 points per game over the final six, upping their per-game mark of the first ten by 10 points.

The defense improved too, averaging 20 points against over the last six games as opposed to 24 points against through the first ten. Moving Luke Kuechly to MLB and using the read option as an accessory instead of the entire wardrobe were the two moves that had the most influence on the improved play, and after a loss in Kansas City that many people chalk up to an emotionally hyped Chiefs squad, the Panthers closed out the season winning four straight games. It was the first time since 2008 that the Panthers had won four games in a row*, and unlike the winning streak that ended the 2011 season, most of these games didn’t seem like they were flukes.

*- Yes, this is true. I didn’t believe it either.

Sure, one could argue that the season was over and it was the equivalent of "garbage time", thus draining any and all value from the winning streak, but one win was against the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs, and another was against an offensive juggernaut who wanted to finish a disaster season at 8-8 to prove that the bounty scandal wouldn’t send them to a sub-.500 year. The other two wins were against also-rans in the AFC West, but one was a complete drubbing of a decent Chargers team that suffers from the same problem that afflicted the Panthers in the early stages of 2012 (lackluster coaching and poor player execution), and the other was one of those ugly games that neither team really deserved to win but the Panthers were fortunate to gut out and come away with the victory over the Raiders.

When the final whistle blew on the 2012 season, the Panthers finished with a 7-9 record; good enough for 2nd in the NFC South thanks to a few confusing tie-breakers that none of us completely understand. As small of an improvement as it may be, it’s still better than the 6-10 mark that they achieved in 2011, and it’s miraculous considering the horrible start (or as Morgan Freeman said, "shit smelling foulness") that the team endured. Whether you wanted him to stay or wanted him standing in the unemployment line the day after the season ended, Ron Rivera was able to keep the locker room on his side through the thick and thin of the 2012 season. Several players have vocalized their support for Rivera through social media, and regardless of how fans feel about it - that means something to those in charge of making decisions.

In today’s age of athletes who feel that they’re owed the world because they happen to be gifted at playing a sport that most of us consider frivolous entertainment, seeing coaches lose respect from their players is common. When teams start losing the coach is always the first one to be blamed, and the players normally revolt on the coach as a passive-aggressive way to have him removed from the locker room so they can have him replaced by a guy they think they will like more (see the 2011 Buccaneers). The fact that Rivera was able to maintain control and respect in the locker room should speak volumes about his coaching ability, even when considering that a few decisions earlier in the season could have avoided a lot of the problems he ended up with en route to a disappointing 7-9 finish.

The road and the tale have both been long, would you not say so? The trip has been long and the cost has been high... but no great thing was ever attained easily. A long tale, like a tall Tower, must be built a stone at a time. -The Dark Tower

Agree with him or not, Jerry Richardson believes in Ron Rivera. If he didn’t, he would have fired him on Black Monday and hired Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, or Chip Kelly (or any other coach that the fan base asked for). Jerry Richardson understands the process, mainly because he’s responsible for the team having to go through a process in the first place.

It’s Richardson who gutted the roster in 2010 that led to the 2-14 season and gave us Cam Newton. It’s Richardson who kept Marty Hurney employed when he was clearly hurting the team by being too loyal to his players and giving them deals they didn’t really deserve. It’s Richardson who sacrificed wins and losses to prove a point to the NFLPA. Yet, it’s also Richardson who understands the most that rebuilding the Carolina Panthers takes time, and for the moment he’s willing to allow Rivera all the time he needs to accomplish the goal that he has had since he founded the franchise in 1993: to win the Super Bowl.

As I said earlier, I have no idea why Ryan Kalil took out that Super Bowl ad. His expectations are a few years too soon, and we saw the evidence of that over the course of the 16 games that we were privileged enough to watch this season. However, I do think the ad will have merit in the next 2-3 years when the team has matured enough to seriously compete with the big boys in the NFC. Just think, in 3 years we could all be looking back on that Super Bowl ad and laughing at how funny it is that he predicted a Super Bowl win 3 years before it happened, and everything will be right with the world.

In order for that to happen, the Panthers have to stay on their current path to see how it’s going to play out. We’ve already seen two years of steady improvement, and when the 2013 season begins we will see if the last four games of 2012 mean anything or not in regard to our steady climb to success. Until then, all we can do is sit back and patiently wait, because building a football team is like building a tower: you have to do it one stone at a time.

Author’s Note: The header quotes used in this story are courtesy of Frank Darabont (film quote) and Stephen King (all others).

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