The Carolina Panthers continued their winning ways and earned their first divisional win of the year against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-13. (You can check out my recap here.) It was probably a dud by primetime Thursday Night Football standards, but for Carolina Panthers fans, the game and our winning record are sights for sore eyes. Here are the top six things we learned from the game last night:
Honorable Mention: Ginn and LaFell are good... and bad
Certainly, one of the keys to this season's turnaround has been the production of the "other" wide receivers, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn, Jr. When Cam Newton has needed key yards this year, he has been more trusting of these two, whether by passing them the ball, or by their blocking down the field. The evolution of Cam could not have happened without these two, and it happened again last night. Ginn had 5 catches for 80 yards to led all receivers; LaFell, 3 for 23. And their blocking downfield, yet again, was outstanding.
But with the productivity came slight disappointments also. The more glaring was Ginn's drop on a perfect 70 yard, guaranteed TD pass when he was "NFL wide open." LaFell also had a drop in a key situation. Fortunately, neither botch would cost the game, and the Panthers ultimately still won.
While the Panthers can absorb mistakes against bad teams, they may not be so lucky against the 49ers and Saints of the world, or even the Cardinals. (LaFell was lambasted for his drop on a 4th down conversion.)
5) Tolbert is one of the team's MVPs
Cam Newton is dominating the headlines and the highlights as the Panthers have been dominating opponents. But one of the more overlooked cogs by the national media has been the emergence of Mike Tolbert, whose success has occurred at the same time as the Panthers'. And it's no coincidence.
In the Panthers' three losses to Seattle, Buffalo, and Arizona, Tolbert had a COMBINED 14 carries for 66 yards, 4 catches for 21 yards, and ZERO touchdowns. In the Panthers' 4 wins, he has compiled 37 carries for 116 yards, 6 catches for 49 yards, and 5 (!) touchdowns.
I am no NFL coach, but I am pretty sure this team does well when Tolbert does well. Bravo to the Human Wrecking Ball, Human Bowling Ball, the running Fridge, or whatever nickname you want to call Mike Tolbert. For now, Touchdown Mike seems appropriate.
4) Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson Should Stay Together
If this was not a salary cap league, it would be a no-brainer to keep the relentless pass rushing bookends, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. In addition to their on-field presence, they have been just as productive off it. Johnson's strong work ethic and leadership has often been praised by the young players on the team; Hardy's larger than life personality has supercharged the defensive line and Panthers fans. Both are essential ingredients to the recipe of defensive success. They quietly went about their business, combining for 3 sacks and numerous pressures on the Buccaneers' rookie quarterback, Mike Glennon.
This offseason, the Panthers will have the difficult task of deciding if they should re-sign Hardy at a high price tag. As I wrote in my Hardy and his possible salary article, he is a fan favorite and the vast majority of fans want him back, but at what cost? Newton, and presumably Ginn and other, will also need to be paid, and general manager Dave Gettleman already had to work wonders to get under the cap. But for the sake of the fans, and for the sake of this defense, let us hope they find a way to keep the two defensive ends together, because it sure is exciting to watch.
3) He's no longer a turnover prone, gunslinger; call him Cam "Wait for It..." Newton
There has been plenty of chatter on CSR, on Twitter, and now even in the national media after last night's game about Cam Newton becoming an efficient, winning passer. Much of it is a result of having conservative Mile Shula as the offensive coordinator. But a lot of his improvement has of come from his evolution as an NFL quarterback.
During Cam's drives last night, I noticed a quarterback that was calm and patient in the pocket. While critics are quick to point out that he "holds the ball too long" or takes long sacks, I would argue that he is protecting the ball and not willing to just launch any laser pass into double coverage. He goes through his progressions and making great decisions. Just look at his dropbacks from last night: he looks so much more calm and cool in the pocket, and he takes his time. The game is slowing down for him, and it is showing in his results.
This man is a franchise quarterback, and this team's franchise quarterback. For all the naysayers, the doubters, and the haters, Cam is the real deal. I have said it before, and I will say it again: I will trade any and all Panthers fans that want to trade Cam.
2) Rivera is much more likeable when the Panthers are winning
Was it really only 3 weeks ago that Panthers fans had "Schiano-like" vitriol for head coach Ron Rivera? What was once a fanbase armed with torches and pitchforks, has now been upgraded to a Woodstock lovefest.
Rivera has not really had the benefit of the doubt amongst Panthers fans, and rightfully so. Under his tenure, the team has had an ugly 2-13 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Understandably, he has not quite endeared himself to fans who called for his head after yet ANOTHER 1-3 start to the season.
But something has clicked since ever since Ron Rivera decided to err on the side of aggression and go for it on 4th and short downs in Arizona. He has led this team to a 3 game win streak (albeit against terrible teams) and the Panthers have won by a combined score of 134-38. He still needs to prove his worth against playoff contenders, but he is trending upward. And hey, maybe he is not so bad after all... He just needed some time.
What also has been impressive is the way this team now fits his tough and (now) aggressive personality. Which leads me to the number one thing we learned about the Panthers last night...
1) The Panthers now have an identity: rough, tough, and physical
When the Panthers started the season 1-3, one of the more common questions asked was, "Who is this team?" And nearly halfway through the season, they have finally shaped an identity.
It took some 4th down gambles and "chippiness," but the Panthers are now one unit, a mirror image of their head coach. A former 80's Chicago Bears linebacker, Ron Rivera had been characterized as a physical, no nonsense player, as his defense imposed their will on their opponents. This image carried with him as he became a defensive coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears, and the San Diego Chargers. While it took until last year for the defense to reflect their head coach, it has now trickled down to the offense.
Rather than beat opponents "the Chud Way" and by the deep pass, Rivera, along with Mike Shula, now have a new approach that mirrors the defense. Led by the efficient Cam Newton and wrecking ball Mike Tolbert, the offense now imposes their will on defenses, chewing up clock and demoralizing the other team. Whether it is converting 3rd/4th downs or sustaining long drives, this offense has been wearing down defenses until they have lost their will, metaphorically speaking. By the end of the game, the other teams' defenses look downright beat up and miserable, as seen in Minnesota and against St. Louis.
This offense is the perfect complement to the defense, who has been just as stingy and imposing. The defense has not allowed a first half touchdown all year, a feat done only twice since 1935. (Wrap your head around that for a second.) If it is not the "Monsterz, Inc." defensive line beating the opponents to a pulp, it is a tough and physical linebacking group led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis ready to punish them. If it is not these two units, it is the newfound secondary enforcer Mike Mitchell lurking in the shadows ready to put a hurting.
As a lifelong Panthers fan, nothing makes me more excited to see them with a winning record, after 70 straight games of futility. But what makes me just as excited is the tough personality of this offense, a complement to the defense, that is the mirror image of Ron Rivera: no-nosense, stingy, and will rip opponents' hearts out.