A Game of Bones
It was October 13th. Two days previous, I had submitted the most controversial article I had written for CSR in my short tenure with the site. I was despondent over the Panthers third straight 1-3 start to a season, furious about their complete meltdown against the Cardinals the previous Sunday, and hopeless for our team's chances with Ron Rivera at the helm. I wasn't the only one, as the furor throughout the Carolinas had hit a fever-pitch. People were calling for Ron Rivera's head on a silver platter, and I had chalked it up to a near certainty that he would not last through the season. For 2 seasons and 3 games, the man we once lovingly anointed BAMF struggled mightily with time management, in-game adjustments, and wise usage of challenges. However, his most maligned characteristics were his stubborn refusal to take chances in key situations, and his uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by having the team play "not to lose" late in games.
Enter the Minnesota Vikings.
Whether he sensed the ax hovering just inches above his neck or whether Jerry Richardson and Dave Gettleman decided to give him some wall-to-wall counseling, Ron Rivera walked onto Mall of America Field as a man in transition, and he proved it early on. After Mike Mitchell intercepted an errant Matt Cassel pass on the Vikings first drive, the Panthers offense took over at their own 38 yard line. They drove down to the Vikings 32 before the drive stalled, well within Graham Gano's range.
Ron Rivera was going to make a statement. On 4th and 1, he left the offense out there and did the prudent thing, giving the rock to our very own human bowling ball Mike Tolbert. Two yards and a cloud of dust later the Panthers were rolling, but Rivera wasn't done yet. After Brandon Lafell was pushed out of bounds at the Vikings 2 yard line Deangelo Williams and Tolbert were stuffed on subsequent plays, giving Rivera yet another chance to prove his mettle on a 4th and 1 call. After taking a timeout to decide on the best play to run, Cam Newton and Co. trotted back out there. Steve Smith ran a beautiful little drag route across the front of the endzone and Cam hit him in stride for the touchdown.
Ladies and gentleman, "Riverboat Ron" had just been born. New life had been blown into the Panthers offense as Ron finally decided to "roll them bones", and the Panthers marched on to win big over Minnesota 35-10.
A Clash of Schemes
Over the next 3 games it became clear just how much the Panthers had changed. Their cups runneth over with confidence, and the previously vilified coaching staff took advantage by flexing their mental muscles and scheming diverse ways to crush lesser opponents. Whether by goading the hot-headed Rams into making costly mistakes, bullying the reeling Buccaneers during their darkest hour, or convincing "Matty Melt" Ryan that his receivers were wearing Panthers jerseys for a day, the new-look Panthers curb-stomped their next 3 opponents to the tune of a 95-38 scoring differential.
Admittedly, I watched each of these 3 games with a sense of familiar trepidation. The 2011-2012 Panthers were the very model of inconsistency, and I had seen this team flash dominance before. For two years I had built a house of cards around myself, believing that Cam Newton's unbelievable potential would be unleashed upon the NFL at large, and for two years I had watched that house collapse around me as our playoff hopes died like so many red-shirted ensigns on the Starship Enterprise. By week 5 of 2013, I had been lulled into the self-protective pessimism that comes from having one's heart broken over and over again.
By the time we had polished off the hated Falcons' hopes at salvaging their season, small fissures were beginning to form across the protective walls around my heart. Dare I begin to hope? Could we actually be better than I thought?
A Storm of Words
The next week was insane. On the back of a 4 game win streak, the lovable losers that were had become a potential playoff contender. Our late afternoon game against the formidable 49ers was rife with pundit fodder.
Who is the better young quarterback: Cam Newton or Collin Kaepernick?
The Panther haven't really beaten anyone good yet, can they get over the hump?
Can Cam win a big game in a hostile environment?
Etcetera... Etcetera... The Panthers haven't seen so much national press since their 2005 NFC Championship appearance, and no one really knew how they would handle the mounting pressure.
The game was everything it was expected to be by Panthers fans. We knew our defense could hang with San Fran's run-heavy offense. What we didn't know was how Cam Newton and Ron Rivera would handle the enormous pressure in what was sure to be a very close game - something we had not faced in weeks and still the largest blemish on both of their resumes. Add in the fact that Graham Gano had not yet been tested in a pressure cooker either, and this game was certain to be of detriment to my cuticles.
After three hours of screaming at the television and alternating between fist pumps and throwing furniture around, as Drayton Florence came down with the game-clinching interception, I calmly reached over and gave my brother, whom I've watched every game this season with, a fist bump.
The 2013 Panthers had passed their first true test.
A Feast of Crow
At this point of the season I was torn. After the Panthers poor start to the season, I had backpedaled on my preseason prediction of 10-6 in a knee-jerk reaction, changing it to 6-10 in the throes of my anger and grief. At that point, the Panthers stood at 6-3, meaning we were one win away from me having to concede that I had been wrong... again. Look, wrong is not a good color on me. I can't stress this enough. I don't handle it well. This is why I have striven not to do it often, and being wrong twice in one season meant that I would officially have to stop telling people that I could count on one hand the number of times I have been wrong in my life, which my better half will no doubt never let me live down. But I digress...
For anyone who has ever been a Carolina Panthers or a Cam Newton fan, the national narrative that Cam had been bailed out by his defense at Candlestick Park came as no surprise. Immediately, the national news machine began spinning the same storylines from the previous week as "new and improved" (which for the discerning customer has always been a bit of a head-scratcher of a phrase).
Can Cam Newton win a big game?
Can the Panthers win during primetime?
On a national stage?
While hopping on one foot, rubbing their bellies, and patting their heads?
Etcetera... Etcetera... Of course, we all know what happened. One of, if not THE most impressive game of Cam Newton's short career was overshadowed by "Bearhug-gate", and once again the media gets a convenient out by which to deny the young man his due respect.
However, all the crying in the world doesn't negate the win, and though the 7-3 Panthers proved me wrong yet again, being wrong never felt so good. Cam got his "signature win" in a 4th quarter duel with one of the all-time great quarterbacks in the NFL. The narrative can go suck an egg; the Panthers had just passed their second big test.
A Dance with Dolphins
This past Sunday's tilt against the Dolphins was your classic trap game.
*Cue Ace Ventura-style deep breath* The Panthers were flying high on a short week after an emotional win in a physical game against a very good opponent. One of our biggest superstars was out with an injury suffered in a dirty hit during said previous game. The Dolphins wore their whites, forcing the Panthers to wear their blacks in Miami six days after playing in Foxborough, Massachusetts at night in late November. The Fins were coming into their own after an early-season collapse, trying to claw their way back into the wildcard race.
All the elements were there. It was the opportunity to see if this Panthers team had truly adopted the "one game at a time" mentality.
The Dolphins came out hot. The gameplan was obvious. Anyone who knows anything about football knows that in a trap game, the key is to punch the overconfident team in the mouth, then run away with it before they recover. Two long strikes to Mike Wallace and an ill-timed Cam Newton interception later, the Dolphins had completed step one. They had punched us in the mouth but good.
Luckily, the Panthers defense stepped up and held Miami to a field goal after the interception, short field and all. More importantly, they left us with enough time to drive down the field for one of our own field goals before the half.
After halftime, the offense came out with a great first drive and put another 7 on the board to pull within 1 score. Then things got ugly. For the next 19:38 seconds, the Panthers and Dolphins traded 6 total punts, with a missed Caleb Sturgis field goal thrown in for good measure. The Dolphins' punter Brandon Fields pinned us inside our own 10 on 2 of 3 punts in the 2nd half. It was brutal.
But for the 2nd time in less than a week, Cam Newton came through when it mattered most. He led the offense on a 12 play, 72 yard touchdown drive late in the 4th quarter which forced the Dolphins to burn all 3 of their timeouts and left them with only 43 seconds on the clock and needing a touchdown to win. The 4th and 10 strike to Smitty was epic, but the play-action toss to Greg Olsen for the touchdown was masterfully called and executed.
The game was everything I could have hoped for. The 3rd and final test was for the Panthers to come back from being down more than one score in a hostile environment, in an obvious trap situation, and they didn't disappoint.
The Wins of Winter
My fellow Cat Scratch Reader brethren, I am once again a believer. The Panthers face a very tough final stretch to reach the playoffs, but I truly believe this team is capable of rising to the task. In the final 5 weeks we face the surging Bucs, the Jets, and our nemesis Saints at home. We have the Falcons and a second game against the Saints away. If we pull out 3 wins, the playoffs are all but assured. If we pull out 3 wins, including sweeping the Saints, the division is most likely ours. At long last, we Panthers faithful have a December to look forward to.
It's been a long winter, but I see a warm sun rising...