What a difference a year makes. This time in 2012 the Carolina Panthers were media darlings. The plucky six-win team with the unconventional offense, and the less conventional quarterback looking to take the next step into the playoffs. Ryan Kalil's public manifesto was sweet, though rife with hubris -- and it was okay that it read like something lifted straight from 'Mad Men'. Some detested Cam Newton's confidence, others loved it, but either way the team was getting noticed -- and for (mostly) the right reasons.
Fast-forward twelve months and there are new media darlings to fawn over -- plenty of them. The cute, sub-six foot quarterback in Seattle showing all sorts of intangibles like 'grit' and 'determination'. There's the golden child in Indianapolis, groomed for greatness like a neck-bearded, non-Soviet Ivan Drago. Finally there's high-socks in Washington... the sweet, unassuming quarterback who gets to display Newton-esque confidence towards Dallas, but without the backlash.
Once again Cam Newton is the villain, and it seems pre-destined that rookie Geno Smith will join his ranks. There's only one way this grand battle can end -- with an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist.
ALL THE QUARTERBACKS ARE DEAD!
Or, maybe there's no underlying drama. Perhaps it's just a group of really talented players. Perish the thought we can't turn this into a soap opera. We're comfortable ending comparisons of Steve Young to Dan Marino by explaining differences in offense, or skill-sets -- yet intractable when it comes to the quarterbacks of today.
When it came to drawing straws for head coaches and front offices, Newton got the short one compared to his peers. He didn't get paired with a history of winning at the college level, or an offensive genius with Super Bowl rings. Instead, he got Ron and Marty. The former is the player's coach, the perfect man to motivate players, and help teach -- but he lacks in-game management, that somehow (hilariously) becomes Cam's issue as a poor on-field leader.
Then there's Marty... oh, Marty. He has all the characteristics you want from a best friend. Kind, loyal, generous -- but he was playing nice in an industry where every team needs 'The Wolf' as GM. Only now are things getting back on track, and the Carolina Panthers are being run the way other successful organizations are. Not all the moves will pay off, but it's the first steps in a long road to return.
There are plenty of reasons to believe why the Panthers will remain mired in mediocrity in 2013, and those aren't above discussion. In fact, tomorrow I'll be looking at the three reasons why there's a chance the team could struggle again this year. Today, however, we're looking at three reasons why the team can be better this season, and explore how it's unfair to write them off in May.
1. Defensive tackles
"It's a passing league now"
It's become the catch-cry of the modern football fan. Rule changes have made it easier than ever for quarterbacks and receivers. Defenders have to adjust how they play the game, and with 5,000 yard passing seasons becoming routine, it's easy to see why there's a perception that the NFL is becoming Arena Football.
Yet for all the belief that passing is what wins, the Super Bowl featured two teams who leaned on their running games for much of the 2012 season, and both bested opponents relying on high-powered passing offenses. The road for victory was paved up front, and where the Falcons and Patriots were found lacking was in their inability to generate pressure up the middle.
It has been ten years since the Carolina Panthers had decent defensive tackles, hopefully they've found them now. Split the difference and say that Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are just 'okay' in their rookie seasons -- it's still ten-fold better than the motley crew the team played at the position in 2012. It's unreliable to bank on Dwan Edwards having another career year, but for the first time there's adequate pressure up the middle.
This frees up the defense, allows them to do more, and improves the secondary by osmosis. The improvement is abundantly clear when looking at 2012's losses.
2. No more 'mad scientist' offense
Old Southern ladies talk in hushed tones, and use the term 'bless her heart' when they're quietly trying to politely call someone a whore. For 365 days I loved Rob Chudzinski's offense... bless his heart.
It was new, and exciting -- just like 'The Matrix', then in year two everything soured. It became, well, the sequel to the Matrix. The read option, when used sparingly, was the perfect offensive wrinkle to take advantage of Cam Newton's skills, and created mismatches that were impossible for defenses to deal with.
Less is usually more, and in Cam's sophomore season the Panthers traded one excellent Hugo Weaving for two insane albino twins with dreadlocks. Making the read option the focal point didn't allow the offense to adapt on a per-snap basis. Asking a QB to make reads pre-snap, and decisions post-snap is difficult at the best of times, let alone for a young signal caller. As a result there were offensive weapons that were under-utilized, others that were ignored, and by the time Carolina reigned in the offense, it was too late.
There's no telling how Mike Shula will run things in 2013, but it's unlikely he'll use the same mad-capped approach. If anything, it will probably be too vanilla for most fans -- and maybe that's okay. With five talented runners, and a excellent tight end, it shouldn't take much more than that to still be effective. With less of an emphasis on risk/reward, clock management becomes easier too, and that helps Ron Rivera.
3. Bringing the 'special' back
To me, calling special teams important as offense or defense is akin to saying Die Hard 2 is as important as the other two films (yes, there are only three Die Hard films. This is not up for discussion). Sure, it's still satisfying, but opening with naked karate is never a good way win over your fans.
What was I talking about?
Much like defensive tackle, the lack of a true special teams unit has hurt the entire football team. The offense routinely faces long fields, the defense contends with short ones -- it's a nightmare scenario for a team with as little depth on both sides of the ball.
In year's past the answer was to cram as many UDFA's on special teams as possible, then wait for lightning to strike. This hodge-podge approach was mediocre at best, while at worst it was vomit-inducing. There will still be a healthy smattering of small-school guys on the ST unit, but now they're supported with real talent.
Having Haruki Nakamura move back into solely a special teams role is excellent. Don't let the bad taste from his time at FS fool you, he's still very good in coverage. Adding to mix with Mike Mitchell, Chase Blackburn, and Ted Ginn -- there are finally some bright spots to look forward to.
If the coverage team can stop teams 10 yards earlier it becomes a short punt, rather than a long field goal. If the return team can get an extra 10 yards then the Panthers have a shot at attempting some long field goals. This may seem like a small shift, but a six point swing would have changed the outcome in seven of the Panthers' nine losses in 2012.
Will the Carolina Panthers be a twelve-win juggernaut in 2013? It's unlikely. There's simply too little quality depth at this point, and still too many players starting who have no business doing so. However, to write this team off in May as being one of the league's worst is the epitome of myopia, and these three improvements have a chance to turn everything around.
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