Boxing has never really been my thing. Trading blows to the head and midsection has been something I've mostly reserved for video games and the professionals. Heck I've only been punched in the face, solid contact, twice in my entire life. I know nothing about rolling with the punches. The Carolina Panthers have much more experience than I do, especially after taking a punch to the gut and a right cross to the chin in consecutive weeks to open the season. This week the Panthers decided to fight back, to the tune of a 38-0 victory over the New York Giants, clearly proving they aren't throwing in the towel on the 2013 season.
After just 2 games, the Panthers had the look of a fighter who had already hit the deck twice. Never losing consciousness – wide awake the entire time – but lain on their back all the same. Staring at the ceiling and listening to a countdown to irrelevance. Surrounded by the sound of boos from fans and cheers of their opponents. Ron Rivera leans against the ropes, arms folded. Dave Gettleman stares, but says nothing. Round 2 ends as the Panthers, dazed and confused, make it to their feet and head back to their corner.
Again, I don't know much about boxing, but it seems like these are the moments when a fighter looks to his corner for guidance, encouragement, observations, and inspiration. Manager Ron Rivera had little more than frustration and confidence to offer, publicly at least. Frustration in the Panthers lack of execution down the stretch in 4th quarters, and confidence that this group has what it takes to win.
This wasn't what Panther Nation wanted to hear, as the vast majority were calling for coaches heads, placing the blame of the 4th quarter collapses squarely on Rivera's shoulders. Pointing to his fondness of punting on 4th and short and playing conservatively with a lead. Criticisms that I find both accurate and significant. I'm not a believer in Ron Rivera as a head coach, but maybe he said exactly the right thing to his team, just not to the fans and media.
Coming out of the corner, before facing the Giants in round 3, but well after the bell – and round 2's knockdown blow from the Bills – far too many were entertaining the idea of "throwing in the towel" on the 2013 season. Whether or not to trade former rookie of the year Cam Newton became a major talking point, while at the same time Superman donned the cover of ESPN Magazine's The Franchise edition. Again, Dave Gettleman said nothing, but associating the phrase "not my guy" with him and Cam Newton became more popular than ever after the Cleveland Browns made a blockbuster deal that sent Trent Richardson to the Colts in exchange for a 1st round pick in next years draft. The idea wasn't just more popular than in recent memory, it made more sense than in recent memory. While the proposition is still ludicrous in my opinion, it would be irresponsible to ignore the legitimate possibility.
It's absolutely true that Gettleman didn't choose Cam, nor has he strongly endorsed Newton as his future quarterback in a genuine way. It's also true that Cam hadn't displayed much, if any, improvement in his passing accuracy or ability to read defenses through the first two games of the season. Improvements that could have been the difference in the win/loss column. Improvements that could have kept the game out of reach far before 4th quarter collapses. Empowered by a vastly improved defense, the offense had fallen short of every expectation. Of itself, Rivera, media, fans, and most importantly, necessity. Cam is and should be responsible for the production of the offense, thus well deserved of recent criticism. Some would disagree, and prefer to point the finger at first year OC Mike Shula, which on the surface seems fair, but upon further review, proves to be mostly a philosophical dispute that centers around the utilization of Cam Newton versus his ability to execute with the current weapons in place.
Fast Forward to round 3 against the New York Football Giants, recovery time is over. DING-DING-DING...The Panthers step into a fight with a team that just a year ago, punched them in the mouth and embarrassed them in a nationally televised game on the NFL Network.
From beginning to end the Panthers pummeled the Giants in every facet of the game, especially along the defensive line. The constant pass rush, including 7 sacks, tied a franchise record and handcuffed Eli Manning for the duration of the contest. Thus preventing the Giants from landing any significant punches or ever coming remotely close to a hay maker. Make no mistake about it, the front 7 for Carolina set the tone for this game, and the table for Cam Newton and the offense.
Beginning midway through the 1st quarter, Cam began to march the Panthers down the field. After not finding success through the air, Superman turned to his feet, providing 3 rushes for significant gains that moved the chains. Sprinkle in a perfectly executed triple option and a timely Greg Olsen reception on 3rd down. You're left with 4th & inches from inside the 2 yard line. Oh the irony of this situation, let's examine.
Kicking a field goal on 4th & inches at the goal line is like a boxer catching his opponent with his guard down, then throwing his weak handed jab. Opting to throw the punch that left him the least open for a counter, while almost guaranteed to connect for points, but not maximum damage. If you didn't know, Rivera is a jab enthusiast. Here's the ironic part. Since 2011, only one head coach has gone for it less often than Ron Rivera. Who do you think that guy is? You know who I'm talking about before you read it. You're thinking to yourself in your head and laughing. Yes it's John Fox, current coach of the Broncos and recently exiled coach of the Panthers. Not sure if that makes Panthers fans laugh or cry, likely both. Nonetheless Ron Rivera finally seems aware that change is necessary and this was the moment to implement it.
This time was different. In the distance, pigs were flying and unicorns were prancing. Ron Rivera frustrated with the start to the season would do the unthinkable. Hidden behind one sexy tinted-out pair of shades, he would reach deep down to muster up courage, clinching his teeth and uttering these words, "we're gonna go." And so they went, delivering a punch to the gut in the form Mike Tolbert, relieving both Rivera and Panther Nation from anxiety of the same old-same old. Things are changing.
With just under 4 minutes left in the half and a solid 10-0 lead, the Panthers readied their right hook for a knockout blow. A 13-play drive that would travel 65 yards, culminating in a Brandon LaFell touchdown with only 12 seconds remaining. This drive made me think of a fighter opening up and letting his hands fly. Sensing the weakness in its opponent and pressing forward with a purposeful aggression.
The Panthers attack pulled out nearly every punch in it's repertoire and featured one of it's favorite weapons. Perfectly suited for the moment, Shula rolled out his hurry up offense. Almost exclusively out of 3-WR sets, Greg Olsen was moved from side to side in both tight and split end positions. He was the featured target throughout a drive that exemplified the balance Shula hopes to present on the offensive side of the ball all season long.
This is what it looks like when the Panthers let their hands fly and are able to execute. Olsen finished the drive with 3 catches on 5 targets. Ted Ginn added two grabs and the much maligned LaFell scored the touchdown. Smitty also received targets, and the run game was used to move the chains. A flutter of punches with a constant dose of that Olsen right hook, all made possible by improved Cam Newton decision making and accuracy. And it continued.
The Giants kept getting up and the Panthers kept knocking them down. It wasn't until late in the fourth quarter before Rivera let the offense take the foot off the gas. Made evident by the fact that Cam Newton threw deep on 26% of his passes, the highest percentage of any quarterback in the league for week 3, with only Denver and Oakland left to play. Meanwhile, Eli could barely complete a pass against the suffocating defense. Finishing the game with only 90 yards passing and 0 going to Charlotte's own Hakeem Nicks. David Wilson carried the ball 11 times and only managed 39 yards. In every sense, the Giants were beaten into submission.
Going in to week 4 without a win is a curse that very few teams have overcome. The Panthers stared that fate in the eyes and refused it. Ron Rivera called it, a Cam Newton led offense and an elite front 7 made it happen, and it's the Giants who are considering throwing in the towel, not the Panthers. A record of 1-2 ties Carolina for the 5th best record in the NFC and 2nd behind the undefeated New Orleans Saints in the division. The Panthers, Ron Rivera, and Panther Nation entered Sunday bruised and confused. They left the fight early, after a clear cut decision, knowing that they're still very much a contender this season. And Gettleman still hasn't said anything, but the good cut-men rarely do.