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Monday Morning Optimist: The Panthers are who we thought they were

A talented team with fatal, and obvious, flaws was only going to do so well this season. They took the last game to remind us why there is reason to hope for the future.

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

I’ve been writing for weeks about the bright, young talent that will make the Panthers future. Never has that subject been more relevant than on the last day of a sad season that featured the final performance of all-time standouts Julius Peppers and Ryan Kalil and may have seen the final games from similar franchise legend Thomas Davis.

We will talk a lot more about them in the coming weeks. They deserve more than passing mention in the weekly column that is supposed to be about the good news yet to break. We’ll also spend more time than just this column breaking down what the hell happened to this season. Today, let’s focus on what happened yesterday. Let’s talk about just the one football game while we still can.

The Panthers played a game that was fun to watch for the first time in almost two months. They did it while still being plagued by the issues that lead to their seven game losing streak in the first place. A distinctly unimpressive offensive line performance led to the Panthers playing their fourth quarterback due to injury this season. A litany of second and third string players on the Saints’ offensive line held their own against the best the Panthers defensive linemen could throw at them.

The Panthers still won. That might be because the rest of the Saints players, save Michael Thomas and Eli Apple, were off partying on the sidelines instead of competing in the game, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Panthers played entertaining football while showing flashes of a promising future.

Cam Newton’s deterioration following the Pittsburgh game shouldn’t mask the fact that he didn’t really have a deep ball during the first half of the season, either. Yesterday showed us what Norv Turner’s offense can look like with downfield threats in the mix. That's a pretty good result from what was essentially a preseason game for both teams.

You are welcome to feel any which way you want over the now confirmed returns of Marty Hurney, Ron Rivera, and the rest of the Panthers management and coaching staff. I have made myself clear on their performances on a number of occasions. You’d have to be crazy, however, to not want to see what Turner and his scheme could do with a healthy Newton and this young group of play makers.

Curtis Samuel’s one great deep touchdown, D.J. Moore’s phenomenal run after the catch on an intermediate target, and the pass interference call in the first quarter on a hilariously under-thrown ball to Samuel were all examples of this offense being able to pull big plays out of nowhere. Kyle Allen, regardless of his future in the NFL and with his injury from yesterday, deserves credit for showing us what the Panthers could be next year.

His performance as a first time starter was far better than expected. Like Chris Clark before him, he was a street signing that played beyond expectations. Also like Clark, we shouldn’t expect him to bring the Panthers glory if Newton has to sit out any length of time to rehab his shoulder. Goodness does not guarantee greatness. Allen was good in his limited time yesterday. The Panthers should absolutely consider him when constructing their quarterback room next year. But they won’t be so naive as to pin their hopes, however short term, to his young and brief success.

The Panthers’ future rests on the shoulder of a man with a poorly defined injury. Newton is the only franchise quarterback that they will have the opportunity or the capital to employ for the foreseeable future. Identifying a path for his return and protection has to be their highest priority. Newton at the helm of the offense we saw yesterday is more exciting than any play for which Steve Smith or Ted Ginn, Jr were responsible.

Opportunities for greatness are not common in the NFL. The league is designed to favor parity over dominance. The Panthers are not far from such an opportunity, despite their disappointing 7-9 finish. Any fan of the Carolina Panthers should be optimistic about that.