Panthers Thoughts – Same Script, Twist Ending (12-13 Season Review)
My thoughts on the Carolina Panthers 7-9 season.
That was the line earlier in the season that held true until the games were meaningless. In the first season of the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera era, the team hung in a lot of games but either failed to close them out or failed to come up with a winning score. The same thing happened in year two of this era.
The team got off to a disappointing start, losing to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that was dreadful last season but showed improvement this year. Things got better in week two when they beat the New Orleans Saints, but we later found out that the Saints had one of the worst defenses in league history and badly missed their head coach. Week three was an embarrassing loss on Thursday Night Football to the Super Bowl champions that just proved how far the team needed to go if they were going to be considered playoff contenders.
The wheels came off in week four. The Panthers had the Falcons backed up on their own one yard line, up by one, less than a minute to play, and no timeouts. Only the Panthers defense could blow a situation like this. And blow it they did. They allowed the Falcons to kick the game-winning field goal and instead of being 2-2, the team ended week four 1-3 with their spirits crushed.
They went on to lose the next three games by a combined 10 points.
Cam Newton came under heavy scrutiny during the stretch for his immature play. Some of it was warranted, but a lot of it was just the media piling on Cam because they expect so much out of him and his team wasn’t delivering. It was rather unfair of people to put all the blame on Cam given that he wasn’t getting much help around him, but such is the life of an NFL QB. My biggest issue with Cam was that he took the games too personally. If you’ve seen the commercials with him or heard interviews with him, then you’d know that he’s a fun loving and engaging guy. But when he loses a football game, he has the personality of Kristen Stewart. By the end of the year, when the Panthers ended up winning five of their last six games, no one had anything negative to say about Cam.
At 1-6, the Panthers season was pretty much over. They picked up a nice victory over the Washington Redskins, which ended up turning the Redskins season around, but then lost the next two games, one via blowout, the other via typical Panthers fashion of blowing things late. Following a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football, the team went into Kansas City, a one win team, and lost. Now the circumstances were extreme, and had they not been, I think the Panthers would’ve won, but the fact reminds that they lost. I thought this game sealed Ron Rivera’s fate as the head coach. At this point, the team was 3-9 and had just lost to the worst team in the league.
Luckily for Rivera, the Panthers had a favorable schedule coming up. A flawed Falcons team who they should’ve beaten once, an imploding Chargers team, a terrible Raiders team, and the Saints defense. They won all four games in rather impressive fashion, finishing the season 7-9, a one win improvement over last year.
The four game winning streak and one win improvement were enough to save Rivera’s job. I think part of the reason as to why he’ll be around for next year is because there were no other viable candidates. Chip Kelly is staying at Oregon while Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher look to be staying in the booth. Rivera will enter next season on a very short leash though, and if the script doesn’t change, he won’t be around to see the finished product.
In Cam Newton’s second season, I wanted to see better decision making. It took him a while, but he seemed to figure things out at the end. He threw for slightly less yards and completion percentage and two less touchdowns, but his interceptions were down by five. His rushing numbers were also slightly up. His rushing touchdowns were down, but that’s because the team brought in Mike Tolbert to be the goal line back, so that had to be expected. His maturity is still questionable, but with positive momentum to finish the year and another off season under his belt, I think we’ll see an improved Cam next year. He was sacked one more time than last season, which is actually encouraging given how banged up the offensive line was.
As for the rest of the offense, it definitely wasn’t the high powered offense that we saw in Cam’s first year. DeAngelo Williams’ rushing numbers were once again down (although he picked things up in the final four games) and Jonathan Stewart was injured for most of the year. Steve Smith was once again over 1,000 yards, but he only had four touchdowns. Brandon LaFell seems to be emerging as the number two guy for the team, but he needs to stay more consistent. The biggest surprise of the year offensively was Greg Olsen, who finished with 300 more yards than he had in his first season in Carolina. Granted he had to pick up the tight end slack as the team went away from a two tight end set, but it was still encouraging to see.
The defense, which was very questionable last year, saw a big improvement this past season. In year one under Rivera, the defense ranked 28th overall, 24th against the pass, and 25th against the run. This year they finished 10th overall, 13th against the pass, and 14th against the rush. It was actually encouraging to see such a big improvement given that Chris Gamble missed most of the season and Jon Beason was once again hurt. I give a lot of credit to defensive rookie Luke Kuechly, who switched to middle linebacker almost immediately and became the leader of the defense. Other standouts were defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who finished with 12.5 and 11 sacks respectively. The secondary is still a big problem on this team though, specifically their lack of ability to force interceptions. I expect the team to target a ball hawking safety in the draft who can bring some stability to the secondary.
And even while the defense improved statistically, they still failed to get big stops when they needed them.
Special teams are still a major concern I have with this team. Armanti Edwards finally proved to be worth something in the final game, but one play doesn’t make up for years of nothing. Joe Adams, who the team drafted this past year to essentially replace Edwards, was ineffective. The kicking duo of Graham Gano and Justin Medlock also sucked for the most part. I actually wouldn’t mind if the team took a kick with one of their later round picks in the draft.
The problem the Panthers face in the off-season is that they have no cap room and if they’re going to get better, it’s going to be either via trade or the draft. Unfortunately I don’t think they have a big trading piece as it’d be tough to trade Williams given Stewart’s history of being injured and I don’t think many teams will want to take a risk on one of the Panthers injury prone linebackers. The Panthers have hit on their first round picks in the past two years of the draft and they’ll have to do so again this year if they hope to add an impact player.
Despite the horrific start, the end of the season gives me some optimism heading into next year. I expect the majority of the team to return and I can only hope that Cam Newton continues to improve and the team as a whole learns how to close out close games.