The scoreboard read 23-10, but the bigger outlook read “team on the rise.”
The Carolina Panthers were a year ahead of schedule in becoming an elite NFL team. The San Fransisco 49ers showed that the Panthers have to make moves in order to reach their level. If you were to ask even a diehard Panthers fan before the season if they would win the division, the truthful answer would be no. However, they not only won their division — they managed to get home-field advantage while winning eight straight games during the regular season.
I do not know what it’s is like to play in the NFL and I can’t even guess the energy and excitement that goes through a player’s body as they take the field in a do-or-die game. However, what I do know is that the Panthers played their hearts out this whole season and for that, they have no reason to feel ashamed for how the year ended.
Cam Newton became a star quarterback, Ron Rivera should be on his way to a contract extension and the defense has been solidified as top-tier. Of course, there are moves that should be made in the offseason, but that goes with any team.
The Panthers need to address their offensive side of the ball. They need better production from their running backs because DeAngelo Williams is no longer a featured back. Jonathan Stewart can’t seem to stay healthy and Mike Tolbert is a short-yardage back who was relied on to carry a large role, which is not his game.
The wide receivers are not top-tier and they never give Newton the targets that he needs to reach the upper echelon of quarterbacks. Steve Smith is on the decline as he gets older and Brandon LaFell can’t be trusted as the no. 1 option in the passing attack. Tedd Ginn Jr. had his moments, but he is better served as a third receiver. Greg Olsen is a good tight end, but the Panthers need to look into getting someone to take over as he is starting to get up there in age as well.
The defense is set for a couple of seasons. They are young and hungry, and will get even better with a full season under their belts. Defense is all about trust, and the Panthers unit learned how to depend on each other as the season progressed. There were breakdowns in the divisional game, but that is to be expected as this was their first playoff game together and emotions were running high. I like this unit and don’t think there needs to be major upgrades — just some depth.
The Panthers are the type of team I would love to see on prime time every week. They play hard and with poise. They just happened to run into a team who was a little better at executing that day.
The questions will come about whether Newton choked or if he can even lead a team to a playoff victory. However, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Tom Brady didn’t win every playoff game, so cut Newton some slack. All this loss is going to do is make him come back even stronger and more focused next year. I just hope he gets better weapons around him.
The Panthers were undoubtedly a success this year, and with the players they have, they look to be just getting started.