|Cam Newton and the Panthers had a rough start to the season, but things eventually began looking up. (US Presswire)|
The Carolina Panthers needed to improve on defense and continue Cam Newton's development on offense in order to succeed in 2012. Half the mission was accomplished. The Panthers were better on defense, even in the face of rampant injuries. The offense slipped after Newton's record-setting rookie year. Here's a look at the team's final grades for 2012:
Carolina finished No. 12 in the NFL in total offense, down five spots from last season. The Panthers dropped from third to ninth in rushing and three spots to No. 16 in passing. The drop in scoring was even more precipitous -- from No. 5 to No. 18. Newton passed for 182 fewer yards, and RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for nearly 600 fewer rushing yards and five fewer touchdowns. Newton was more effective as the year went on, but there were fewer highlight-film big plays.
The Panthers lost two contributors a month to injury. MLB Jon Beason and CB Chris Gamble went down in October, DE Thomas Keiser and DT Ron Edwards in November and S Sherrod Martin and S Haruki Nakamura in December. Rookie Luke Kuechly stepped in for Beason and led the NFL in tackles, and Captain Munnerlyn had two interception touchdowns in place of Gamble. DEs Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy formed one of the NFL's most underrated pass rushes, and Carolina was demonstrably better than last season on defense.
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Special teams: D
The Panthers finished No. 22 in kick returns, No. 21 in punting, No. 25 in punt returns and last in field goals, setting a team record for fewest field goals, with 16. Rookie Joe Adams was supposed to revive the return game, but he was benched for several weeks after fumbling early in the season. Rookie P Brad Nortman was inconsistent and had several shanks. The Panthers cut K Justin Medlock at midseason to bring in veteran Graham Gano.
The team had an abysmal start to the season, and coach Ron Rivera and his staff didn't appear to have any answers. Newton was criticized for his attitude on the sidelines and his lack of leadership. The league appeared to catch up to Newton's offensive magic, and adjustments weren't made. The Panthers absorbed a 12-men-on-the-field penalty on a weekly basis. Things improved as the year went on, and the team appeared to rally in an effort to save Rivera's job.
Cumulative GPA: 2.2
For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on the Carolina Panthers from blogger Shawn Krest, follow@CBSPanthers.