As each NFL team is officially eliminated from postseason contention, the Eye on Football crew will whip up a review of that team's 2012 season. Today, we look at the Panthers. For more of our End of the Road series, click here.
What Went Wrong
A combination of bad luck, injuries, expectations and some poor contracts sunk the Panthers in what many thought would be a potential playoff season. Carolina was a ridiculous 0-7 in one-score games through 14 weeks; say whatever you want about poor coaching and un-clutch quarterbacking, but that's just bad luck.
Three Panthers stars -- Jon Beason, Chris Gamble and Ryan Kalil -- combined for 13 games just a year after Carolina was next to last in Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost metric (which determines how injury-riddled a team was).
Carolina's biggest problem might have been expectations. Kalil took out an ad in the Charlotte Observer (sort of) proclaiming the Panthers would win the Super Bowl. It was crazy, but maybe not that crazy? No one really shrugged it off until the Panthers were suddenly 1-4 heading into their bye. The reality of the situation is that Cam Newton wasn't going to progress exponentially just, well, because. The defense wasn't going to get magically fixed because they drafted Luke Kuechly. Those horrible contracts handed out immediately after the lockout weren't going to suddenly become justifiable.
What Went Right
Surprisingly, we've come around to a point where Cam's 2012 season is actually a good thing. Weird, right? Through eight games, Newton had six touchdown passes and eight interceptions. In his last four games, he has eight touchdowns and no interceptions and he's suddenly stopped being so sullen after losses. I honestly think that, at some point in 2012, he realized what it meant to lose for the first time in his life and managed to mature both on and off the field. He carries himself with a different demeanor after games, even if he doesn't mean it. 2013 should be much better overall for Cam.
Kuechly, through 14 weeks of action, is the leading tackler in the NFL. Some will dismiss his large tackling numbers as a byproduct of simply "collecting stats past the line of scrimmage," but the defense has improved since he's taken over as middle linebacker.
Thomas Davis is nothing short of an inspirational story, having returned from three (three!) reconstructive knee surgeries. In a year without Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson, he'd have a good shot at Comeback Player of the Year, his contract notwithstanding.
Carolina has three more games to try and save Ron Rivera's job. It'll be interesting to see how a new general manager handles him if the Panthers win out; that would give Rivera one more win than he had in 2011 and a second-straight year of improvement in the W column. New general managers typically mean new head coaches though, and Rivera had some really bad games this year (in Atlanta, in Kansas City, opener against Tampa Bay, prime time against the Giants, overtime loss to the Bucs). So it wouldn't be surprising at all to see Rivera in the unemployment line after this season, regardless of how the Panthers finish.
DeAngelo Williams and Beason are prime candidates to be shipped off when an objective GM comes into the fold. At the very least they're staring down restructured contracts.
There are plenty of other candidates for release as well, depending on how the new front office views Carolina's talent pool.
Barring a multiple-win finish to the season, Carolina's staring down a possible top-five pick (they're currently tied for fifth). Both Rob Rang and Dane Brugler believe they'll select Star Lotulelei, a defensive tackle out of Utah.
Even if the specific player is different, the idea should remain the same: defense, defense, defense. Carolina needs to improve the secondary, it needs to improve the defensive line, particularly at the defensive tackle position, and the Panthers need some more playmakers for Newton.
The good news is that the draft's currently littered with talented defensive players, particularly on the line, and Carolina's in a much better spot having to look for defense at the top of the draft than a team hoping to find a franchise quarterback.
A decent sleeper pick for the Panthers might be tackle Luke Joeckel out of Texas A&M. Even though Jordan Gross is shoring up the left side, at 32 he's aging, and bringing in someone like Joeckel to play right tackle until Gross is ready to move on isn't a horrible idea.
2013 Will Be ...
More fortunate. There's no way the Panthers can lose seven one-score games (and counting!) again. They just can't -- even Rivera's questionable late-game decision-making shouldn't backfire at that rate.
There's lots of talent on this roster and Newton's a true franchise quarterback, even though people will be down on him thanks to a combination of expectations, the breakout of Andrew Luck/Robert Griffin III, and a bad start to the year.
The Panthers biggest issue is that, unlike the 2011 Buccaneers, they don't have any cap space. The Bucs were able to use free agency and the draft to morph from a basement dweller into a playoff contender. Carolina will likely need a good run of health and an incredible draft to make that happen in 2013.
It's possible, and better luck will make it easier, but it would probably be wise to avoid Super Bowl expectations the next time around.
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