If some one had predicted a year ago that the New York Giants would win Super Bowl XLVI, it would be fair to have classified such a prediction as bold. While it would probably be a bit more than bold to say the 2012 Carolina Panthers will do the same, it’s anything but impossible. One thing is clear. From the coaches, to the quarterback, to the very graphics of the logo itself; the times they are a changin’ in Carolina. The question is whether or not they can contend anytime soon. The answer is: perhaps a lot sooner than people think. For the purposes of licking our post-Super Bowl wounds and biding our time until September, let the wild conjecture on the Panthers 2012 NFL season begin with these few, but certainly audacious possibilities..
The Three-Headed Monster will Rush for 3,000 Yards- In the 2011 regular season the Panthers finished 3rd overall in team rushing yards with 2,408. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Cam Newton ran for a combined 2,303 yards (respectively ranking 23rd, 25th, and 26th in the league). Two running backs and a quarterback clustered together that high in the rankings is impressive enough, but it becomes border-line scary when you consider that they only seemed to run the ball progressively better as the season went on. Running the ball effectively isn’t really anything new for the Panthers, as Williams and Stewart have been widely viewed in recent history as one of the best one-two punches in the NFL, but the addition of Newton has literally added an entirely new dimension to Carolina’s rushing attack. Defenses can no longer stack the box and bear down on the running game, as has been the formula against the Panthers in recent history, due to Newton’s proven ability to stand up against the rush and do serious damage down the field with his strength and accuracy throwing the football. That’s not all. Newton’s own ability to run the ball within their designed rushing scheme mandates that defenses respect him in run-play action, giving Carolina’s already formidable offensive line one or two fewer people to block up field. The myth that the run-option will never work in the NFL has officially been shattered. Granted, it can only work consistently when you have a quarterback with Newton’s skill set; but throw in a pair of runners like Williams and Stewart and you’ve arguably got the most difficult backfield for defenses to deal with in the game. With the retaining of Geoff Hangartner and the return of Jeff Otah from injury, you can also add to the equation one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
A Top-Five Defense in 2012- Carolina ranked 28th in total defense in 2011, a far cry from Rivera’s 2010 San Diego Charger defense that sat atop the mountain at 1st overall. You can bet defense is a priority for Rivera going into 2012, and that things are going to change fast. Already, the team has said goodbye to secondary coach Ron Meeks, bringing in Steve Wilks, a Charlotte native that held the same position with Rivera in San Diego as well as Chicago. Wilks’ arrival should only make things easier for Rivera to more thoroughly teach and implement his scheme, but perhaps more importantly; having a full off-season complete with OTA’s and mini-camps will give him the opportunity to do so that he did not have in 2011. While it’s certainly fair argue that Jim Harbaugh managed to produce a top-five defense under the same circumstances, the stark difference is the fact that the 49ers didn’t suffer anything close to the loss of personnel through injury that the Panthers did. Imagine if Patrick Willis had gone down in week one like Jon Beason did, or if Justin Smith were lost before the season even started as was Ron Edwards for Carolina. The return of such anchors on the defensive side should prove a vast difference. Additionally, potential acquisitions in free-agency, like San Diego Charger safety Paul Oliver, will only smooth out the edges of a potentially much-improved unit. Even further, the distinct possibility they spend a high draft pick or two on some young defensive talent will only add fuel to the fire. Anyone who doubts the possibility that the Panthers can turn things around so dramatically need look no further than the Houston Texans and what they were able to do defensively between 2010 and 2011. Look for something similar in Carolina in 2012.
NFC South Title and at the Least an NFC Championship Appearance: With all the talk about the NFL becoming a “Quarterback’s league,” what we found in the 2011 post-season was that the cream that rose to the top consisted of more than just a quarterback. The fact is that defense still wins championships, and a running game certainly doesn’t hurt either. The Giants’ defensive capability to slow Tom Brady and company down, coupled with the Patriots’ inability to do the same to Giants, proved the simple difference in the game. The G-Men were regarded by many as the most balanced team, and that once again proved to be what champions are made of. Given our two previous Panther predictions, there could be a real formula for success being laid to ground in Carolina. As far as winning the NFC South, it’s really not such a ludicrous prediction, given its tumultuous history. Since realignment, there simply hasn’t been a division in football like it, in which the order of power completely re-shuffles on a consistent basis. Already in 2012, the rest of the division is in complete flux with regard to their staff. The Saints lost DC Gregg Williams, the Falcons have lost both coordinators as well as director of player personnel Les Snead, and the Bucs are under a completely new coaching regime altogether. The Panthers on the other hand, only a year removed from a coaching staff overhaul themselves, now have arguably the most stability here in the division. Perhaps the most important puzzle-piece to Panther prominence (say it with me now) is the development of Cam Newton going into his second year. He’s received all sorts of love and accolades after a superlative rookie season, but for a guy who seems to fuel his focus with the criticism and doubt of others; there looms the distinct possibility of the dreaded sophomore slump. While there are still some questions to be answered about Newton in the years to come, one thing that people should no longer doubt is his competitive fire and desire to win. This is perhaps his most important quality, as it is the driving force behind many of the greats in the history of sports. He says he wants to be great, and that his ultimate goal is to win Super Bowls and not just enjoy all the media buzz as a spectator. There’s only one thing he needs to do: prove it.