The Carolina Panthers put their fans on a roller coaster ride the past calendar year. To an outsider the Panthers lost a divisional round game 23-10 to the San Francisco 49ers on January 10th, 2014 and then 364 days later lost a divisional round game 31-17 to the Seattle Seahawks on January 12th, 2015. Two seasons, two divisional games, two losses by 13 and 14 points, respectively. To an insider it’s far more complicated.
Here’s the well-documented list of the animosity the Carolina Panthers faced in that year, in chronological order: the retirement of stalwart captain left tackle Jordan Gross, the unceremonious release of Steve Smith and subsequent loss of two of the other three leading receivers from 2013, Ryan Kahlil being the only guaranteed returning offensive lineman, Cam Newton’s ankle surgery, All-Pro Greg Hardy’s domestic violence case, Newton’s preseason broken ribs, Hardy’s placement on the NFL Exempt list and the ensuing media storm, Newton’s car accident, head coach Ron Rivera’s house burning down.
In the face of all that the Carolina Panthers were not only able to get back to the divisional round of the playoffs, the Panthers won the NFC South title for the second straight year, a feat never accomplished in the division’s history.
The results may have been similar, but the roads were anything but. In 2013 the Panthers began the season 1-3 before launching into an 11-1 campaign that not only put Carolina back on the NFL map, but also turned their defense into a household name. The Panthers finished the regular season with the NFL’s second-ranked scoring defense (15.1 ppg), but were forced to play the divisional game against the league’s third-ranked 49ers’ defense, a much more experienced group.
The 2014 Panthers started 2-0, but then managed only one win in their next ten games, which included a 37-37 tie with the Cincinnati Bengals. The defense, complicated by the loss of Hardy, was ranked in the bottom ten in the league through that entire ten-game stretch. Beginning Week 14 the Panthers rattled off five straight wins, including the Wild Card round playoff win against the Arizona Cardinals, allowing only 11.5 ppg while scoring 27.6 ppg.
It wasn’t just the stretch of five decisive wins that impressed, but the circumstances under which the Carolina Panthers won. Three of the final four games came against division opponents, and two of the three opponents (ATL, NO) were in the same position as the Panthers – win or go home.
It’s clear why the Panthers finally rounded into shape and began playing up to their potential: defense, the running game, and Cam Newton’s health, not to mention his new look on life, seemingly sparked by his accident, which appeared far more severe than it actually was.
Defensively, Rivera trimmed the fat and began forming secondary combinations that covered better, hit harder, and closed space quicker. It’s no surprise that rookies Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston, the team’s 4th– and 5th-round draft picks, became more comfortable and contributed more consistently as the season went on, but the addition of Colin Jones was key.
The play of the defensive line reserves, including 2nd-round draft pick Kony Ealy, was as good as any team in the league down the stretch, and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis provided the All-World veteran support the team desperately needed.
The running game solidified once Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert were finally both healthy, but it almost had as much to do with the offensive line gelling as the season progressed as it had to do with the running backs.
The offensive line chemistry had progressed such that in the five games following their bye, Stewart was among the league leaders with 486 rushing yards on 91 carries (5.35 yards per rush); Stewart then gained 193 more rushing yards on 37 more carries (5.22 ypr) during the playoffs against the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks. In fact, including DeAngelo Williams, all three running backs averaged five or more yards per carry in the playoffs, and although the sample size for Williams and Tolbert is small, the numbers don’t lie and speak to the line blocking well.
Newton’s health improved as the season progressed, and the franchise quarterback had two of his best games in the final games of the season before the divisional playoff, two games that decided the NFC South title and in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, the latter occurring against one of the best defense in the NFL.
After missing the opening game due to injury, Newton played his best football of the season through his first five games, in which the Panthers went 2-2-1; it went down hill from there. Over the course of the next six games the Carolina Panthers didn’t win a game, and the attrition piled up, specifically on the offensive line.
Following their Week 12 bye the revamped Panthers finished 4-1, and Newton had his two best games of the season during that stretch, despite missing Week 15 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers due to the two transfer process fractures he suffered as a result of the car accident.
Regardless of how well the offensive line may have played down the stretch, the fact remains the Carolina Panthers need help protecting their franchise quarterback, and keeping him on his feet, something the Panthers have struggled with mightily in Newton’s four years in the league. Count on the Panthers addressing those issues in the off-season.
I consider the 2014 season a great success. Despite the aforementioned issues that would have seriously disabled any franchise, the Carolina Panthers endured, and actually lived up to the lofty expectations set forth by the organization, the fans, and the media. Perhaps the Panthers didn’t get there via the expected route, but the results couldn’t have been much better: a division title, a playoff win, and a playoff loss to arguably the best team in the NFL.
The Carolina Panthers may have to address some of the same issues they had going into this season, but the future has never looked brighter – as long as the salary cap cooperates. They could also use some luck this time around.
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