NFC South Preview: Carolina Panthers Poised to Take a Step Forward
Oftentimes in the NFL people like to predict incremental growth for teams based on the recent past. They see a weak team one year who adds a few players and improve in year two. Then in year three they add a few more wins, so in year four everyone is predicting yet another improvement from the “young nucleus.” A good example of this is the Detroit Lions who have seen their win totals improve starting with 0 and climbing to 2, 6 and finally a 10-win playoff berth this last season.
It is fun to see it happen and everyone feels good about themselves when it does. But in the NFL it usually doesn’t work this way. When a team shows improvement in the first year, in order to extrapolate more wins the following year, the team must have added pieces to their puzzle – we can’t just assume they improve because “they are growing”. In fact, most of the time there is little reason to assume improvement in year two.
Take the Lions for example again. While they have followed this nice growth model for the last four seasons I have my doubts that the trend can continue. Many are predicting Detroit to take the next step, but unless they add to their squad I don’t see how they will get much better.
Most of the time a team showing improvement one year was simply the benefactor of an easy schedule or some good fortune, and they will fall back to the pack the next year. Though there is the potential to work in reverse though.
It is said that a team is “a year away” when a young group of players is coming together, but still losing. People like to see the linear growth of a team coming together and expect it to happen far more than it does. I think many will predict this for the Carolina Panthers this season. I think that as long as Cam Newton takes the next step there is no reason this Panthers squad has to be a year away from anything.
Improvement can happen in leaps and bounds in the NFL, too, and there is no reason why you have to struggle for two or three seasons before finally breaking through to the playoffs, especially when you have an emerging superstar at quarterback. What Cam Newton did last season was simply amazing and it proved all the people like me totally wrong. Newton was overlooked by most writers and talking heads but shoved it in all their faces. I think there was residual doubt about Newton because of the lack of success of recent top picks JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young, which I suppose is understandable. But what Newton did in college was special and should not have been overlooked. He went undefeated for the #1 team in the country and their record was based primarily on his skills. When he was down 24-nothing to the most vicious college defense around (Alabama) he took over the game and brought his team back to victory to preserve the unbeaten season. Oh, and it was in Alabama! It was wrong of everybody to doubt Cam Newton and after last season I will doubt him no more.
The Panthers already have a good enough offense in place with Newton, a solid offensive line, and a strong stable of running backs with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Throw in Steve Smith, who definitely is not too old, and the offense has all it needs for a successful season.
So what needs to happen for them to take down the division? Well, the defense has to show up and look good. Last season the Carolina defense was two things: injured and virtually non-existent. Footballoutsiders.com ranked the Panthers last in three key categories in 2011: total defense, special teams, and adjusted games lost to injury on defense (meaning they were the most injured). The defense will improve simply because it is hard to be that bad on defense two years in a row, but also because some key players are returning from injury and they used the #9 overall pick to draft linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Football teams don’t always take four years for everything to come together, and the biggest reason they seem to come together in a hurry is when a team finds a superstar at QB. Cam Newton can be that player. If he takes that next step this year then you’d better not be caught sleeping on the Panthers.
… and that’s the Last Word.