By Ted Fleming
The winds of change blew through the NFL with such force that nearly a quarter of the head coaches were let go, but in Charlotte there was a sense of calm even though there has been no word on the status of Ron Rivera’s status with the Panthers going forward.
If you are to look at the second half of the season, Rivera and his entire coaching staff did a superb job in not letting a bad start ruin the entire season. They made adjustments on the fly, finding enough talent to fill the voids left by a record tying 18 players landing on injured reserve and managed to settle down their franchise quarterback when he seemed to be losing his way.
In his first two seasons Rivera has won 13 of 32 games and the way things went down on what has now called “Black Monday,” it would not have been a surprise if he was the eighth head coach to get a pink slip. Maybe owner Jerry Richardson is mulling over how the season ended as opposed to how it started and if leans toward the former, Rivera will be back.
Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton were rookies at their respective jobs in 2011 and they were supposed to grow together. They would finish 6-10 after just two wins the year before and maybe that is why everyone seemed to go overboard with their predictions of 2012, after being four games under .500 is still a losing record no matter what league you play in.
By setting the bar so high, like Ryan Kalil’s full page ad in the Charlotte Observer predicting a Super Bowl season, it put an enormous amount of pressure on everyone to perform at the highest of levels even though they were playing in a division with perennial playoff teams like the Falcons and Saints. The schedule was also chocked full of powerhouses like the Broncos, Giants, Bears and Cowboys who, on any given weekend, could kick your teeth in.
Here is a quick look at what went wrong and eventually went right for the 2012 Carolina Panthers:
THE GOOD: Finishing with four straight wins was definitely the highlight of the year and in the finale Cam Newton may have learned what it takes to be a leader. He was focused, took charge and when he had to take some plays off because he took a big hit or had his ankle twisted during a tackle, he wanted back in so he could finish the job against the Saints.
The Panthers swept New Orleans, no easy task by any means, beat the playoff bound Redskins and stunned the 13-3 Falcons.
Because of an injury, rookie Luke Kuechly moved into his more familiar spot at middle linebacker and established himself as a legitimate contender for defensive rookie of the year.
DeAngelo Williams’ 210 rushing yards in the last game and 93 against the Chargers in Week 15 plus his desire to stay with the club will make the next general manager’s job a whole lot tougher whether he keeps the Panthers’ all-time rushing leader or keep Jonathan Stewart, who missed the final five games with ankle woes.
Tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Brandon LaFell gave Cam Newton some nice targets downfield other than the always reliable Steve Smith.
The defense. Who woulda thunk?
THE BAD: Injuries. All teams have them but the bug was record tying as 18 players landed on IR.
The running game. It was ineffective for so long it was hard to understand why anyone would have two high-priced backs on the roster and not use them better. With everything that was going so wrong so early in the season the commitment to the ground game didn’t come until it was really too late.
THE UGLY: Ron Rivera took the most heat for it but the seven losses by touchdown or less was the most dispiriting. He had his head coaching qualifications questioned and his play calling second-guessed by everyone from local and national media to fans in the stands and on sports-talk radio. Win four of those games and you make the postseason despite a couple of embarrassing losses to the Manning brothers, the Giants and Eli 36-7 and Peyton’s Broncos 36-14.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN 2013: Providing that Rivera returns, the Panthers are a team that needs tweaking rather than an overhaul. Richardson will have to hire a top notch GM that will have to live with his decision on head coach and in reality that should not be a problem.
A decision will have to be made at running back and either Williams or Stewart is most certainly gone. Mike Tolbert is a find and might just be the most underrated fullback in the league. The receiving corps is solid. If there is to be any restructuring it will be on the offensive line where there will be a lot of new faces. Depth is a priority because if there was any area that was unable to make up for injuries it was here.
The defense could add some depth, but there is a core group of players who will return next year to lead the charge led by Kuechly, Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks), Greg Hardy (11) and the amazing Thomas Davis who might have been a Pro Bowl snub playing at such a high level after three surgeries on the same knee. Dwan Edwards (6 sacks) should also return. The secondary will be addressed in the draft or through free agency although safety Charles Godfrey and cornerback Josh Thomas have jobs waiting for them.
Panthers’ fans should be excited the season ended the way it did because it showed that their team never gave up and with a break here or there things could have been very different. It didn’t so it is on to 2013 but with a better sense of where the team is going.
With or without Rivera the Panthers are ready to take the next step. The difference between this offseason and last is this time the optimism is for real.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.