By: Chris Dagonas
Beating the Washington Football Team this year is not much to brag about. But the Panthers have so much more going for them then demolishing a mediocre team. And while quarterback Cam Newton stole the show on Sunday with 5 touchdown passes, there is a lot more going on in Carolina than an MVP quarterback.
There are only two undefeated teams remaining in the NFL, and the Panthers are one of them. Last week, I talked about Cam Newton being an MVP candidate because the rest of his team was nothing special. But that is more than a little bit unfair. You can’t be 10-0 on the strength of just your quarterback. So who else makes up this largely anonymous bunch?
Left tackle Michael Oher rose to fame after the release of the movie “The Blind Side”. While the movie probably took liberties with Oher’s life story, one thing that can not be denied is his pass blocking ability. Oher and longtime Panthers center Ryan Kalil headline an offensive line that has only allowed 20 sacks and 38 quarterback hits so far this season, while also creating 41 runs of 10 or more yards.
Those runs have been (mostly) attributed to running back Jonathan Stewart. The 8-year veteran has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but in 2011 showed glimpses of his potential with 5.4 yards per carry. That was also the last time he played in all 16 games, but is on pace to achieve that again this season. At his current pace, he can expect to reach 1,200 rushing yards this year, which would be a career high. He is also always fully capable of plays like this.
The rumbling Mike Tolbert, a long-time Panther, serves as the fullback and goal line back, and forms a daunting tandem with Stewart. After a down year last season, Tolbert is back to being a wrecking ball, easily gaining 3 yards per carry. I would like to see the Panthers try to use Tolbert more often as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, a role in which he excelled in his last season with the San Diego Chargers.
On paper, pass-catching looks to be Carolina’s biggest weakness. When standout receiver Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL in an August practice, it was reported as a huge blow to the Panthers’ hopes of repeating as NFC South champions. In his stead, journeyman wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. has emerged as the leader, totalling 30 receptions for 445 yards and 4 touchdowns. But the rest of this group of receivers, once seen as shallow and untalented, is actually quite sure-handed and steady. Rookie Devin Funchess has become a very capable second receiver, with second-year man Corey Brown and 12-year veteran Jerricho Cotchery chipping in their fair share. The receivers are not stars, but able run blockers and smart receivers. But the best receiver on this team, is actually not a wide receiver at all.
Cam Newton’s favourite target, both last season and this season, has been tight end Greg Olsen, who is consistently one of the league’s best at his position. Olsen has been with the Panthers since 2011, and last year set career highs in receptions (84) and receiving yards (1,008), while hauling in six touchdowns. This year, he has 48 catches for 718 yards, and could easily surpass last season’s yardage total. As the team’s leading pass-catcher, Olsen takes a load of pressure off the receiving corps.
The offense has some decent players, as well as one of the league’s best playmakers in Newton. But this team is really built on the strength of its’ elite defense.
The Panthers have tallied 31 sacks, good for second in the NFL, and many more instances of rushing the passer. Those disturbances are mostly caused by Jared Allen and the young, athletic defensive line. Allen, a veteran from the Vikings and Chiefs, has had some injury setbacks, but his presence has firmed up the line, and turned the attention of opposing blockers away from young stars like defensive end Kony Ealy and defensive tackle Kawann Short, who leads the team with 6 sacks.
Pro-Bowl linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis form the heart and brains of this defense. The leading tacklers and all-around beasts, few teams have answers for what Kuechly and Davis can offer from the linebacker spot, from pass rushing, to coverage, to sure-handed tackling.
Let us not forget or ignore cornerback Josh Norman, who in his fourth season has made a name for himself as a top-5 cornerback in the league. Norman has 4 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles so far this season, numbers that speak to just how tough he makes it for receivers to catch and hang on to the football. The additions of veteran safety Roman Harper last season, and safety Kurt Coleman and cornerback Charles Tillman this season, has turned the Panthers secondary into a scary bunch. While not as tough as Seattle’s Legion of Boom, the Panthers certainly have a nose for the ball to rival that last great NFC secondary.
Head coach Ron Rivera has gone through perhaps the most fascinating development of any current NFL head coach. He began his head coaching career with a 6-10 season in 2011. He improve to 7-9 in 2012, and was known universally as ultra conservative, choosing “safe” plays rather than statistically intelligent ones, or ones that showed trust in his players. That reversed in 2013, as Rivera began showing more confidence and boldness in his play calling, and he flipped the Panthers into a 12-4 team as Newton matured. Last season saw them drop to 7-8-1, but win a playoff game before losing to the eventual NFC champions, the Seahawks. This season, Rivera has continued showing a knack for trusting his players, and while Carolina’s play calling can still be described as conservative, it fits his players and, most importantly, has been very successful.
The Panthers have six regular season games left, starting with this Thanksgiving Thursday’s afternoon matchup against the revitalized Dallas Cowboys, who have Tony Romo and Dez Bryant healthy together for the first time since week 1, in front of a massive television audience. That could end up becoming a classic, and maybe the last real challenge to a-dare I say it-perfect season. With four games remaining against their own weak division, including two against the slumping Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers have a good opportunity to go undefeated.
In fact, if the Patriots continue as expected, we could see two undefeated regular season teams for the first time in NFL history.
I am guilty of not giving the Panthers the respect they deserved a few weeks ago. But after having watched them pick apart Washington on Sunday, as well as the Packers in week 9, I was more than a little impressed. There may not be a lot of big names here, but there are a lot of very good football players. I want it to be known that as my Dolphins slide back into irrelevancy for the millionth season in a row, I am all in on Cam Newton for MVP and the Panthers for Super Bowl champions.