The Carolina Panthers have shot out the gates with a 4-0 record. Meanwhile, most pundits and prognosticators have been quick to downplay the success of the co-NFC South leaders.
Here’s Frank Schwab of Yahoo! Sports:
Cam Newton is carrying a huge load on his shoulders, and doing it tremendously well. But the Panthers seem vulnerable to injuries, especially on offense. They’re already thin at the skill positions. The Panthers have won games against teams quarterbacked by Blake Bortles, Ryan Mallett, Luke McCown and Jameis Winston. And the Panthers have been outgained by those opponents 1,356-1,288. They have had two road games, but both short trips to Florida. Credit to them for handling business to this point, but the road hasn’t been very tough. If you’re going to say that one of the six teams will fit right into the 17 percent of 4-0 teams that doesn’t make the playoffs, the obvious choice is the Panthers.
There’s nothing here that can be debated.
However, Cam Newton has been Superman-like through the first four games of the season, with a 3.5:1 TD/INT ratio and being the team’s most effective rusher with 195 yards (25 less than the team leader Jonathan Stewart) and all of the touchdowns. Their schedule is their schedule, there’s nothing Carolina can do about that… but we know that getting a win in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE is the most important thing ever. Kudos to Carolina for being stout defensively (11 turnovers forced) and playing efficient, turnover-free football offensively (3 turnovers). Unlike other teams thus far, Carolina’s taking care of business like good teams should.
The reality is that Carolina is probably a year or two ahead of schedule. When Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman took over the roster in 2013 with a flooded salary cap, Carolina went on to finish with a 12-4 record (tied for the best record in franchise history) and a NFC South title. Then, when the roster needed to be purged the following season, the Panthers chucked the deuce to almost everyone. Predictably, the Fighting Cam Newtons scuffled to a 3-8-1 start through ten games.
Take these two things into consideration.
ONE: If you include the last four regular season games of 2014, the Panthers have won eight straight regular-season games.
TWO: Carolina has won nine of 10, if you count the 2014 playoffs where they took care of business against a depleted Arizona squad. Then took the defending champion Seahawks to the brink with Cam driving the team to tie the game in the 4th quarter, which came to an end with a Kam Chancellor pick-6 interception.
Even with a playoff berth last season, Carolina still was well positioned to draft quality players and acquire talented players to fill the gaps on the Panthers. As NFL.com’s Albert Breer notes, Carolina’s harvest is now becoming ripe.
Only five starters from the team’s 2013 playoff game against the Niners started last Sunday against the Bucs: Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, center Ryan Kalil, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and linebacker Thomas Davis. (Linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Charles Johnson were sidelined by injury.) That’s a pretty staggering amount of turnover for a team that’s won two division titles in a row. There are some scrap-heap vets filling in the blanks (Roman Harper, Jared Allen), but it’s mostly young guys like Josh Norman, Andrew Norwell, Trai Turner, Corey Brown, Kawann Short, A.J. Klein and Shaq Thompson (all 27 or younger).
Sure, the NFC South is shrouded in question marks as the credibility of the division is still a virtual unknown. Sure, anyone who reads this article could probably start at wide receiver for the Panthers right now. Sure, Cam Newton needs to develop in other areas as a passer. These are all fair criticisms.
However, the two-time defending NFC South champions seem to be just figuring it out, and that should be a scary feeling for the rest of the NFL as teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints are staring at a rebuild. The Panthers found a way to reload while staying undefeated in the regular season for 10 months.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”