Excitement, frustration, bewilderment.
Carolina Panthers players, coaches and fans aren't quite sure how to feel as they head into the offseason with more questions than answers. The bizarre rollercoaster ride of a season started extremely low and finished extremely high, culminating with an impressive 44-38 victory over the New Orleans Saints last Sunday.
After freefalling to 2-8 over the first 10 games of season, the Panthers – aided by a favorable schedule – were able to completely shift gears to win five of their final six contests and finish with a somewhat respectable 7-9 record.
The majority of NFL teams that start 2-8 are simply overmatched and outplayed by their opponents.
The Panthers, however, were not one of those teams.
With the exception of Weeks 3 and 10 against the Giants and Broncos respectively, Carolina could have won every game they played this season.
In fact, on several occasions – namely Week 4 at Atlanta, Week 8 at Chicago and Week 11 vs. Tampa Bay – the Panthers clearly outplayed their opponent, but still managed to lose.
The team simply didn't know how to win close games down the stretch.
There wasn't one reason for these failures.
There were many.
Ron Rivera and the coaching staff certainly had their share of missteps.
The players made plenty of mistakes in all three phases of the game.
There were a substantial amount of injuries.
Heck, some of it was just plain ol' bad luck.
Regardless of how much blame belongs where, the bottom line: It was a collective effort.
Likewise, the team's turnaround over the last third of the season was also a group affair.
Both the coaches and the players appeared to figure out how to close out games down the stretch (albeit against mostly subpar competition).
Cam Newton, in particular, improved his play over the winning stretch, mostly by taking better care of the ball. Additionally, despite numerous injuries, the defense played inspired football and ultimately finished as the NFL's 10th ranked unit.
On the surface, the Panthers' early-season struggles appeared to be nothing more than a young team enduring growing pains.
Except, there's one problem.
That was the excuse last year.
The 2011 version of the Carolina Panthers started 2-8 and finished 4-2, which fostered a sense of optimism heading into this season.
Clearly, there was no momentum carried over into the beginning of the 2012 campaign.
So, what can we really take away from this season?
Here are the three things I learned:
1. As previously outlined, the Panthers don't know how to win close games when it counts. Over the past two seasons, the team holds a 4-16 record from Weeks 1-10 and a 9-3 record from Weeks 11-17. Carolina is 2-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Ron Rivera and his staff bear a lot of responsibility for the team's fourth-quarter shortcomings for becoming ultra conservative with late-game leads. However, the players, particularly Cam Newton, did not always execute, either.
2. The Panthers defense has arrived. Despite all the injuries, Carolina still ranked 10th in total defense. Luke Kuechly, the NFL's leading tackler, is an absolute beast and should anchor this unit for the next decade. Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who combined for 23.5 sacks this season, are one of the league's best pass-rushing duos. Additionally, Josh Thomas and Josh Norman have shown a lot of promise in the defensive backfield.
3. The Panthers' locker room is completely behind Ron Rivera. Despite the heartbreaking losses and woeful 2-8 start, the team never once quit on their coach. They played hard all the way until the end, which yielded wins in four straight, and five of six, to close out the season.
I don't know whether next year's Panthers team will be 4-12, 8-8 or 12-4.
We've seen the Panthers play so well, yet so poorly in the span of just a few weeks.
They truly are an enigma.
However, I do know the Panthers have the talent to compete with anyone.
I know they are – for the most part – young and inexperienced both on the field and the sidelines.
I know they are still learning what it takes to win on a consistent basis.
Most importantly, I know that it's too early to abandon this coaching staff and start over.
As legendary actor Mickey Rooney once said,
"You always pass failure on the way to success."
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