Panthers seeking historic season with 9-plus wins
Posted July 10, 2014
Charlotte, N.C. — When the Carolina Panthers begin their season on Sept. 7 at Tampa Bay, they’ll be picked by some to win a second straight NFC South Division title.
At worst, the Panthers will be predicted a close second to New Orleans in the divisional race.
The web site OddsShark.com has the Panthers at 33-to-1 to win the Super Bowl while making the Saints (16-to-1) the NFC South favorite. The site favors Seattle (6-to-1) to repeat as NFL champs, followed by last season’s Super Bowl loser Denver (13-to-2), San Francisco (7-to-1) and New England (9-to-1).
It’s understandable that the Panthers will begin as a popular pick to go far. That’s what happens after a team goes 12-4 by winning 11 of its final 12 games.
But amid all of the preseason optimism in-and-outside the Panthers locker room, a more valid question might be, 'can they even get out of the 2014 season with so much as a winning record?'
A winning record this season might not be the cinch you assume.
After all, the Panthers have been around since 1995 and have never managed to put together two straight winning seasons.
That may sound difficult to believe, but it’s a fact.
After going 11-5 in 2005, the Panthers' 2006 record was 8-8. In 2008, the Panthers whet 12-4, followed by another 8-8 in ’09. After an 11-5 record in 2003, the ’04 team finished 7-9.
This feast-or-famine routine has been a part of the franchise’s performance personality from the very start. That ’95 team, which played home games in Clemson, went a surprising 7-9 in the NFC West.
The next season -- 1996 -- the Panthers were the darlings of pro football, going a startling 12-4 in regular season and ousting Dallas in the playoffs before losing the conference championship on a brutally cold afternoon in Green Bay.
Picked as a Super Bowl contender in the ’97 preseason, they slipped to 7-9 and suffered a devastating 34-0 late-season loss to Denver. In 1998, the roof collapsed. A 4-12 record sent Dom Capers packing and George Seifert arriving in the head coach’s office.
On paper, the 2014 Panthers come across as a team that should have little trouble ending its seesaw trend -- but that also can be deceiving.
In Cam Newton, they obviously have one of the most talented and imaginative quarterbacks in the game.
Running backs DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and James Stewart have been among the most productive corps in the league for years. Williams, 31, is getting somewhat old by running back standards and injuries have limited Stewart, 27, to 15-game appearances during the past two seasons. But with Tolbert, technically a fullback with tailback quickness, the running attack should be very effective again.
Beyond the immediate backfield personnel and tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers are facing more questions than almost anyone could have anticipated late last season.
Most of the wide receivers are new and the offensive interior line may turn out to be the most inexperienced in the division. Rookies Ed Kugbila and Trai Turner almost certainly will have to play a good deal and three veterans are coming off injuries and/or facing positions switches. Even Kugbila, drafted in 2013, sat out all of last season with knee trouble.
It’s hardly a secret the Panthers are built from the ground up on the basic theory of defense-first, and although the secondary has been revamped, the overall defensive picture remains impressive.
End Charles Johnson and linebacker Luke Kuechly are among the best in the business at their jobs.
Even with a top-line defense, it still can be a thin line.
During the final five or six games last season, it was virtually forgotten that Ron Rivera’s future as head coach appeared bleak at best after a 1-3 start and an ugly 22-6 loss at Arizona on Oct. 6 that came on the heels of bye week no less.
But starting with an easy win at Minnesota the following week, the schedule suddenly turned favorable, thanks in large part to surprisingly weak seasons by Atlanta and Tampa Bay (both 4-12) in the division.
The 2014 mid-season schedule almost certainly will be more difficult.
There will be a four-game October stretch -- at Cincinnati (Oct. 12), at Green Bay (Oct. 19) and back home for Seattle (Oct. 26) followed by a three-day around against New Orleans (Thursday Oct. 30) in Charlotte -- that could determine whether the Panthers have legitimately arrived or are still prowling around on the brink.