Some say with the loss yesterday that the season was a failure. I disagree and say it was a success. Successful as in winning the while enchilada? No, of course not. However let's just take a moment and reflect on the season the Panthers had.
Most fans weren't sure what to expect of the team when the 2013 NFL season began. Previous seasons showed the team starting off very slow before heating up down the stretch, usually when it was too late to make a run for the Playoffs. Coming into Cam Newton's 3rd season, many were hoping to but the "sophomore slump" behind and move on forward. The defense looked to be pretty solid, but there were still questions in the receiving department and of course the secondary. How well the team would fare was all over the place when you asked fans and the local media. I heard everything from a repeat of 2012's 7-9 record to 14-2. It seemed some fans expected more of the same old mediocre Panthers while others set their expectations mighty high.
Game 1, September 8th vs. Seattle Seahawks
Oh boy. The Panthers had to start off the season against a NFC powerhouse team like the Seahawks. With Seattle's QB, Russell Wilson, spending part of his college days playing for NC State up the road there was a lot of interest in this game. Most people picked the Panthers to lose this game. I did. The game ended up being close, real close...until the end of the game. Carolina RB, DeAngelo Williams, fumbled the ball deep in Seahawks territory which would have put the Panthers ahead and most likely won them the game. It of course was a hard fought game and a hard lose for the team, but it was supposed to be an "acceptable" win since the Panthers weren't supposed to win the game. Final score, 7-12.
Game 2, September 15th vs. Buffalo Bills
Early on the schedule this was one of those games the team was supposed to walk away with a win. Even though it was road game, the Panthers were picked by just about everyone to win this game. Going up against a rookie QB in E. Manuel our defense was supposed to be licking their chops. What happened surprised many in that the Bills put up 24 points against our D. Late in the game, Panthers coach Ron Rivera elects to go for a field goal on 4th and 1 versus going for it deep in the Bills end of the field. This would end up costing the team a win and giving them their 2nd straight loss. Final score, 24-23.
Game 3, September 22nd vs. New York Giants
No one saw this coming. No one. The Panthers ended up shutting out Eli Manning and the New York Giants. Of course this was before everyone realized just how banged up and bad the Giants were. But still, to blank a team like the Giants? In week 3?! Of course fans in Carolina were starting to feel a little better about the team and being 1-2 after week 3 wasn't horrible. What stunk for the team was week 4 was their bye. Horrible time for a bye for any team. Especially what happened next. Final score, 38-0.
Game 4, October 6th vs. Arizona Cardinals
I think a lot of fans also picked this game as a win early on when the schedule was first released. This ended up being a very ugly game...by both teams. Cam threw for 308 yards, but had 3 INTs. Carson Palmer, QB for the Cardinals threw 3 INTs as well, but had a TD throw late in the 4th. The Panthers offense could only muster up 2 field goals and the offensive line gave up a safety in the 3rd quarter. Looking back I don't feel too bad about losing to the Cardinals as they turned out to be a good team in the NFC. Final score, 6-22.
Game 5, October 13th vs. Minnesota Vikings
This was the only game this season that I missed. My family was on vacation at Disney World. I didn't mind missing the game after the team's lousy 1-3 start, but I tried to catch some of the radio coverage when I could as we traveled to Orlando, FL. Who knew that this game would prove to be the turning point for the team as they would win their next 8 games?! Final score, 35-10.
Game 6, October 20th vs. St. Louis Rams
Home game. Crowd was getting loud and excited. Rams CB, Jenoris Jenkins was running his mouth defending Steve Smith. All Jenkins was doing was getting Smith and the rest of the team pumped. The Panthers had rattled the Rams into committing several stupid penalties that costed them big chunks of yards and extended Panther drives. One of their better players, Jake Long, even got ejected from the game after losing his cool! The other memorable moment of the game is when the Rams QB, Sam Bradford went down with a season ending injury. Tough loss for the team as Bradford was starting to show some promise, especially with their rookie WR, Tavon Austin. Final score, 30-15.
Game 7, October 24th, vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Panthers first game in prime time. How well would the team fair in their first divisional game of the year? The Buccs are one of those teams where you never know what you'll get. The Buccs had just sat their starting QB Josh Freeman and started their newly drafted rookie QB Mike Glennon. Another NC State alum, this game was going to be interesting. Cam Newton would complete 23/32 passes for 221 yards and 2 touchdowns. Glennon had a impressive first NFL game tossing the ball for 275 yards and 1 TD. Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert and tight end Greg Olsen would also score along with a rushing TD by Cam. Final score, 31-13.
Game 8, November 3rd vs. Atlanta Falcons
2nd straight divisional opponent. The Panthers owed "Matty Ice" and the dirty birds from ATL. Cam and the team took the game right at the Falcons. While Cam didn't have his best game, the D was all over Matt Ryan. He was sacked repeatedly and the Falcons had 4 total turnovers. The depleted Panthers secondary stepped it up in the 4th with Drayton Florence picking off Ryan and returning it for a TD to seal the game. Final score, 34-10.
Game 9, November 10th vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Panthers head out west to play the 49ers in Candlestick. This was going to be the defining game for the team. Critics had cited the Panthers hadn't beaten anyone good at this point in the season. Most people thought it would be a defense battle between the two teams and that assumption proved to be correct. Points were at a premium and the game atmosphere reeked of Playoffs. Who knew this game would end up foreshadowing the actual Playoffs later in the year? The only TD in the game came from a long run by Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams after he broke free of the stingy 49ers defense. Final score, 10-9.
Game 10, November 18th vs. New England Patriots
Monday Night Football. Nuff said. Cam completed 19 of 28 passes for 209 yards and 3 TDs. Greg Olsen, Tedd Ginn and Brandon LaFell all got in on the scoring action. Steve Smith also caught a 42 yard pass from Cam. Panthers D stepped up their game and caused the Patriots to turn the ball over twice, one being an interception off Tom Brady. The 'cats pulled off a shocker for the 2nd week in a row, but this time in front of a national audience. Final score, 24-20.
Game 11, November 24th vs Miami Dolphins
A lot of people called this a "trap game" during the week leading up to Sunday. The Dolphins weren't a bad team, but they weren't on the same level as the 49ers and the Patriots that the team had just defeated. The game turned out to be much tougher than many may have guessed. Cam struggled in the passing game, completing just 19 of 38 passes for 174 yards. He was also intercepted once. The Panthers fell behind in the game, a first for the team in several weeks. However in the 4th quarter the team mounted a come from behind scoring drive with a TD pass to Greg Olsen to put them up and ultimately win them the game. Final score, 20-16.
Game 12, December 1st vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Panthers showed little signs of slowing down and plowed right past the Buccs for the 2nd time this season. The team was 9-3 and looking sharp. Final score, 27-6.
Game 13, December 8th vs. New Orleans Saints
Does anyone actually like playing in the Superdome in New Orleans? The Panthers took their 8 game winning streak on the road and into a hostile environment. By now we knew the division would be against the Saints and Panthers and most knew it would be a competitive match up. Sadly the Panthers just couldn't overcome Drew Brees and the Saints (and all that crowd noise!) and their winning streak would end at 8 games. In typical Drew Brees fashion, he would throw for 300+ yards and 4 touchdowns...something that just hadn't be done against the Panthers defense much this season. Final score, 13-31.
Game 14, December 15th vs. New York Jets
I'm guessing Rob Ryan called up his brother, Rex, and told him all about the Panthers offense as the Jets proved to be a more formidable team than I'm sure they were given credit for. Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo Williams would both get a TD in the game, but it was a hard fought game. Thankfully late in the 4th quarter, Panthers safety, Captain Munnerlyn, would pick off Jets QB Geno Smith and return it for a touchdown. Final score, 30-20.
Game 15, December 22nd vs. New Orleans Saints
This was the much anticipated re-match between the NFC South's two best teams. This time however it was at home in Charlotte. 1st place in the division was on the line after the Saints would lose to the rams in week 15. The Panthers would again struggle against the Saints until Cam led the team down the field late in the 4th. 5 plays, 65 in just 32 seconds, Cam would toss a touchdown pass to Dominek Hixon in the corner of the end zone to win the game. Who even knew Dominek was in the game?! First place in the NFC South belonged to the Panthers! Final score, 17-13.
Game 16, December 29th vs. Atlanta Falcons
This time last year the Panthers got to play the role of spoiler for the Falcons with a win before the Falcons would play in the postseason. You know that memory had to linger in the minds of many of the Falcon players. Throw in that this was also tight end Tony Gonzalez's last NFL game. I was celebrating my wedding anniversary with my wife down in Savannah, GA on the 29th. We got done with lunch just after kickoff. So picture this. I'm walking around in historic downtown Savannah sporting my DeAngelo Williams Panthers jersey all the while holding my phone up to my hear trying to hear the play by play calls. Yes, I got many a strange look from people passing by! We got back to our hotel room in time to catch the 2nd quarter of the game. The team made this a much tighter game than I thought it would be. In the process I ended up biting my nails down quite a bit. In the end the team pulled out an ugly win. Final score, 21-20.
Up next would be a little score board watching to see what seed the Panthers would receive in the Playoffs. Of course the team ended up with the #2 overall seed as the Seahawks would get the job done to lock in the #1 seed. This meant the Panthers would have a 1st round bye and a home game.
In the first week of the Playoffs I was an Eagles fan. I had hoped the Eagles could take out the Saints and be the Panthers opponent in the 2nd round. That failed to happen as the Saints finally won a road game and beat the Eagles. Then I was pulling for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to beat the 49ers. Actually I wanted both teams to beat the snot out of each other, but hoped Green Bay could have pulled out the victory. Beating a good team once in the regular season can sometimes be hard enough as is. Beating that same team a second time in the Playoffs proves to be that much tougher. Hence my reason for pulling for the Packers to beat the 49ers. Again the team I wanted to win just didn't come through as the 49ers pulled out a road win up in the frozen tundra.
So it was all set. A re-match between the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers, at home in Charlotte NC. The game was a tough game to watch for several different reasons.
1) Referees. I won't single-handily blame the loss on the refs, but several of the calls (or blown calls) impacted the game in a major way. From the personal foul called on Munnerlyn for his "headbutt" against Boldin (?) to not catching the 49ers with 12 men in the huddle right before Vernon Davis' controversial TD. Granted several Panthers players made stupid plays that yielded a flag and by result an extended 49ers drive, the refs just didn't seem to call this game fairly from beginning to end.
2) Stupid mistakes. As I just mentioned, the Panthers shot themselves in the foot on several occasions with bad plays. Pass interference, unnecessary roughness. The Panthers just played bad. I guess you can chalk it up to Playoff inexperience for a lot of the younger guys. The 49ers got underneath the skin of the Panthers and didn't let up.
3) Turn overs. It's hard to win in the NFL, period. Turn the ball over and it's that much harder to pull off a win. It seemed as if when the 49ers defense stopped the Panthers on the 1 yard line for a 2nd time, the team's energy was just sapped out. The 49ers scored right before half time and then after a 3 and out drive to start the 2nd half, the 49ers score again. I don't know what was going through the coaching staff's head or through the players minds, but the 2nd half was dominated by the 49ers. By the way, would someone from the Seahawks defense next week please knock Kaepernick into next week for me?
It was a rough way for such an awesome season to end, yes, but for the reasons above I don't label this season as a failure. The Panthers weren't supposed to be this good. We weren't supposed to finish 12-4. We weren't supposed to go on a 8 game winning streak, especially after starting the season 1-3. Our defense was good, we knew that...but 2nd overall in the NFL?
I'm proud of what the team accomplished this year and I look forward to what the future holds. While some teams are aging, it seems as if the core of this Panthers team is still very young and full of potential. Sure the team has their work cut out for them as the offensive line needs to be addressed, as does the receiving core. Tedd Ginn stepped up big time, but the other receivers failed to do much on a week to week basis. Steve Smith is arguably the heart and soul of the offense, if not the team, and he isn't getting any younger. The team will have to find a solid #2 guy that can step up once Smith hangs it up. The secondary as needs attention. While the group of overall unknown guys preformed well at times, they also gave up too many big plays that cost the team. Panthers GM, Dave Gettleman will I'm sure address this issues this off season. It'll also be interesting to see what the team does in the 2014 NFL Draft this spring.
I really expect good things from the Panthers in the 2014 season. However before we get there I just wanted to express my gratitude to the whole Panthers franchise for a superb 2013 season...even if we did fall a little short.