If you posed the question to any sports fan about the chances of the Panthers winning the Super Bowl two years ago, they would have given you a look of incredulous wonder and utter confusion. Despite their inconsistent ways, the Panthers exploded athletically last year and garnered their first winning season since 2008.
While 2013 was a monumental year for the Panthers franchise, it also laid down the foundation for what this team wanted to accomplish in the future. Gone are the days when the Panthers resided in mediocrity as they scrapped together one irrelevantly average season after another.
Even though the Panther track record of stacking consecutive winning seasons isn’t promising (since their inception into the NFL in 1995, the Panther’s have gone onto compile an overall record of 8-8 or worse after putting together a winning season the year before), this team has a confident young quarterback in Cam Newton and a dominant defense that could easily win consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history.
While the Panther’s had an impressive running game and a defense that was nearly unbreakable, the one weakness of their game was their inconsistent passing attack.
Despite Newton’s newfound discipline in the pocket, the Panther’s only threw for 190.2 yards per game (29th in the NFL). With the loss of Steve Smith to the Baltimore Ravens, the Panthers knew that they had to acquire a potent receiver who had the size and strength to fill the void left by Smith. Sure enough, the Panthers selected wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with their first pick in the NFL draft.
Although Benjamin may not be the most intuitive route runner, his size and tenacity make him a great target when he’s running down field and can easily win most one-on-one matchups with opposing defensive backs. Even though Benjamin may have to improve his ball skills and route running efficiency, his raw talent and strength make him an ideal fit for the Panthers.
Looking at the Panthers schedule, it’s difficult to surmise how well they will fair due to the fact that their first two matchups are against teams that will be utilizing new head coaches. While a first week matchup with the Buccaneers would seem like an easy victory for a defensively potent Panthers squad, the Buccaneers have brought in both a defensively minded coach in Lovie Smith and a reliable passer in Josh McCown.
It’ll be interesting to see not only how each defense has improved since last year, it’ll also be a competitive duel between two passers who exhibit two different styles of passing.
Between the scrappy pocket maneuvering and rushing capabilities of a young Cam Newton and the prototypical pocket passing proficiencies of an experienced Josh McCown, it will be a defining start to the season for both of these tenacious quarterbacks who will look to get a leg up in their division right off the bat.
As far as the rest of Panthers schedule is concerned, it’s an intriguing path with a myriad amount of teams that could either be extremely good or absolutely abysmal.
From weeks three to five the Panthers face three teams that all went 8-8 last year (Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago respectively). By far the most notable match up of the three is the Panther’s road trip into Baltimore during week four of the regular season.
While the novelty of Steve Smith getting to seek vengeance against his former team is enticing in and of itself, what makes this upcoming match up even more noteworthy is how similar both of these teams are. Both teams have issues with passing the ball while their defenses do the majority of the leg work in terms making the big plays happen to give their erratic offenses the momentum to succeed.
Although the Ravens will have the initial edge because of their smash mouth defense and their success at home, the Panthers will certainly give them trouble with a intimidating defense of their own and a scrappy quarterback that will continually test the Ravens defensive line with his agile rushing capabilities.
In the end, the Panthers have set themselves up to excel this season to not only win their division but to also go far in the playoffs to eventually garner their first Super Bowl appearance since 2003.
While their division rivals may attempt to get in the way of their lofty aspirations, the Panthers have the youth and breadth of talent to overcome these volatile opponents.
If Cam Newton can work on becoming a more balanced passer as he started to do last year, the Panthers could effectively have all the working pieces to not only make it to the Super Bowl, but to win it valiantly in the process.