The Carolina Panthers went 6-10 in 2011, which was Year One of the Cam Newton and coach Ron Rivera experience.
In 2012 the odds-makers in Las Vegas are predicting a slight improvement for the Panthers with a win total of over/under of 7.5 games.
As a Carolina fan, I'll take the over.
And if a few things break just right for the Panthers in the upcoming season, their win total could be significantly over the 7.5 games being predicted. In fact, with a few breaks and some improved play, the Carolina Panthers could win 10 games in 2012. Here is how:
1. Cam Newton Goes From ROY to MVP. In 2010 Cam Newton broke nearly every meaningful record for rookie quarterbacks and ran away with the Rookie of the Year award. Keep in mind that Newton did this despite the condensed preseason stemming from the prolonged labor dispute. Additionally, the Panthers had to incorporate an entirely new system led by new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. If Cam Newton can be the ROY under those circumstances, he has to be a legitimate MVP candidate with one year under his belt and a full offseason to prepare.
2. The Panthers Close Out Close Games. As I have previously written, the Panthers squandered away five games in 2011. With the same core team largely returning, Carolina players and coaches should have learned valuable lessons about holding on to second half leads. A more experienced Panthers team could win a few of the close games they gave away in 2011.
3. NFC South Turmoil. The normally dominant New Orleans Saints are a mess. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be terrible with Josh Freeman regressing a new coach in town. The Atlanta Falcons are strong, but not invincible. Do not be surprised if the Panthers improve upon last year's 2-4 record in the NFC South.
4. A Healthy D-Line. By the end of 2011 the Panthers defensive front was so banged up that the team was relying on unsigned free agents and practice squad players. The healthy return of DT's Ron Edwards, Terrell McClain, and Sione Fua will undoubtedly bolster a weak defensive front.
5. Healthy Linebackers. The Panthers got a combined total of three games in 2011 from starting linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis due to season-ending injuries suffered by both players. Both players are reported to be healthy coming into the new season. Additionally, first round pick Luke Keuchly could be a difference maker against the run in helping the Panther defense to greatly improve over last year's performance.
6. Even More Dominant Running Game. In 2011 the Panthers averaged a healthy 4.6 yards per rush attempt, a stat which could be improved with a bolstered offensive line. With two big "IFS" the Panthers O-line will greatly improve: If tackle Jeff Otah can stay healthy and if rookie second round pick Amini Silatolu is as good as advertised. The Panthers can improve offensively behind a healthy, more talented offensive line.
7. Improved Punt Returns. In 2011 the Panthers had the third worst punt return game in the NFL at just 5.5 yards per return. Carolina wisely invested a fourth round draft pick in Arkansas return man Joe Adams, arguably the best punt returner in college football last year. Just watch this video clip of Adams' jaw-droppingly amazing punt return touchdown against Tennessee and tell me if this kid might be able to swing a game for the Panthers with a big return.
8. The Return of David Gettis. Carolina has desperately tried to fill the number two wide receiver spot to take the pressure off Steve Smith for the last several years. David Gettis could be that guy. As a rookie in 2010 Gettis managed to produce 37 receptions for 508 yards and three touchdowns then missed the entire 2011 season due to injury. A trio of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, and a healthy David Gettis could give Cam Newton the receiving weapons he needs to pull out another win or two in 2012.
9. Improved Coaching.2011 was a baptism by fire for new coach Ron Rivera and his staff. Just like players, coaches get better with time and experience. I doubt Ron Rivera will commit blunders like the infamous timeout he called against the Saints, giving New Orleans three free points in what turned out to be a close loss for the Panthers.
As a Panthers fan I am optimistic for the team to improve upon their six wins in 2011. If the 10 keys I list above can fall into place, the Panthers could realistically win as many as 10 games in 2012.
So can the Panthers surpass the 7.5 wins Vegas is predicting?
Andrew Sweat is a die-hard Panthers fan. For more from this author, visit Andrew's archive or check these out articles: