From the first overall pick to the best team in the NFL. How’d they do that? 11-0 so far this season – with no signs of slowing down – the Carolina Panthers are absolutely dominating the NFL this year. They are a franchise in ascendance, and they have now overtaken the Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions, in remaining the only undefeated team this season. This all started after the 2010 season imploded for the Panthers. After sleepwalking to a final scoreline of 2 wins for 14 losses, the team’s braintrust swept the coaching staff clean. John Fox, and his entire coaching team were kicked to the curb, after failing to ignite any kind of drive from the team – though general manager Marty Hurny was retained. However, getting 1st pick in the draft is always a consolation after a terrible season, and this is where the Panthers started to turn it around.
The rebuild begins
2011 brought Ron Rivera on board as Head Coach, pulling him up from the San Diego Chargers, where he had been defensive co-ordinator. The management were looking for someone who could plug the gaps in the defense first. This action was swiftly followed by signing up Sean McDermott as defensive coordinator from the Philadelphia Eagles, who had been released after a less than sterling performance in 2010. Rob Chudzinski was brought in as offensive coordinator, again from the San Diego Chargers, where he was tight ends coach, and Mike Shula, son of legendary NFL head coach Don Shula, was brought in as quarterbacks coach. This coaching staff and management team went into the 2011 draft with the first pick, and went straight for a new QB – despite the 2011 draft class being considered by pundits to be a weak one for quarterbacks. They drafted Cam Newton, from Auburn University, a cocky and temperamental player on whom many NFL executives reportedly had considerable doubts, but who nonetheless had shown real promise in his college career, winning the 2010 Heisman Trophy. Shula and Newton worked hard alongside Chudzinski, and produced one of the most impressive debut seasons for a quarterback in years. Newton walked away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award- but the team walked away with 6 wins and 10 losses. The 2012 draft saw many people scratching their heads when the Panthers used the 9th-overall pick to draft Luke Kuechly, the highest-graded linebacker in the draft; for all Kuechly’s talent, his position was that of middle linebacker, and just the previous summer, Hurney had given Jon Beason, one of the undisputed leaders on the team, a contract extension that made him the highest-paid middle linebacker in NFL history. The Panthers initially tried Kuechly out at outside linebacker, but an early-season injury to Beason put the rookie back into the middle. Like Newton, Kuechly would end up having one of the best rookie campaigns in Panthers history, ending the season with the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Yet the man who drafted both Newton and Kuechly, GM Marty Hurny, was let go during the season, after the Panthers began their campaign going 1-5. The team ended going 7 and 9, but there was reason to hope; Kuechly had established himself as a defensive star of teh future, Newton’s 7,920 passing yards from 2011-12 surpassed the previous mark for a player’s first two seasons held by Peyton Manning. and the Panthers finished their season by winning five of their last six games.
Silencing the critics
Still, Rivera’s place with the team was on thin ice. There were many who expected Rivera to be fired as soon as the 2012 season ended, due to the slow 2-8 start, especially with the team looking for a new general manager. Hurney’s successor turned out to be Dave Gettleman, who said that the team did not intend to let Rivera go at that time. However, the sharks were circling, and the Panthers endured an offseason of constant questioning and criticism. The skepticism wasn’t helped by some of the changes to the coaching staff, most notably with Rob Chudzinski being hired by the Cleveland Browns to be their new head coach. Mike Shula was promoted to offensive coordinator, but there were many questions around the promotion – the last time Shula had been an offensive coordinator was for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where during his four years calling the shots, the offense never ranked higher than 18th in points scored and 22nd in yardage. To compound matters, the 2013 campaign began badly for the team, losing three of their first four games, and there were reports that the Panthers were making plans to move on from Rivera. And then, something happened. With all the naysayers and critics pounding the table to fire Rivera, the Panthers suddenly found the spark they had used to finish the 2012 campaign as strongly as they did. Beginning with a 35-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in mid-October, the Panthers won their next eight games. They would go on to lose only one more game that season, finishing with a 12-4 record, the NFC South crown, and the #2 seed in the NFC for the playoffs. They would lose their first playoff game, but nonetheless, the Carolina Panthers had visibly shed excess weight on both defense and offense, and were clearly fired up by the new offensive system that Shula had built around Newton’s capabilities in both short and long plays. The defense had grown stronger year, with Luke Kuechly winning the Defensive Player of the Year award, and closer to the complete unit that has been so dominant in their current undefeated 2015 campaign. Aggressive plays were clearly starting to pay dividends for the team.
A step backwards
With such a strong turnaround the previous year, hopes were high for the Panthers in 2014, but Ron Rivera wasn’t able to build off their momentum. The season started strong, with back-to-back wins in the first two weeks – the first time in Rivera’s tenure that he had won the opening game of the season – but this was followed up by a pair of losses. The Panthers won their next game, and tied the following week, but things then fell apart. The Panthers lost six games straight, and in any other season, being 3-8-1 would have consigned them to watching the playoffs from their couches. In this year, though, the NFC South was terrible from top to bottom; the Panthers may have been sitting at third in the division at the conclusion of Week 13, but they were still just two wins behind the Falcons and Saints, who were tied for first with a 5-7 record. But there was one thing in the Panthers’ favour; with the end of Week 13, the calendar rolled from November to December, and if Ron Rivera had proven one thing, it’s that he could win in December, with an 11-3 record in December games during his first three years in charge. 2014 continued that trend, as the Panthers won their last four games to become the first team in NFC South history to win the division in back-to-back season. The Panthers may have finished their season with a playoff berth, but their regular season performance could not be ignored. The improvements made seemed to be sagging, and some new players that had been signed that season were not performing the way that was expected for the Panthers. The coaching staff had some hard choices to make going into 2015 if they were going to keep up the momentum they had managed to build in the 2011-2013 seasons. The team let long-time engine of the offense, and hard of the famous ‘Double Trouble’ backfield from 2008, DeAngelo Williams, walk away in free agency, as well as cutting ties with notorious DE Greg Hardy, who the team had chosen to suspend before their Week 2 game after greater scrutiny on players accused of domestic abuse following Adrian Peterson’s indictment on child abuse charges. To compound issues, the team’s emerging star at wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, tore his ACL during training camp and was lost for the season.
The best team in the NFL
Despite these losses, the Panthers brought in other players who would contribute immediately. This allowed the team to build on their existing schemes, particularly on defense, where their 10th-ranked 2014 defense gave them a strong foundation to build on. Free agency additions Kurt Coleman and Charles Tillman quickly established themselves as starters in the secondary, which coinciding with fourth year player Josh Norman’s ascendancy has the Panthers currently leading the league in interceptions. Even with core pieces like Charles Johnson and Luke Kuechly missing several games due to injury, the defense has been among the league’s best this season – currently ranking 2nd in yards allowed and 3rd in points allowed – due to the pieces Gettleman has added over the course of his three years running the front office, such as draftees on the defensive line in Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Kony Ealy, as well as free agents like Coleman and Tillman this year and Roman Harper last year, and trading for Jared Allen early in the season. On offense, Gettleman added Michael Oher in free agency to shore up an offensive line which gave up the 12th-most sacks in 2014, which coincided with Shula looking to use Newton as more of a pocket passer than he had been up until this point. Where that strategy may have changed for some teams after losing their #1 receiver for the year, Shula stuck the course, and as a result, Newton is having his best season to date, well on track to match (if not beat) his career-high 24 TD passes on the season. Veteran TE Greg Olsen, who has been with Newton since the beginning after signing as a free agent from the Bears in 2011, has become even more of a focal point in this offense, not only leading the team in yards, but leading every tight end not named “Rob Gronkowski” in yardage this season with 788 yards, good for 17th-best in the league at any position. Newton’s development as a pocket passer has just been bolstered with the re-addition of Ted Ginn Jr, who Gettleman first signed as a free agent in 2013 and brought the wideout back this offseason. The better protection up front – where the Panthers’ OL had given up the 12th-most sacks last year, they have given up the 11th-least this season so far – has not only allowed Shula to dial up more throws from in the pocket, but more importantly, has kept Cam healthy. That’s only been helped by an even greater emphasis on the ground game from what was already a run-heavy offense; where the Panthers had the 8th-most rushing attempts last season, they currently have the 4th-most this season, and already have more rushing touchdowns than they did all of last year. So what can we learn from a team that are unquestionably ascendant right now, looking stronger with every game they play? It has now been over a calendar year since the Panthers lost a regular-season game, in Week 13 of 2014. On the eve of Week 13’s Sunday slate a year later, the Panthers have shown the blueprint that too many teams give up on too early: patience. There are owners in the league that would have given up on Ron Rivera years ago, as we’ve already shown you. Instead, Jerry Richardson stayed the course, and Dave Gettleman, who could have replaced Rivera with ‘his’ choice of head coach, gave Rivera an opportunity to see his plan through. His defesnive coordinator is still Sean McDermott, who’s been with Rivera since day one, as has Mike Shula. A lot of this team has been put together and kept together for many years – Jonathan Stewart and Ryan Khalil on offense, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson on defense, all predating Rivera, but still all contributing. Additions to the team under Gettleman have been primarily through the draft or undrafted free agents, but where has has gone to the market, they have tended to be older players who may not be ‘blue chip’ FAs, but have been hugely valuable contributors. It’s a path that has required a lot of patience, with three losing records in Rivera’s four seasons in charge, but unlike some other teams, who get rid of head coaches frequently (Rob Chudzinski, who left his role as the Panthers OC, lasted all of one season as head coach of the Browns before being fired), and it doesn’t always deliver results. For the Panthers, the lone undefeated team in the NFL, it’s delivered in spades. The Panthers motto is to “keep pounding”. That’s exactly what they’ve done. Through the losing seasons, through the criticisms, through the calls to fire Rivera, the Panthers have kept pounding, and pounding, and pounding, all the way from the first overall pick to the best team in the NFL.