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The Carolina Panthers: Perception vs Reality

December 16, 2015, Troy, NY  The Carolina Panthers were called “the worst undefeated team in NFL history” by ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight affinity website. Their last regular season loss was on 11/30/14 to the Minnesota Vikings. The Panthers have won 17 consecutive regular season games dating back to the last four of 2014. Under head coach Ron Rivera, Carolina has exceeded all preseason prognosticators by going 13-0, a franchise record for victories with three regular season games remaining.

Super Cam

Super Cam

Where is the love? QB Cam Newton is in the running to become the first black QB to win the MVP. Steve McNair shared the award with Peyton Manning in 2003. Newton’s detractors believe that he lacks the passing statistics of Tom Brady and Carson Palmer, his main competition for the award. Newton has been a lightning rod for criticism from the time he won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn through his entry into the NFL Draft. NFL super scout Nolan Nawrocki wrote a scathing report which in hindsight reads as a personal attack. Early in his career he was maligned as an ineffective leader for brooding on the sidelines during losses. Now, he is viewed more entertainer than leader due to TD celebrations and sideline photos. The reality is Newton gives footballs to young fans after touchdowns and celebrates the scoring with his teammates. The photos are team affairs, with both the offensive and defensive units, after the outcome is no longer in doubt. The Panthers are one of the most close-knit teams in recent memory. During a recent Charlotte Hornets game against the visiting NBA champion Golden State Warriors, the Panthers came out as a group to celebrate reigning NBA MVP and Charlotte native, Steph Curry’s return to his hometown.

Coach Rivera deserves credit for allowing Newton to maintain his persona while becoming a franchise QB. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula utilizes an offensive line that provides openings for the NFL’s second ranked rushing attack and protection for Cam Newton in the pocket. The Panthers are ranked number one in scoring at 31.6 points per game.  

Their balance extends to defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s side of the ball. The Panthers’ defensive line’s play at the point of attack provides opportunities for linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to make plays in opposing backfields. Their ability to push the pocket has led to 40 sacks and 21 interceptions. The secondary features shutdown corner Josh Norman, but the leader is safety Kurt Coleman. Coleman has seven interceptions to lead the NFC and is second overall in the NFL.

Tight end Greg Olsen was nominated for the NFL’s Man of the Year award. Newton is involved locally in numerous charitable endeavors. One of the knocks is that he “does not comport himself like a CEO.” If I remember correctly, the CEO of a pharmaceutical firm has raised the prices of life-saving drugs and purchased the Wu-Tang Clan’s most recent CD of which only one copy was made for $2 million. Newton’s sense of fashion is more in line with fellow Atlanta native, WaltClydeFrazier. Cam has avoided missteps off the field by not ending up on police blotters.

GM Dave Gettleman deserves consideration as the Executive of the Year. He inherited a team that was in salary cap hell. After winning the NFC South in 2013, the Panthers revamped their receiving corps, releasing franchise mainstay Steve Smith and selecting WR Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. After Benjamin went down with a knee injury in training camp, it was highly unlikely the Panthers could produce any downfield production. To the surprise of nearly everyone, The Panthers passing game has flourished as a unit capable of quick strikes from anywhere on the field due to Newton’s ability to move defenders with his eyes and a powerful right arm.

At the intersection of perception and reality lies racial stereotypes. Prior to the season, I had a conversation with a twenty-something co-worker who stated that Cam was “too dumb” to excel at quarterback. My response is that he played one season of major college ball and needs time to adjust to a pro style offense from the zone read. The thing about stereotypes are that they are proven to be untrue. Newton is effective playing a cerebral game from the pocket and passing well enough to overcome large deficits at any point of a contest. The haters are gonna hate, and many doubters will eat their words if the Panthers go undefeated to the win the Super Bowl as the first and “worst” 19-0 team in NFL history.

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