Carolina Panthers: 2014 Final Report Card
The Carolina Panthers season could be described as a mixed bag of good, bad, ugly and inconsistent. Still, a 7-8-1 record was good enough not only to capture the NFC South, but to also take down the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. From there, it was a solid shot of reality with the Seattle Seahawks that saw the season for the black and blue come to an end.
Now on to the next chapter.
Carolina’s season was defined early on because Greg Hardy did not play this season due to legal issues, injuries to the roster and inconsistency not only from Cam Newton, but from other key players on the roster.
As David Newton of ESPN.com wrote, “Despite the NFC South title and a playoff win, you can't forget this was a season of missed opportunities and inconsistency. The Panthers played well in spurts, but gave up way too many plays and made way too many mistakes during a 1-8-1 stretch that defined this team before a 4-0 finish to the regular season. Injuries played a big part in the inconsistency. So did the distraction of defensive end Greg Hardy's domestic violence case.”
That doesn’t even mention the rebuilding of an offensive line that was decimated by retiring players and defections in the off-season and an overhaul in the receiving corps. When was the last time you could recall Carolina lining up on offense without Steve Smith on the outside? If not for the play of rookie Kelvin Benjamin and the consistent hands of Greg Olsen, this team may never have gotten out of the doldrums it rested in most of the season.
Here is a look at the team’s overall season and grades for offense, defense and coaching.
Thank goodness for Greg Olsen. According to Nelson’s story, throughout a season of inconsistency for the team, Olsen exemplified consistency on the. There were times when Olsen actually left the field during practice to be with his family in the hospital. Despite that, he had a team-best 84 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns to make his first Pro Bowl.
Quarterback plan was suspect at times. Newton’s injury and a depleted running game made grading this team very difficult. When the line finally developed continuity with the same starting five over the last five regular-season games, the unit played well enough to win. Running back Jonathan Stewart became a force. There still were struggles in the red zone that haunted this team all season. Newton showed improvement, but made too many mistakes in the playoffs to take his game to the next level.
GRADE – C
Everything came together once the team realized Greg Hardy wasn’t going to be on the field in 2014.
A huge loss to Green Bay in Week 7 may have been the telling factor in the wakeup call of this unit. Believe it or not, at the end of the season, the Carolina defense may have been playing better than any defensive team in the NFL besides Seattle.
Over the final nine games and the playoffs, led by two-time Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly, this was a top-10 defense playing as well as any in the league.
Hardy is a free agent and I do not expect him back next season, so replacing his productivity is a must in the summer through free agency or in the NFL Draft.
Things were meek at times last season, then turned themselves around. At the halfway point in the season, if anyone thought Ron Rivera’s job was safe, they were fooling themselves.
Newton explains that seven rookies started in the final two regular-season games and played well, which should lessen the urgency to sign big-name free agents to fill gaps. The defense that finally came together after a midseason loss at Green Bay returns almost all of its key pieces, most notably two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly. The offense also returns intact with the biggest question mark being whether to re-sign left tackle Byron Bell, which seems unlikely. The salary-cap situation isn't nearly so dire, either, giving the Panthers room to sign Newton long term and add much-needed pieces such as a left tackle and a speedy receiver.
Rivera certainly waved a magic wand on the sidelines in the final month of the season.
GRADE – C
OVERALL GRADE - C