CHARLOTTE - In this parity-filled era in NFL history, non-playoff teams that finish the season strong are statistically more likely to compete for a playoff berth the next season.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera believes that applies to his team, but he doesn't understand why many football followers don't extend the same belief system to the team's group of defensive tackles.
Nearly every analyst praised the Panthers' performance in last week's NFL Draft, but many also questioned the team's decision to not draft a defensive tackle.
"I agree that we weren't good enough there, but we weren't good enough until Week 12, when you started seeing things come together," Rivera said. "Why? Because we had enough guys in place that finally got it and understood it.
"Everybody needs to relax and give us an opportunity to develop our players and see what we have."
The Panthers lost eight of their first 10 games in Rivera's first season on the sideline but won four of their final six to raise expectations for this season.
Along the same lines, the Panthers allowed 146.8 rushing yards per game over the first 10 games, but even counting a dud of a finale at New Orleans, they allowed an average of 114.3 yards in the final six. Remove the 208 yards the Saints** piled up while salting away a blowout victory, and the average dips to 95.6 yards per game.
Just two NFL teams allowed less than 95.6 rushing yards per game for the season.
Also over that five-game stretch, the defensive tackle group produced four sacks after recording a total of 2.5 in the first 10 games.
"People can miss the point," Rivera said. "They say, 'We were so bad against the run.' When were we bad? Early in the year, when we threw a bunch of young guys to the wolves. It seems like some people don't want to believe in what our guys are doing."
The Panthers addressed their need at defensive tackle during and after Rivera's first draft as head coach in 2011, selecting a pair of tackles in the third round (Terrell McClain and Sione Fua), signing a proven veteran in free agency (Ron Edwards) and finding a potential diamond in the rough on the Miami Dolphins practice squad early in the season (Frank Kearse). Late in the season, when McClain and Fua were sidelined by injuries, veterans Jason Shirley and Ogemdi Nwagbuo contributed.
The group suffered a big blow before even playing a down in the preseason when Edwards – preparing for his 11th pro season – suffered a season-ending torn right triceps during his first practice as a Panther.
Shortly thereafter, the group responsible for finishing what the tackles start in terms of defending the run was ransacked by season-ending injuries to linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.
Just imagine how a triple blow like that to the heart of the offense – say Cam Newton, Ryan Kalil and DeAngelo Williams – would have impacted that unit.
"If you're going to judge us, take into consideration that we lost our starting nose tackle Day One, then we lose Jon Beason in Week 1 and Thomas Davis in Week 2," Rivera said. "You lose your three primary middle players, you're going to struggle – you're starting a rookie (Fua) and a rookie (McClain), and you have a second-year player (Andre Neblett) as your primary defensive tackles."
The early injuries, combined with the implementation of a new defense under a new coaching staff minus the benefit of a full offseason, led to some struggles. But later in the season, even with key personnel out of the lineup, the defense turned the corner.
This season, Rivera expects the defensive tackle group to improve right along with the win-loss record.
"We drafted two tackles (in 2011), and Edwards is a stout, physical guy that's going to be able to hold the point of attack," Rivera said. "With Kearse, we really saw him step up and do the things we believed he was capable of, and Neblett came in and did some things that were terrific.
"Everybody needs to give us an opportunity to develop these guys."
I trust Rivera now, I will not continue to bitch about not getting a DT, he seems pretty damn confident. He got this.