After two weeks of abject disappointment and the brewing cumulonimbus cloud of infuriating mediocrity and status-quo apathy casting shadows over the Carolinas, the defensive sledgehammer and offensive curb-stomping we laid on the Gaints has this fanbase at a collective level of giddiness unprecedented since week one of the Ron Rivera era.
That said, there are plenty of doubtful twinges impinging the onslaught of unbridled joy. We've seen this before: good game against good team followed by bad game against bad team and the inevitable regression to the mean. Doom has been derailed, but skepticism is still chugging along at top speed. Choo fuging choo. We still suck. Right?
WRONG!!!!! Lend me your ears, for I present to you a dozen reasons why it's an absolutely wonderful time to be a fan of the Carolina Panthers. And so without further gilding the lily, and no more ado, I give to you:
(12) This distraught New York Giants fan, a Lysol-toilet-bowl-cleaner-blue turd floating in the pristine electric-blue-and-silver punch bowl of the Carolina endzone, following Cam's first rushing touchdown of the year.
(11) Deangelo Williams and the Carolina running game.
Much-maligned running back Deangelo Williams is back to the 5.0 ypc form that defined his early career and had people comparing him to Jim Brown as recently as last season before Hurney's firing exposed the level of incompetence in roster management in a way that most of us had never before considered. Angst turned into improperly-directed rage, and every preseason Deangelo draw play into a wall of interior pressure for no gain had most of us ready to trade him to the CFL for a couple of right-guard-sized eskimos. Instead, three games in:
Yes, you read that right. DeAngelo Williams is the league's third-leading rusher, and that's with Cam Newton taking designed runs that might've otherwise gone to him. Granted we're stuck with his crippling contract, but there's nothing we can do about that, so the second best thing is him performing like a top running back, and that's exactly what we're getting.
Oh and Tolbert should hit his stride over the next games - right about the time we get bruiser Jonathon Stewart and Darren-Sproles-esque Barner lining up in the backfield.
(10) Our kicking game.
A year or two ago we were stabbing ourselves in the eyes every time Olindo Mare missed an easy game-winner or Medlock looked like Lauren Silberman or we were watching in shrieking horror as Brad Nortman shanked a routine punt out of bounds for a twenty-yard net at the worst possible moment in a game. And suddenly, holy hell, is that a 53-yard field goal with room to spare? Is that a deep, high-hanging punt? (he's gone from 32nd in the league in punt yard average to a respectable sixteenth in the space of a single season, leapfrogging half the NFL in the process.) Mother of God, consecutive touchbacks through every game this season?
Both players are young and talented, and if they keep up this measure of consistency they could easily stay with the team for the rest of the decade (or longer.) As many times as special teams miscues involving kicking or punting has been a problem, this is a development that should have all of us shitting our pantaloons with excitement.
(9) Jerry Richardson may be newly focused on winning over profits.
Granted this one is a stretch, and I may be reading too much into things, but after last year's debacle against the Cowboys and last week's debacle against the Bills, Richardson received an obscenely high level of negative fan feedback. Last year he followed the debacle by firing Hurney. In week three this season, perhaps following the current of letters stuffing his mailbox like Kurb's and mine, he skipped his normal powwow with visiting executives and instead chose to mingle quietly with players before the impending showdown.
This picture should give you the chills. Maybe we're turning it around from the top.
photo credit: zod
(8) Cam Newton and the progression of lockerroom cohesiveness.
Since April 2011 we've had an influx of red-faced children invading these boards and spewing strawberry poptart crumbs as they scream about maturity, chemistry, attitudes, and winning (four elements which they share the distinction of collectively knowing nothing about.) However, as Cam has progressed as a quarterback and as a human being, we've seen a transformation. It's tangible - you can see it in his face, in his pressers, on the field.
A few days ago we heard a story that seemed to encapsulate the change: Thomas Davis popping into the weight room where Cam was lifting by himself, asking if he was ever going to join the team. This moment seemed to be a catalyst: Cam himself admitted that he thought he was giving the impression of being dedicated and focused, but realized that he was alienating the guys he fought with on Sundays.
"Like looking at yourself as a high schooler," Cam said, introspectively, a touch of disbelief in his voice when comparing himself now to himself as a teammate two years ago. "You can't relate to it." And we've seen that transformation before our eyes. It was visible Sunday. Remember all the accusations last year that Cam was just sitting down instead of celebrating with his receivers?
photo credit: zod
...yeah, those days are over. Cam loves his guys and his guys love Cam, and we're seeing it on the field. We're seeing it in celebrations. We're seeing it in selflessness: look at Smitty, ball-hungry, insatiable Smitty, joining the celebration, craving the win over personal stats. And we're seeing it in a suddenly new ability to overcome adversity, the lack of which was a hallmark of the early Cam Newton-led Panthers. It's a beautiful thing.
(7) Agent 89.
You know what, let's talk about Steve Smith.
He's been marginal this year statistically. He grabbed a touchdown against the Seahawks in our season opener, but he's only averaged about 50 yards a game and hasn't made any of the big downfield plays we're accustomed to seeing. And yet Steve looks more confident, more content than we've ever seen him, and no less hungry or focused for it. What gives?
Well, his role on the team is changing. Smitty is 34, and he's suddenly synthesizing his dynamic outside play and uncanny ability to snag those first down comebacks on the sideline with a high number of snaps playing out of the slot. This is directly attributed to Ricky Proehl, whose role as a mentor for Steve Smith during his early years with a team has picked up right where it left off. I'm convinced he's the reason we've seen this subtle, but important, change in Agent 89.
So is that it? A feel-good story capped off by an 700-yard season?
Doubtful. This offense is finding its rhythm and gotten progressively better week to week. Ted Ginn Jr. has emerged as a legitimate deep threat, and he'll be worked into the lineup with increasing snaps if he continues to play like this, and defensive coordinators will take note. LaFell silenced critics last week, getting open with eye-popping consistency against the Giants secondary and posting the first two-touchdown game of his career. Olsen will continue to flourish; he's quietly on pace to break 1,000 yards this season.
All of these things bode well for Steve Smith. Mercurial, incendiary, and the quintessential milquetoastal antonym, he'll not be counted out, and as the Panthers get hot he'll be leading the way.
(6) Speaking of offense, we're on pace to put up 23 points a game.
Three games isn't a very large sample size. It's unlikely we routinely drop 38-burgers on teams, but I'd argue it's even more unlikely that we drop 7-Quinoas anymore. With the talent on this roster it isn't unreasonable to expect four to five touchdowns a week between the running and passing game, and suddenly we've got a kicker who can make long field goals barefoot with his eyes closed.
pair this with:
(5) a defense allowing twelve points a game
...and suddenly you've got a very dangerous football team on your hands. Twelve points, bitches. That defensive line is stifling. That linebacking corps is blowing up runners in the backfield. That secondary is locking down the likes of Hakeem Nicks and causing coverage sacks, or forcing interceptions, or fumbles... take your pick.
This means statistically we'll double our opponents' scores down the stretch if we can keep this up. And leading the way and making all this possible:
(4) Star Lotulelei and the defensive line.
Where do you even begin on this? Greg Hardy? Unstoppable sack streaks. CJ? A penchant for sack/fumbles and a perpetual motor. Short? Grabbed his first sack Sunday, constantly slipping in between guards and ruining plays before they develop.
Fua? You know what, forget about, just watch this video
Note in particular Star's sack:
Yes, that is Star reaching around the center with one arm, grabbing onto Eli with one hand, the lineman still in front of him, and subsequently dragging him to the ground.
With one hand.
(3) The upcoming schedule favors the Panthers.
That's right, our horrendously difficult schedule is taking a leave of absence just about the time we're getting hot. We've got the Cardinals, Vikings, Rams, and Buccaneers coming up; if we play up to our averages in scoring/defending these should be easy wins. The first three have statuesque quarterbacks that should be prime targets for our marauding front four, and the Bucs... well... they're the Bucs.
The toughest game in that stretch is the Vikings; assuming we can beat them, it's not unreasonable to expect to face the Falcons as a 5-2 team.
Five and fuging two.
(2) Speaking of schedules, the NFC kind of sucks right now.
Oh hey look, the Falcons and Packers have the same record as us! That's right, two perennial playoff/superbowl contenders are 1-2, with the same record as the Panthers. Oh hey look, so do the San Francisco 49ers, who narrowly lost the superbowl last year. Half the NFC East hasn't won a game, the Vikigns are winless, the Rams and Cardinals look like trash.
This means the wildcard race is wide open; assuming we keep a hot streak here we are set up nicely to compete for the division title, falling at worst to a wildcard berth. Keep pulling against anyone else challenging for the division lead (except for us, obviously) because parity works to our advantage right now.
(1) These threads dominating the Giants message board the night after we shut them out.
and the best of all:
After handing two years of complete morons on these boards it's kind of nice to see meltdowns happening somewhere else for once, and knowing we caused them. Schadenfreude is just so much fun.