When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, the game will be for NFL draft position. The Bucs are still mathematically alive in the playoff race, but they need about 50 different things, including a Washington tie and a 49ers win, to go their way.
A loss for the Panthers ensures that last year’s NFC Champions will have a top-10 pick in the 2017 draft.
There’s not much point in previewing this game. It’s a relatively meaningless game where both teams will likely be playing at half speed. And there’s not much point in discussing everything that went wrong this season. I’ve done that enough in the past few weeks.
Instead, I want to be positive heading into the final days of 2016. It’s been a miserable year for Panthers fans, starting with the Super Bowl loss and ending with a lost 2016-2017 season. But let me try to find some joy in the year, if I may.
The First 3 Games of 2016/Cam Newton
Remember the games against the Bucs, Seahawks, and Cardinals? Those were fun. I was fortunate enough to attend the Bucs game. It wasn’t my first Panthers game, but it was my first time seeing Cam Newton. What a treat that guy is. It was the final game of the regular season and he locked up the MVP trophy on that day. It was almost peak Cam Newton. Peak Cam actually came three weeks later against the Cardinals.
Those three games highlighted how good this team can be when Cam is Cam. The joy and the passion he plays with. How he seems in control of everything. How he manipulates his offense, the opposing defense, and the crowd. A lot of people think Cam is over the top, and that he’s a sore loser. Maybe he is. But to hate on the guy for having fun just seems stupid to me. The NFL makes it hard for players to have fun. And no one, especially quarterbacks, gets banged around like Cam. So the fact that he can still wear a smile on his face while playing makes him a pretty special player to me.
Let’s recognize that he has grown up over the past few seasons. Maybe he didn’t handle the Super Bowl loss all that well. But the dude lost the Super Bowl. I didn’t handle it well either. Otherwise, he’s faced the criticism and the scrutiny, and still hasn’t changed who he is at the core.
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Shutting Down Luke Kuechly
It couldn’t have been an easy decision for the Panthers to shut down Luke following his concussion against the Saints. But it was the right one. I wrote about it shortly after, how it was pointless for Luke to risk in his health in games that didn’t matter. I’m glad the Panthers agreed with him. I’m also glad that Cam agreed with the organization.
This is a long game for the Panthers and Kuechly. To risk his health and potentially shorten his career for meaningless games would have been shortsighted and irresponsible. We know that the Panthers are a better team with Luke on the field. And we know that Luke wanted to be on the field. But sometimes the tough decision is the right decision.
James Bradberry and Daryl Worley
We can chastise David Gettleman for letting Josh Norman walk. And I don’t think it’s wrong to do so. But we must also credit him for drafting two solid replacements. Bradberry is already further along than Norman was in his first season. The same goes for Worley. Norman might be the best corner in the league right now, but his first two seasons in the league were rough. Bradberry and Worley had a rough start to the season, but I feel very comfortable with them as the top two corners heading into next season.
Ron Rivera’s Words
I was very optimistic following Rivera’s weekly press conference this week.
He talked about the offensive needing evolve in the offseason. That means less read option, more power running, and more quick passes. This is what every Panthers fan has been hoping for all season, but never got. Mike Shula and the offense rested on last seasons laurels. The rest of the league and their defenses managed to adapt. The Panthers offense didn’t.
Hopefully this isn’t just smoke from Rivera. One thing that has always frustrated me about Rivera has been his inability to adapt and evolve, especially offensively. How many times did the Panthers nearly blow a big halftime lead last year? How many times did they blow a fourth quarter lead this year? A lot of that had to do with Rivera not adjusting to the game.
Happy New Year everyone. Hopefully 2017 is better than 2016 for Carolina’s favorite football team.