Then there were two! My Carolina Panthers will face the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. It’s been amazing to watch the Panthers mature and trust the process. In sports the most difficult thing is to be patient because this is an industry that is judged by wins and losses.
The Panthers have reaped the rewards of their patience over the past few years building through the draft and adding low-cost veterans to mentor the younger players. It’s a strategy that angers fans because we want instant gratification and championships now and don’t want to wait.
An approach that will maintain a winning culture for years because we have such a great group of young core players. Here are five key things that happened to the Panthers in 2015 that fueled this Super Bowl run.
Losing Kelvin Benjamin
It may be shocking to some when I say losing our number one wide receiver helped us during this run. I honestly believe it has because it forced quarterback cam Newton to mature as a passer going through progressions and building chemistry with his other wide outs. At times last year it felt as if Newton was staring down Benjamin and not giving us the best chance to get the ball down the field and score as many points as possible.
Would it be great to have Benjamin? Yes, but it’s been great to see Newton make the best out of a bad situation and gain trust in everyone on the offense not just Benjamin. I think the injury made him focus a little more because his tall safety valve that he used many times last season was not there.
Not only has Newton elevated his game to an MVP level, so have the guys around him, realizing they had to step up big time to fill the void left by Benjamin after the injury. The offense has had a record-setting year in many categories, I think it’s because everyone focused a little harder once they realized they wouldn’t have Benjamin’s production on the field.
Here are a few statistics to show you what I mean; we led the league in points per game averaging 31.3. We accomplished that in a myriad of ways with the most balanced offense in the NFL. We were second in the league in rushing yards per game at 142.6 yards per game and collectively as a team, we have rushed for over 100 yards in 30 consecutive games, including the postseason.
This just goes to show you losing a star player doesn’t have to doom a season if the team has the right attitude about it. It’s been absolutely amazing what we’ve been able to accomplish without Benjamin just leaving us saying “what if.”
The Offensive line play
The offensive line was a perceived weakness for the Panthers coming into the 2015 season. However, that has not been the case as we were ranked 11th in the regular-season allowing just 33 sacks and 61 quarterback hits, which is amazing considering the dual threat that Cam Newton is on every play.
That area has improved in the postseason as well, allowing just two sacks and three quarterback hits. They’ve been so good Newton has had at times three seconds in the pocket before anyone is close to him, allowing him to survey the defense and complete those big plays down the field.
A big reason for the quick resurgence of this group is General Manager Dave Gettleman signed left tackle Michael Oher to a two-year contract this off-season. Oher was coming off an injury-riddled year with the Tennessee Titans and needed a fresh start. We provided the opportunity and he has become one of the most important people on our roster protecting Cam Newton’s blindside.
He’s been awesome in the running game as well; creating lanes for big plays, putting opposing defenses on their toes. This will be the biggest factor in deciding the Super Bowl champion because Denver’s defense is relentless, but I like our chances the way those guys have played all year.
Ball Hawking Defense
The backbone of this Carolina Panther team for years has been the defensive side of the ball. This season is no different, but somehow we’ve elevated our game to an even higher level. Generating takeaways has been the greatest area of improvement as our guys continue to develop; the team has forced 39 turnovers in the regular-season and another nine during this postseason run. They have been a very opportunistic group accumulating a +29 turnover ratio creating momentum early and often.
The defensive line has been the key to this spike in turnovers forced. They have become a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks to face because they’ve generated so much pressure from many different levels of the defense. This constant pressure has allowed the guys in the backend to take more chances, which has resulted in big momentum grabbing plays.
The player that has taken the biggest leap this season is defensive end Kawann Short going from what some thought a potential bust to now the JJ Watt of the Panthers defense. Entering the season Short had just five sacks and 55 tackles. This year he has worked extremely hard at his craft and has been rewarded with 13 total sacks regular-season and postseason combined.
A perfect time for this coming out party because the opposing offenses have to pay extra attention opening up opportunities for other guys to make an impact. These eye-popping statistics show this is one of the most complete teams the Queen City and the NFL have ever seen from the Carolina Panthers.
Many Savvy moves made
The Panthers organization has experienced great success from top to bottom in 2015. The orchestrator of this roster, general manager Dave Gettleman deserves a ton of credit for what we’ve seen this year from the Panthers. He’s made countless moves that will not light of the tabloids, but have greatly improved the team without mortgaging the future.
Signing Kurt Coleman
Coleman signed a two-year contract worth just $2.8 million, which is an absolute steal considering the production he’s provided on the field. He has quickly become one of the best safeties in the NFL. He is putting together a career year with nine interceptions this season, including two in the NFC championship game against the Arizona Cardinals.
He has greatly benefited from guys like Josh Norman because offenses tend to shy away from that side of the field, allowing Coleman to patrol the middle of the field reading quarterbacks’ eyes taking advantage of every mistake. He is a very tough-minded player that will sacrifice his body and do anything to help this team win.
This move illustrates Gettleman’s ability to evaluate talent and allow a lesser-known player the chance to prove himself and help the team win football games. Coleman is just one of many diamond in the rough type of guys that he has brought in that have contributed a great deal to the success of this team.
Signing Courtland Finnegan
This was an insurance policy move because the secondary has been ravaged by injuries and we needed a healthy body. Finnegan was sitting on his couch with his retirement papers drawn up when we called for his services. He has fit in like a glove in our secondary.
He’s a guy that you love to have on your team, but hate to face because he tries to get into opponents’ heads forcing them into mistakes. He had a great impact in the NFC championship game with an interception and he helped limit Larry Fitzgerald to just four catches for 30 yards.
This move shows he has the pulse of this team. Knowing exactly the type of player that will fit into the locker room and on the field. He has a magic wand this year, pushing all the right buttons. These are just a couple of many savvy moves Gettleman has made to propel us to this point in the season.
The Carolina Panthers are having the most fun I’ve ever seen a team have it’s been a joy to watch. The team has created the “dab” sensation, celebrating first downs, and big plays every chance we get. It’s really refreshing to see a high profile athlete where his emotions on his sleeve and not care what anybody thinks.
The entire team has followed Newton’s lead, enjoying what they do while thinking of the fans. After every touchdown they give the ball to a kid sitting behind the end zone, creating a memory that they won’t forget. The celebrations and pictures might rub some people the wrong way, but it’s just because they can’t stop us.
The emotion and attitude this team brings to every play keeps them engaged and even after a bad play they know they can atone for the mistake. That’s the mentality coach Rivera has preached all season, keeping your personality and doing your job. That attitude has allowed us just to focus on what we can control and not what the media thinks.
This is a very rare occurrence and sports nowadays because it’s all about championships and professionalism, but the Panthers have proven you can have fun and still do your job at the highest of levels. A deadly combination for a team with so many dynamic weapons on the roster,
These are five things I think helped us get to where we are! However, it’s not over yet we have one goal left to achieve and that is to lift the Lombardi trophy. I’m so ecstatic I don’t think I have stopped smiling since watching us punch our ticket a memory that I will never forget. Finish it off Go Panthers!