Charlotte, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers may be the most optimistic 2-6 team in NFL history.
Sure, they’d like to have to a better record heading into their bye weekend — and they probably should. But those within the organization sense the big picture for the future is extremely bright.
The primary reason for that optimism is the play of rookie Cam Newton, who has finally given the Panthers a quarterback with outstanding playmaking ability.
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney stressed during last year’s 2-14 season that the team’s primary need was to find stability at that position. The Panthers did months of research on which direction to proceed — free agency, a trade or the draft — but eventually settled on Newton as their guy.
And they couldn’t be happier.
“We did a lot of research on Cam, and the more research we did the better we felt,” Hurney said. “The more we’re around him the more it confirms our feelings.”
Newton, the No. 1 pick in the draft, has shown all the earmarks of a franchise quarterback, not only in terms of his production on the field but with intangibles such as leadership and accountability.
Newton is second in the league to Drew Brees in yards passing and has 18 combined touchdowns: 11 passing, seven rushing.
Coach Ron Rivera said he’s stunned with Newton’s poise in the pocket and how quickly he’s learned to read defenses and make good decisions. The Panthers are fifth in the league in total yards and yards passing after finishing dead last in 2010 with Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore at the helm.
And yet, there’s a sense Carolina’s offense hasn’t even scratched the surface of its potential.
“When we really being to learn what’s going on, this group of men has an opportunity to do some special things because of the personnel we have,” Rivera said. “I really do mean that.”
What Carolina’s record doesn’t take into account is the number of starters on injured reserve.
The Panthers lost starting wide receiver David Gettis and right guard Geoff Schwartz, as well key backups in tight end Gary Barnidge and Garry Williams, the offensive line’s sixth man.
Defensively, they lost two of their best three players after middle linebacker Jon Beason went down in the season opener with a torn Achilles and outside linebacker Thomas Davis tore his right anterior cruciate ligament a week later. That came after defensive tackle Ron Edwards, the team’s highest-paid free agent acquisition, tore his triceps on the first day of training camp.
In addition, the Panthers were at a disadvantage from the start with only limited time to install an entirely new offensive and defensive system due to the NFL lockout.
All of that makes you wonder where the Panthers would be right now if this had been a normal year and they’d stayed healthy.
Nonetheless, the Panthers have been competitive in every game. They’ve led or been tied in the fourth quarter of every game except one and five of their six losses are by seven points or less.
In most cases, the problem hasn’t been the offense.