by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We know that gridiron trends are never etched in granite. But some of them have a way of repeating themselves. Such as the curious pattern in the NFC South, in which no team has repeated as division champion since the NFL realigned in 2002. A period of time which includes a couple of defending Super Bowl champs (Bucs in 2003 and Saints in 2010, each after winning the big one the previous season) also failing to defend their division crowns.

And, if that trend should recur again in 2012, it might be due to the Carolina Panthers.

Indeed, if there’s a “team du jour” that has caught the fancy of the masses and becomes a chic pick to make the playoffs and perhaps advance deep into the postseason, it’s the Panthers, who enter the fall as the flavor of the 2012 season.

Of course, they could use some excitement in Charlotte after the hometown Bobcats produced the worst win percentage in NBA history this past year. But prospects appear considerably brighter for the pro football team in town, and not just because the front-office damage Michael Jordan can cause is limited to the hoops side.

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Rather, a city and region have been energized by one player in particular...QB Cam Newton. Already being hailed as a savior for the franchise, and indeed the first marquee player in Panthers history, the former Auburn Heisman Trophy winner is being expected to guide Carolina back to the postseason for the first time in four years.

Las Vegas oddsmakers, however, are not quite convinced about the Panthers making the big jump to playoff contention this fall. Carolina’s season-win total of 7 ½ suggests the sports books have yet to catch full-blown Panther fever. Ron Rivera’s side is also picked a distant third behind the Saints and Falcons in the NFC South, priced at 6/1 to win the division.

Prices are correspondingly higher at Nevada wagering outlets on NFC (25/1) and Super Bowl (40/1) win odds. Although many insiders seem to believe the Pan-thas offer better value at those bomber prices than many other sides quoted in the same price ranges.

Rarely have we seen a 6-10 team generate similar buzz.

After collapsing to 4-12 in 2010 and ending the John Fox regime on a downer, defensive specialist Rivera was summoned to pick up the pieces a year ago and was fortunate that Newton arrived in Charlotte at the same time. More good news for Rivera came in the offseason when he was able to retain in-demand offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who interviewed for several jobs but will remain in Charlotte for another season to mold an offense that hinted at better things to come during Cam’s rookie campaign.

Chudzinski’s challenge was to harness Newton’s long-ball passing ability and fit it into the traditional bounds of an NFL offense while also making concessions for the unique skill set that Cam brings to the table. The result is an intriguing offensive mix with elements of the old Air Coryell offense sprinkled with a dash of the spread option.

And now, anticipation has grown for phase two of the Chudzinski offense after Cam looked irresistible at times a year ago. When the smoke cleared, Newton had passed for 4051 yards and also run for 14 TDs, setting an NFL record for a QB in the latter.

Excitement has only increased in the Charlotte region after early preseason work, especially in the second game against the Dolphins when Newton and the “O” glided through the Miami Dolphins defense during 21 plays, racking up 17 points in three drives. Training camp (knock on wood) has also been free of serious injuries into late August.

But the assignment this fall will be for Chudzinski to progress the offense while trying to outfox opposing defensive coordinators who will be devising their own anti-Cam packages as time progresses.

But some NFC South observers believe the Panthers gambled a bit when not seeking upgrades at the receiver spots that last season featured veteran Steve Smith (right; 79 catches in 2011) and little else. (Smith, a holdover from the Panthers' Super Bowl team of nine years ago, ended up with more than twice as many catches as any other Panther in 2011.) While still productive, Smith is also 33 and entering his 12th NFL season, but Carolina brass seems to believe that ex-LSU star Brandon LaFell (who gained over 17 yards per catch on his 36 receptions a year ago) is due for a breakout campaign. Arkansas rookie Joe Adams, a 4th-round pick after a very productive career for the Razorbacks, will likely be more utilized in kickoff and punt return roles this fall.

Cam’s presence, of course, lent extra bite to the Panthers’ ground game that led the NFC a year ago at 151 ypg (plus a smashing 5.4 ypc, helped by Newton’s scrambles) and still features the “double trouble” combo of RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. But Chudzinski has even more depth this fall with the addition of ex-Charger FA Mike Tolbert, a punishing slammer who adds a more-physical dimension to the backfield mix. “Triple threat” might be a more appropriate label for the RB corps this season.

If there are some concerns offensively, they likely involve replacing a couple of departures along the OL, including C Mackenzy Bernadeau, who moved to Dalla sin free agency. PK Olindo Mare was also uncharacteristically inconsistent a year ago, and the return game could use some upgrades after the punt and kick-return units ranked low a year ago; perhaps Arkansas rookie Adams can help in those regards.

While the making of a playoff offense are certainly easy to identify, they are less apparent on the stop end side after the Panthers struggled to a 27th rating in total defense stats a year ago. Although some observers believe ex-Eagles d.c. Sean McDermott should be commended for cobbling together a platoon that lacked playmakers at the LB spots and was jerry-rigged with usual third and fourth-stringers, plus special teams performers, a year ago.

Perhaps that changes this fall if the LB corps can get MLB Jon Beason (off of a torn Achilles tendon) and OLB Thomas Davis (three different torn ACLs) in a healthy state, and of Boston College rookie LB Luke Kuechly, Carolina’s first-round pick and ninth overall selection in the draft, is as impactful as he was for Frank Spaziani’s Eagles or as good as he looked in pre-draft workouts. Early reports from camp at Spartanburg have also been positive.

McDermott, a disciple of the late Eagles d.c. Jim Johnson, would prefer his platoon to blitz often, but needs a reliable crew of LBs to make it work. In that regard, Kuechley’s addition could be invaluable.

Along those thought lines, McDermott is also hellbent to find more pass rush from his defensive front that has missed the contributions of Julius Peppers since he left town for Chicago after the 2009 season. Charles Johnson has been somewhat productive from his DE spot, registering nine sacks each of the past two seasons, but no other lineman has recorded more than four. There might be room for Oklahoma rookie DE Frank Alexander (4th-round pick) to make an impact.

It is also hoped that the secondary will benefit from the added depth provided by SS Haruki Nakamura, the ex-Raven who arrived in free agency and at Spartanburg has been taking most of the snaps with the first string ahead of holdover Sherrod Martin, who struggled a year ago.

Spread-wise, Cam’s presence also helped forge a turnaround vs. the line a year ago after the Panthers had dropped 12 of 16 vs. the spread during Fox’s final season of 2010. Carolina improved five full games vs. the number in 2011 (from 4-12 to 9-7), and the offensive upgrades due to Cam’s presence understandably contributed to a 10-5-1 ‘over’ mark last season.

Summary...The Panthers intrigue on a variety of levels this season. The potential upside for the offense is unlimited with Cam Newton at the controls, and the history of the NFC South suggests a stealth entry such as the Panthers could rise and contend as have many unsuspecting sorts in recent memory (the 2006 Saints and 2008 Falcons immediately coming to mind).

We would be careful about talking playoffs in Charlotte, however, until the defense exhibits similar upgrades. Indeed, we suspect it will be the stop unit, and not the Cam-led strike force, that will determine if the Panthers get back to the postseason this fall.


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