He said, He said

Now that the NFL lockout is over, area football fans can’t stop talking about how good – or bad – the Carolina Panthers will be this season.
Union County Weekly Sports staff members C. Jemal Horton and Aaron Garcia decided to put a major question to a debate:

Will the Carolina Panthers, who were 2-14 last year, finish with at least a .500 record this season?

Carolina’s model, fortunes have changed

by C. Jemal Horton

(Gulp, gulp, gulp! Gulp-gulp-gulp! Gulp, gulp!)

(BURP!)

Excuse me for the delay, folks. That was just me drinking the Panthers’ Kool-Aid.

Yep, I think they’re going to be much better this year. I’m buying into Carolina coach Ron Rivera’s new-sheriff-in-town approach of putting every Panther on notice that he’s going to play the best players, regardless of draft and paycheck status.

Too many people are mentally clinging to last year’s 2-14 record. They somehow envision the Panthers as, say, the Detroit Lions. They’re not. They had remarkably talented players during the 2010 season – they just weren’t surrounded by the right coaches and teammates, as owner Jerry Richardson went the frugal route at the expense of fan support and victories.

But the best players from last year’s squad are back, and they’ve got adequate sidekicks. They’ve got a coach who’s going to turn it loose on both sides of the ball, and they’ve got the euphoria of a fresh start to their backs. That’s often a formula for success.

Heck, we’ve seen it in the NFC South, when the once-moribund Saints went from 3-13 to 10-6 and reached the NFC Championship game when coach Sean Payton took over in 2006.

I don’t see the Panthers making a deep playoff run. They might not even make the playoffs. But I see them going .500 and pulling off a few upset victories this season.

They’re going to beat Arizona in their season opener. They’re better than the Cardinals.

Here are the other wins I see: Jacksonville, Washington, Minnesota, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Houston.

Crazy?

Maybe.

Hey, I’m the guy who thought the Ickey Shuffle was a pretty cool dance.

But the Panthers will be solid. To paraphrase the old coach, they ain’t what they were.

And they’re going all the way to .500, baby!

Going 8-8 a little too great

by Aaron Garcia

If I were a Panther fan, I’d be dancing a jig over the prospects of a five-, six-, or seven-win season in 2011, especially after such a nightmarish 2010. And if I were a betting man, I’d say there’s a good chance the Panthers make a marked improvement over last season. But if you’re looking for an 8-8 record (which often means a trip to the playoffs) or better, you may want to curb your enthusiasm a bit.

There’s ample reason to be excited about the upcoming Panther season. With a bunch of new toys to play with, new coach Ron Rivera will give the franchise a boost. That’s not saying much, though. He can do that just by looking interested on Sunday afternoons.

Instant improvement for the Panthers, right there.

But the Panthers still need a solid defensive tackle. It looked like Ron Edwards would fill that role, but a triceps tear has left Carolina with unproven Nick Hayden and a pair of third-round draft picks as the first line of defense. As much as I love the thought of Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and James Anderson being on the field together, not even Mike Singletary could fight off opposing guards and his own defensive tackles and still be effective.

Don’t forget that quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb and Aaron Rogers all will face a Panthers’ secondary still in need of a true cover cornerback. And that’s just the nonconference schedule; there’s six other games against Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman.

All that, plus a rookie quarterback looking to cut his teeth during an abbreviated offseason, means there’ll be some struggles this year. There will be more than two wins, but last year’s total lack of progress makes this the rebuilding year.

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