Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Panthers in 2012.
Dream scenario (11-5): With the Saints dealing with turmoil and the Falcons facing enormous pressure, it’s at least possible that the two teams that have dominated the NFC South in recent years won’t win it in 2012. The Panthers are the next logical choice, and there are all sorts of reasons for optimism.
Coach Ron Rivera’s entering his second season and so is quarterback Cam Newton, who was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year despite not having an offseason with his coaches and their playbook. Newton should only continue to improve, a scary thought for a guy who lit up defenses with his arm and his legs last season. He has Steve Smith still going strong, a backfield that includes Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, and has added fullback/tailback Mike Tolbert.
There are far fewer questions about Carolina’s offense than there were a year ago. It’s obvious the Panthers are going to score some points on offense. But the defense will tell the story. If this team is going to make the playoffs, Jon Beason and Ron Edwards must make strong comebacks from injuries and rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly must make an instant impact.
Nightmare scenario (6-10): Anything less than last year’s 6-10 record would be a huge disappointment. Although I don’t think it’s likely, it’s at least possible that Newton will take a step back. If he does, then maybe Smith no longer looks so young and maybe that loaded backfield doesn’t look so good. Then there’s the matter of the defense that was so bad a year ago. A lot of people seem to assume the return of Beason and Edwards and the addition of Kuechly will solve everything. But maybe Beason and Edwards aren’t the players they were before their injuries, and maybe Kuechly doesn’t live up to his billing.
If all that happens, then the Panthers really aren’t going to be any different than they were the last couple of seasons.