Sure, the Carolina Panthers didn't win the Super Bowl last season. For quite the entertaining team, the championship game was a letdown, but making it as far as they did is remarkable for a team that was under .500 the previous season. With the Denver Broncos losing their two quarterbacks, the Panthers have to be favorites to win it all now, right?
Dabbing on 'em
Most expectations were set relatively low for the Panthers last season, as experts and fans alike saw them as a borderline playoff team. They weren't facing a super hard division, but both the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints were consistently solid teams that would make it hard on the Panthers to win out. So when the Panthers steamrolled past nearly everybody and went 15-1, you bet Carolina was pleasantly shocked.
The biggest reason for this dominance was none other than the MVP of the league, Cam Newton. He's always been a solid two-way quarterback with freakish athleticism but a need to improve in terms of decision making and throwing ability. Experts were split on whether they thought he would reach prime Michael Vick and Russell Wilson level in terms of a running quarterback or if he'd crumble like Colin Kaepernick did last season.
In 2015, he just took his game to a whole new level. Newton not only threw for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns with only ten interceptions, but he also racked up 706 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.
The X-factor for the much-improved unit on the other side of the ball was cornerback Josh Norman, who catapulted himself to the highest ranks of the league's cornerbacks with big, shutdown performances against number-one wideouts from every opponent.
If there was one underachieving player on the team, it was Jonathan Stewart. DeAngelo Williams left to back up Le'Veon Bell for the Pittsburgh Steelers, leaving Stewart with the majority of the carries, yet Stewart failed to reach 1000 rushing yards on the season. He did play through an injury that kept him in recovery until June, but overall, it was unclear that the Panthers' offense was affected.
Carolina's number-one wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, was injured on day one and sat out the entire season, forcing Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr., and a scrappy bunch of pass catchers to step up, which they did. Greg Olsen emerged as a top threat at tight end, making up for the absence of Benjamin, Newton's favorite target from the 2014 season.
Any team with 15 regular season wins is bound to have many strengths and few weaknesses. The Panthers were no exception. Their defense was near the top of the league all-around, putting up a solid pass rush and defending the pass quite well with a stellar linebacking core to mediate everything led by Luke Kuechly. On offense, their Superman led both the passing and rushing attacks while the offensive line saw four of its five members head to the Pro Bowl.
The final piece to the puzzle was the emergence of Ron Rivera as one of the top coaches in all of football. While on the hot seat not too long ago, Rivera made himself known as the league's gutsiest play caller, going for it on fourth down extremely often and putting quite a bit of faith into his team. And that trust brought a morale boost to the entire team in 2015.
The big story of this offseason for the Carolina Panthers was the rescission of Josh Norman's franchise tag, making the All-Pro corner a free agent. Norman ended up signing with the Washington Redskins, vanishing from the Panthers defense in a veil of smoke. The immediate patch job was conducted through the NFL Draft, during which Carolina selected three cornerbacks with three straight picks of theirs. Two of those three, James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, will be starting at corner this upcoming season. In case that doesn't work, Robert McClain is a veteran presence who can step in at any time.
Also picked in the draft was defensive tackle Vernon Butler, who went 30th overall out of Louisiana Tech to the Panthers. He wasn't expected to fall to Carolina, so adding him to the defensive line was a big plus for Rivera's team.
Carolina's most positive move of the offseason was the extension of Michael Oher's contract, keeping the resurgent Blind Side tackle on Newton's offense.
The upcoming season
The biggest news you'll get from this article is that Newton will no longer dab to celebrate. That may have been the key to Carolina's 2015 success, so this is clearly a big concern for Panthers fans.
In all seriousness, Carolina does face a major problem heading into the 2016 season and that is filling the hole left by Josh Norman and retired Charles Tillman at corner. Rookie defensive backs are unpredictable and it will be hard to keep up with division foes Julio Jones and Mike Evans regardless. The secondary is now the team's weakest link, but that doesn't the Panthers will fall too far back.
The rest of the defense is still intact and while it won't be the league's best, it's still a top-10 unit. As for the offense, Benjamin is back as Newton's number-one wideout, making Funchess one of the league's best number-three receivers. Stewart will need to prove himself at running back by eclipsing 1,000 yards, and Newton, well, Cam Newton just needs to try and get close to the performance he put out last season.
Taking a look at the schedule, Carolina starts the season with a Super Bowl rematch in prime time on Thursday night. That's a game they should win, as Trevor Siemian is not the quarterback that should test this defense. The Panthers will have to face the Minnesota Vikings, a very dangerous NFC side, in Week 3, and the highly-touted Arizona Cardinals are also on tap. The yearly matchup with the Seattle Seahawks is always a grind, especially away at CenturyLink Field in the Emerald City, and the regular season will conclude with an unpredictable showdown against the Washington Redskins, who took home the NFC East crown in 2015.
With that schedule, the Panthers are looking to finish 11-5 and win the division. They should be able to get past the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, but the Super Bowl or bust expectations won't likely be fulfilled, as they will face equal or better defenses as the postseason progresses along with lethal offenses such as those of the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, and Seattle Seahawks.
Getting back to the Bowl is a possibility, but for that to happen, Bradberry and Worley will have to be at least average from day one and Benjamin and Stewart will have to shatter expectations on offense. This is a great team, but the odds to get back to the big game are not in Carolina's favor.