Dear Carolina : I was dead wrong

How good are the Panthers?

 

Dear Carolina,

I was wrong. I am happy to tell you I was wrong.

On May 7, 2013, I wrote a column declaring that the Carolina Panthers were going nowhere with Cam Newton and Ron Rivera.

As we get set for Week 11 of the 2015 NFL season, Cam Newton and Ron Rivera have brilliantly guided the Panthers to a 9-0 start.

Yep — I nailed it!

A little backstory on that column from three offseasons ago …

I have no regrets about what I wrote. Zero. Seriously. At the time of publishing, I believed every single word of it. Before penning the piece, I remember checking in with a few general managers, personnel directors, analysts and even some media types in Carolina who have the pulse of the team. That helped shape my opinion. And most especially, like everything I write or say, it was genuinely how I felt, what I observed to be backed up by fact. Rivera was a poor in-game coach. Cam was immature and not accurate with the football.

In fact, I had a very fascinating talk with my editor before I even wrote the piece. We didn’t think the subject matter would necessarily pop because the opinion was rather mainstream and Captain Obvious.

I had no idea about the proverbial hornet’s nest I was walking into. The North Carolina natives went bonkers.

I make my living giving opinions on sports via radio, television and the Internet. I usually have a pretty good sense of what the reaction to a story will be, what will work, what will sell. Trolling? True story: The first time I ever heard the expression was in the wake of my Cam/Ron column. I had to ask my radio producer what it meant!

I knew Panthers fans were amazing and passionate. But I got a new introduction that day. And that week. And month. And year. And the last two-plus years. And today. Seriously. (You don’t have to tweet me that column. I’m aware of it. I wrote it.)

Every game, all season

And I am thrilled to be wrong.

At that time, back in May of 2013, Rivera had an established reputation as a tentative head coach. He started the 2013 campaign on the hot seat, no surprise to us, and got off to a horrendous 1-3 start that cranked up the heat even more. (Just ask my man Ian Rapoport!)

Then the legend of “Riverboat Ron” was born.

Rivera got aggressive and began to trust his gut. Carolina won 11 of its final 12 regular-season games that season — including eight in a row at one point — and took the NFC South with a sparkling 12-4 record.

Last year, the Panthers got off to another horrible start (3-8-1) but closed the season with four straight wins and another division title (albeit in an awful NFC South, but I digress). Kudos to the coach for the strong finish. Rivera held the team together.

What’s happening this year is incredible. Carolina has developed a knack for playing its best when it matters the most. Credit the coach.

I talked to Panthers star tight end Greg Olsen on my SiriusXM Radio show, “Schein on Sports,” followingthe statement win in Seattle one month ago. Olsen said that the fight the team had displayed down the stretch last season has carried over: “It’s just been the story of our team. You saw it last year, 3-8-1 and the next thing you know we were 7-8-1 and won a playoff game. I just think that culture of continuing to fight, continuing to play when things aren’t always going to go your way.”

Which leads us to Cam Newton.

I roasted Cam for his immature comments before the 2011 NFL Draft“I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon” — and I ripped him for his out-of-touch Superman celebration in the second half of a nationally televised blowout loss to the New York Giants in 2012.

Over the last three seasons, Cam has developed the ability to thrive while facing adversity in the fourth quarter, even when he’s had an uneven game throwing the football. That’s toughness. That’s leadership. That’s maturity. That’s why he, in my opinion, currently trails only Tom Brady in the 2015 NFL MVP race.

“He’s a clutch guy. He thrives in those moments,” Olsen said. “When things aren’t going our way, he gets it done. Seattle was a perfect example. Three quarters, our passing game was kind of hot and cold. But when we needed him the most, needed the passing game the most, he’s locked in. We were locked in. He lives to play the next play.”

And I loved what longtime Panthers star Thomas Davis — the epitome of class in the NFL — told me on SiriusXM about Cam’s maturation: “As a young kid, he came in and had a lot thrown on his shoulders early. But now, he’s grown into the leader that we fully expected him to become, and his maturity level has gone up tremendously accepting that role.”

Davis then slammed home the turning point, as he saw it, for Cam: “When I think of the true testament and the true show of leadership is when a guy is able to step up when things are not going well and communicate it to the team. That we all need to be better — and he’ll be the first one to point out that it started with him. I think a lot of that started when we went two months last year without winning a football game. He put it on his shoulders and said he needed to play better, regardless of what we had gone through as a team. He put it on his shoulders, and that’s when you started to see the growth. That’s when you started to see the guy step up and become the leader of this football team. And he’s been going ever since.”

That’s a superb anecdote. That was the change we needed to see. I’m thrilled to be wrong, seeing Cam being capable of that.

Earlier this week, haters and critics flocked to mock and ridicule Cam for dancing after a touchdown run that sealed the deal in a hard-fought win over Tennessee. I loved it. It fit the time and score, and he earned it. Just likeJ.J. Watt when he celebrates a sack orAaron Rodgers when he does the championship-belt bit and skips around the field. They earned it. Cam earned it. Celebrate. Validate. Appreciate. If theTitans have an issue, stop him.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. These Panthers are hard to stop, to say the least. That’s a valuable lesson I’ve learned, after doubting this team — yet again — in the preseason.

You would think I would’ve learned from prior mistakes. Shame on me.

I had the 2015 Panthers buried after star receiver Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season in August. Oh, I quipped that I didn’t know if the Panthers had a receiving corps or a witness protection program.Ted Ginn Jr.? Jerricho Cotchery? What year is this? Philly Brown? Wait, what? Neophyte Devin Funchess as the No. 1?

I thought the Panthers would win six or seven games!

I blasted the usually savvy Dave Gettleman for his plan on the offensive line. How do you allow a Titansreject in Michael Oher to protect the investment of Cam Newton?

In related news, the O-line has been strong.

And I ripped Carolina over Newton’s offseason contract extension. A higher guaranteed-money figure than completion percentage?

Cam has proven that his value goes way beyond stats. Gettleman was right. Again.

I was wrong. Again.

W-R-O-N-G.

You know, there was a time, back in the Mike Rucker/Jake Delhomme/John Fox days, when I was actually referred to as aPanthers homer. I used to sing “The Carolina Panthers, bringing the pain!” from the old theme song when I did videos on FOX. To this day, we still use that song on the radio show.

Aaah, memories.

Carolina has earned respect. So have Cam and Riverboat Ron. They’ve changed since May 7, 2013 — and I’ve changed my tune about them.

I’m happy to have missed the boat completely on them. They are so much fun to watch.

Hopefully, you folks will allow me back in the state again.

Love,

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