The Carolina Panthers have been a team that showed great promise each of the last two years, only to struggle early. Both seasons, Carolina has opened 2-8 and been eliminated from playoff contention before December, then reeled off successful runs to end the year (9-3 combined in last six games of each season). Steve Smith has provided the early quote of training camp in summarizing the Panthers’ sense of urgency to do better in 2013: like a 35 year old woman who wants to get married and pregnant.
Cam Newton has been subject to much criticism despite putting up two of the better years for a young quarterback in NFL history. That stems from a lot of things, among them the poor performance by the team in close games, and occasionally high profile errors by Newton. The team is 6-13 in games decided by 8 points or less, and have often found ways to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory (see the loss to the Falcons last year).
From a team standpoint, there is certainly a sense of urgency. Head coach Ron Rivera needs to win now to keep his job, and cannot afford another slow start. After finishing by winning five of six, including an impressive win over Atlanta in the division rematch, the Panthers need to build on that where they fell flat the year before. The team has upgraded the defensive personnel greatly, getting Luke Kuechly last year, and adding Star Lotulelei this season. Greg Hardy has emerged as a pass rusher, and the team has a pretty good set of book ends with Hardy and Charles Johnson.
Steve Smith, meanwhile, continues to have a very underrated career nationally. His last two seasons with Cam Newton, he has put up over 2,400 receiving yards. He is one of just ten guys to have consecutive 1,000 yard seasons at ages 32 and 33. How much urgency did those other nine have, before those 1,000 yard seasons dried up for good?
If we look at those other players, we see that this is a year where Steve Smith should still be at the top of his game, but where he and the Panthers should have a sense of urgency about making great things happen in 2013. Seven of the other nine players had over 1,000 yards again at age 34, and Don Maynard played in an era with fewer games and averaged over 85 yards a game at age 34. Hines Ward was the only player on the list to have a noticeable dropoff at age 34.
Fewer than half (4) had a 1,000 yard season again after age 34: Tim Brown and Cris Carter at age 35, Jimmy Smith at 36, and Jerry Rice at 36, 39, and 40.
This looks like a year when Steve Smith should still be on top, though many of the best receivers at the same age started to slow at age 35 or 36. He is still option 1A in the passing game, and it does not look like anyone is ready to supplant him in 2013. The Panthers are due, though, and if they don’t want to be left at the altar again in this season, will need to find a way to get those wins when the fourth quarter rolls around.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]