Well, we're back at .500. On the precipice of sunshine, a step away from the darkness. This is perhaps the most pressure the Rams have faced this year.
Let's start with Cam. It's year three. Is the fan base comfortable with his play at this point? Obviously last week's game colors that a bit brighter, but long-term is he seen confidently as the franchise QB?
There's a small but vocal minority that wants to see the Panthers move on, but cooler (and wiser) heads understand that the organization hasn't done a lot to help Newton. There are still times where he makes a bone-headed throw, or does something that drives you nuts -- but this is largely a byproduct of him trying to do too much.
Cam isn't a conventional quarterback, he never will be, but thankfully it seems the coaching staff understands that the best move is to put the ball in his hands and let "Cam be Cam". That's why we've seen both sides to Newton in the last two weeks, an interception-prone outing where he forced passes in Arizona, and the calmly dominant improviser against Minnesota.
On the rest of the offense - it seems to me you guys are kind of at the end of a previous generation of Panthers largely centered around Steve Smith, Jordan Gross and DeAngelo Williams. Are they showing their age? How is the ball being spread around to keep Smith and Williams involved without taking away opportunities from younger guys like Brandon LaFell?
This is a great question I'm not sure we really have the answer to right now. Getting the easy part of the way, Jordan Gross and DeAngelo Williams look as effective as ever. There were questions whether Gross could return to form in 2013 after a rough season last year -- but has been sensational this season.
Williams is thriving in a more run-heavy offensive system, turning back the clock and playing like he did four years ago. For a while it looked like he was slowing down, but it's safe to say the issue was with former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski..
Steve Smith is a far bigger question. He's been asking to be transitioned into a slot receiver role since 2011, but the Panthers haven't done a good job finding a player to replace him with outside. Many of us think it's time to move Ted Ginn into a more important role (Surprising, right?) but there seems to be an unwillingness to do so. Smith hasn't had a great season, but he's the kind of guy who can break out of a slump at any time.
Brandon LaFell is good, but often unused. We'd like to see him integrated into the offense more.
Is there a weak point in the front 7? Is there a huge discrepancy between the Panthers' capability to defend the run and pass up front?
There isn't a weakness we've found in the front seven outside of regular rookie growing pains. Both Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are playing at a very high level, giving the Panthers some much-needed run stopping.
This is a balanced line with an equal ability to rush the passer and stop the run.
Overall, it's got the makings of a very stout defense. What were the keys to what Buffalo and Arizona did to top 20 points? Was it more about what those teams did on offense or certain mistakes Carolina made defensively?
Buffalo and Arizona were opportunistic and won on defense through a combination of bad offensive line blocking and poor coaching decisions. This is a patchwork offensive line with a lot of weaknesses that can be exploited, especially by a good defensive line. We have seen a few modifications on offense to mitigate the bad line play, including more screen plays and quick passing -- but this is still an area where Cam Newton is developing as a quarterback.
The key is getting a lot of pressure quickly and throwing off Cam's rhythm.
Taking stock of things overall, where is this franchise arc-wise? With Atlanta and Tampa caving, have the expectations risen for Carolina to fill any void left behind New Orleans? Are Panthers fans satisfied overall with HC Ron Rivera and GM Dave Gettleman?
Realistically we'll see a coaching change in 2013. Ron Rivera was never GM Dave Gettleman's guy, and it would take a monumental comeback to save his job. It looks like Rivera is more coordinator than head coach.
Rivera is starting to gain a little more faith from fans, but there isn't much confidence. As far as Gettleman it's hard to really say. He's done some great work correcting the team's cap situation, but there have been some questionable decisions like not getting Newton help on the OL or at WR.
There is a chance the Panthers can take a big step forward while Atlanta is forced to get younger and the Buccaneers rebuild again, that's the hope for 2014..
Thanks to James to for taking the time to answer these.