The Panthers put forth competitive performances in losses to some of the league's top teams, but, for the second year in a row, they were in contention for the No. 1 overall draft pick after starting the season 2-8.
They didn't wait until 2012 for brighter days, though.
Carolina snapped a three-game losing streak in Week 12, beating the then-winless Colts, and has won four of its last five games heading into Week 17. They would finish the season 7-9 with a win over the Saints on Sunday.
There's no doubt a softer schedule helped — two of their wins in the past five games came against the woeful Bucccaneers — but it's also clear that the Panthers have come a considerable distance in a relatively short period.
Last offseason, which was abbreviated by the lockout, didn't give the Panthers much time to prepare a rookie quarterback or let coordinators who were bringing in new schemes on offense and defense implement their systems at the speed they would have preferred. The Panthers were operating at a disadvantage against many other teams, and it showed for most of the season. Yet, Ron Rivera, in his first year as a head coach, has gained significant credibility over the past month and a half.
Some league observers looked at the Panthers' 2-8 start and some questionable game-management decisions made by Rivera — who was interviewed but passed over for head-coaching jobs eight times before being hired by the Panthers — in the first half of the season and wondered if he would learn, adapt and improve. He's kept a team that could have folded from losing its motivation, and he's answered many of the questions that were being asked about him along the way.
The team is expected to use a scalpel, rather than a sledgehammer, when it comes to making personnel changes in the offseason. The return of MLB Jon Beason, who landed on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles tendon in Week One, will provide a major boost to a defense that could use one. The team's core will not be threatened by free agency — the front office has almost all of its key players locked up through at least next season — but tweaking QB Cam Newton's supporting cast on offense and more significant work on defense are in order.
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