How will the 2015 Carolina Panthers be remembered?
Will people recall that they were a great NFC champion that was bested by an elite defense and Peyton Manning’s destiny? A dominant team that came up short on its quest for the ultimate prize? An overachieving band of second-tier players dragged to near-perfection by the league’s Most Valuable Player?
Hopefully, it’s none of the above, since none of those statements is entirely true. In reality, the Panthers will probably be remembered for Cam Newton’s season and little else, which is a shame. There was a lot more to Carolina than their detractors would have you believe, and this team should serve as a both an example of overcoming adversity and a cautionary tale; not just for future squads that rip through the regular season on an easy schedule, but also for the so-called experts that choose the singular talents of a superstar player over a domineering defense.
The Panthers were the pick headed into Super Bowl 50, with oddsmakers installing them as 5-point favorites. Their advantages were heavily based not only on the strength of a 15-1 regular-season record, but the fact that they had just roasted the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals for a combined 80 points in the playoffs. Even if the Broncos had the best defense in the NFL, how much better was it than the ones Carolina had just torched?
It turns out they were a lot better. And that winning 15 games in the regular season means very little if those victories mostly came against soft opponents. Of the seven teams in NFL history to win 15 or more games, only two have won the Super Bowl: The 1984 San Francisco 49ers and the 1985 Chicago Bears. How could Carolina win 15 games and score fewer than 20 points only once during the regular season, yet lose 24-10 in the most important game of the year?
Because Cam Newton hadn’t seen anything like Denver’s defense.
The Broncos held Newton to 18-of-41 passing, no touchdowns, one interception, two fumbles lost and a passer rating of 55.4 in the game, his worst performance since he tossed three interceptions against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7. But it also served as a reminder that Newton had a passer rating of only 78.1 through seven games this season and that he had never posted a season passer rating over 90 in any of his first four years in the league. Newton might be a dangerous weapon and a unique threat as a quarterback, but he never really struck fear in the hearts of defenders with his arm until his late-season tear en route to the MVP.
Perhaps then, we can start to assess some of the reasons for Carolina and Newton’s success. Such as: facing teams like the New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons twice, or getting out-of-division games against the two worst divisions in the NFL. Their performances against Arizona and Seattle were indeed indicative of a talented roster that includes All-Pro players at every level on defense, like Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman, but that advantage was neutralized when their offense went up against a team with a defense better than their own.
Even Peyton Manning acknowledged what the most dangerous weapon in the NFL was this season after the game: “I’m just glad I was on the same team as our defense.”
That defense, one unlike any the Panthers had faced from the AFC South, NFC East, or NFC South, racked up seven sacks, held the league’s number two rushing team to just 118 yards on the ground and forced four turnovers. It was a recipe for Super Bowl-success nearly identical to the one the Seattle Seahawks used to snuff out Denver 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. It’s the same recipe that teams will start to copy in the offseason, when you’ll see everyone search for a DeMarcus Ware/Von Miller pass-rushing combination.
But you won’t see many teams try to copy what Carolina did on their way to a 17-2 final record, mostly because it’s probably not possible. This was a team that played the hand it was dealt, overcame injuries, maximized the potential of its all-everything QB. But also because the league doesn’t usually emulate the teams that came up short, even the great ones like the 16-0 New England Patriots, the 15-1 Green Bay Packers in 2011 and the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004. There are two types of teams every season: The team that wins the Super Bowl and everybody else.
If people remember the 2015 Carolina Panthers as a team that choked in the Super Bowl against a lesser opponent, that too would be inaccurate; this was no upset. Now matter how hard Cam Newton played, the better team won, regardless of what their records were.
Your record is only a part of the story.