By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts Brigadier of Chips and Beer

The Panthers did the unthinkable in 2011.  They hired well, they acquired new talent, they played above expectations, and they developed into a damn scary team by season's end.  No one is confusing them for a Super Bowl contender; they finished only 6-10 (and feasted on some cupcakes to bolster that win total), but they were remarkably competitive last season, and undeniably improved from those 16 forsaken weeks in 2010 under Jimmy "Scapegoat" Clausen's reckless watch.

Poor Jimmy.

The 2011 storyline: The Panthers needed a savior in 2011 and invested the first overall pick and $22 million in quarterback Cam Newton, one of the riskiest prospects in recent draft history.  Things, uh, turned out okay.
The Vital Signs
Coach (record): Ron Rivera (6-10 with Carolina; 6-10 overall)
2011 record: 6-10 (25.4 PPG – 26.8 PPG)
Record against the spread: 9-7
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 1-7 (21.6 – 32.4)
Record last five seasons: 35-45 (.438)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Offensive Hog Index (T-4th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Defensive Real Passing YPA (32nd)

23 25 13 27 11 32 6 29 13 30 25 4t 28t 20
Overall= Overall position in Quality Stats Power Rankings; QS = Quality Standings; SCOR = Scoreability; BEND = Bendability; RPYPA = Real Passing Yards Per Attempt; DRPYPA = Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt; QBR = Real Quarterback Rating; DQBR = Defensive Real Quarterback Rating; OPR = Offensive Passer Rating; DPR = Defensive Passer Rating; PRD = Passer Rating Differential; OHI = Offensive Hog Index; DHI = Defensive Hog Index; REL = Relativity Index.

Statistical curiosity of 2011: The Panthers became the first team in NFL history to have three players rush for more than 700 yards.  DeAngelo Williams led the way with 836 yards (5.39 YPA), Jonathan Stewart came in a narrow second place with 761 (5.36 YPA), and Newton added another 706 on 126 carries (5.6 YPA).  The Michael Vick-led Falcons fell just shy in 2006, and the 1978 Patriots are the only team to come close without a mobile quarterback: Sam Cunningham ran for 768, Horace Ivory 693, and Andy Johnson 675.
Best game of 2011: 28-13 win vs. Houston (Week 15).  It's not to say that the Panthers didn't record a signature win in 2011, but when five of your six victories come against the dregs of the league, that "defining moment" becomes tough to pinpoint.  Some of the glamour was pilfered from their sixth – and most impressive win – when a depleted Texans team threw their third string, fifth-round rookie passer to the wolves.  But it's Carolina's best game because they rolled up 28 points on an elite NFL defense, and completely submarined Houston's seven-game win streak.  It was an efficient, all-around offensive effort and – considering the quality of the opponent – arguably Carolina's best defensive performance of the season.
Worst game of 2011: 30-3 loss vs. Tennessee (Week 10).  Things weren't looking up, per se, when the 2-6 Panthers rolled into their midseason matchup with the Titans, but up to that point, Carolina had taken almost every team to the wire.  Tennessee's four-touchdown smackdown sent the hopes of the Carolina faithful hurdling back to Earth like a falling satellite.  Struggling runner Chris Johnson ran for 130 yards and logged his best game of the young season, Newton failed to account for a touchdown for the first (and only) time in his professional career, and the Carolina special teams and defense gave up three plays of over 40 yards.
Strength: Rushing offense.  Historically, the ground game has been the foundation of the Panthers, and they've produced some absolutely devastating rushing attacks over the last decade with Jake Delhomme at quarterback.  So it shouldn't be a surprise that, upon replacing Delhomme with one of the best athletes to ever play the position, the Carolina run game supernova'd, and churned out one of the greatest seasons in recent history.  The team averaged a league-leading 5.41 yards per rush, the fourth-best average in the last four decades.  All three runners – Newton, Williams, and Stewart – averaged over five yards per carry, and placed first, sixth, and eighth, respectively, on a list of league-wide rushing averages (min. 100 attempts).  Newton's 14 scores were good for second in the NFL, and the team's collective 26 touchdowns on the ground is tied for sixth all time.

Weakness:    Pass defense.  2011 was an anomaly of offensive football; 10 players passed for more than 4,000 yards, and a further three – Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Matthew Stafford – breached the 5,000-yard holy land.  And unfortunately for Carolina, seven of their 16 games were against one of the aforementioned 10 quarterbacks... and three of those games featured Brees or Stafford.  Throw in a bout with the reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and two go-arounds with NFL heavyweight Matt Ryan, and it's no wonder Carolina struggled covering the pass.

But the big names only disguise the issue.  Drew Brees's rending of the record books surely didn't help the Panthers in the season's final standings, but Carolina's secondary struggled well beyond their star-studded opposition.  They failed to impede the likes of Kevin Kolb, Arizona's version of the Solyndra fiasco:  Kolb turned out his best game as a professional, throwing for 309 yards and three touchdowns against Carolina's defensive backs in Week One.  Six weeks later, Redskins passer John Beck – making his first start in four seasons – completed 22 passes to eight different receivers, en route to 279 yards and a score.  The following game, Minnesota rookie Christian Ponder set a personal best 8.43 yards per pass attempt, posted his first triple-digit passer rating, and led the Vikings on a 62-yard game-winning drive... earning Minnesota one of just three wins in 2011.

Carolina finished No. 29 in Defensive Real QB Rating, No. 30 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 32 in Defensive Real Passing YPA.

Of all the weaknesses to have in the NFC South, pass defense might be the most crippling.  Ryan, Brees, and Josh Freeman aren't going away any time soon, and unless the Panthers fortify their pass coverage, that legendary rushing offense won't amount to much in a premier division.

General off-season strategy/overview: Offensively, Carolina is one of the soundest teams in the league. They run well, they pass well, and they're volcanically explosive.  Cam Newton might have had the greatest singular rookie season ever, Jonathan Stewart is still young, and DeAngelo Williams is another year from 30 (and physically younger than that, considering the carries he has split over six seasons).  If the Panthers could improve anywhere on the offensive side of the ball, they might consider adding a big-bodied receiver opposite Steve Smith.  They pick ninth in the draft, and depending on some upcoming pro days and pre-draft tweaking, the Panthers have a good shot to add Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, or Stephen Hill to their roster.

But they'd be making a terrible mistake.

The secondary, if ignored, will keep this team out of the playoffs in 2012.  The Panthers desperately need to acquire a safety (or two) in free agency, and then consider drafting a corner early.  Their interior defensive line could also stand to be upgraded (28th in the Defensive Hog Index); the rookie duo Terrell McClain and Sione Fua struggled on the inside, combining for just 28 tackles and one sack – about four games of work for Kris Jenkins in his prime.  Whoever they take will go a ways toward cementing the identity of this Carolina team for a long while.

Do you attack Brees, Ryan, and Freeman by acqiuring Dontari Poe or Fletcher Cox?  Do you neutralize Roddy White and Mike Williams by drafting Dre Kirkpatrick or Janoris Jenkins?  Or do you further supercharge Newton by adding more weapons to his arsenal?

The last option sounds fun, but it won't earn you better than 8-8.

Totally premature 2012 diagnosis: Four different teams have won the NFC South in the last five seasons.  It's the league's most competitive and versatile division, and in recent years, the Saints, Buccaneers, and Falcons have all flashed elite ability.  If Carolina solidifies their secondary, then a division title is not out of the question.  With Newton calling signals – and Williams, Stewart, Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, and the rest of Rob Chudzinski's crew – the Panthers are as dangerous as anyone.