There are times in the NFL when a careful observer can see how close a team is to jump-starting forward to not only the Super Bowl, but to a potential dynasty to last for the next decade. Not the up-and-comers like the Rams, or the ones who have been there and done all that before like the Patriots.
But a team who, with one or two tweaks, can be one of the best to ever play the game.
A team that will be almost unbeatable once they break through the proverbial brick wall.
Right now, that team is the Carolina Panthers.
In 2015 the Panthers had the most dominant offense in the league, which propelled them to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. Since losing to the Broncos in Super Bowl L, they have struggled to maintain consistent success.
Carolina finished last in the NFC South in 2016 with a 6-10 record and lost in the Wildcard game last year after finishing 11-5 behind the Saints. This year they currently sit in second place with a record of 3-2, behind the Saints once again.
Both of those losses were on the road, and the point differential was a single touchdown. The Panthers find ways to stay competitive in every game they play.
The defense has allowed 1790 total yards, the fourth fewest in the NFL, per ESPN. However, an early bye has inflated that rank, as they are 15th in the NFL against both the pass and rush, allowing 255 and 102 yards per game, respectively.
Still, they buckle down when it matters most, allowing the tenth least points per game with 22.8.
Offensively, the Panthers are known as a ground-and-pound team, and the numbers reflect that. Carolina rushes for more than 139 yards per game, the fourth most in the league.
The ability to run the ball has not helped the passing attack much, as the Panthers rank 26th with 222 yards per game. They are in the middle of the pack in scoring, averaging 24.2 points per game, 17th in the NFL.
The numbers across the board are a far cry from impressive but are not indicative of how this team is playing.
Stats can say a lot about how good, or bad, a team is in specific areas and as a whole. But some things only show up on the field, rather than on paper.
Let’s start with the obvious.
Cam Newton has a canon for an arm to go along with his ability to run the football. He is completing almost two-thirds of his passes this year and has nine touchdowns to four interceptions. While there is plenty of room for improvement, that is still better than two-to-one.
He is second on his team rushing with 208 yards on 45 carries for three touchdowns. His ability to run makes him one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL, particularly in the red zone. Defenses are forced to account for the quarterback on every play, be it a pass, option run or straight give.
Newton is also built like a linebacker at 6’5” and 250 lbs. He has the speed to run around defenders and the size and strength to run through them.
Christian McCaffrey is a dual threat out of the backfield with his speed and ability to catch the ball downfield. He leads his team with 34 receptions and is second in receiving yardage with 238 so far this year.
The receiving corps is led by the 6’4” Devin Funchess, and if Greg Olsen can stay healthy he provides another big target for Cam. They have good size, good hands and run routes well, but they are missing a speedy wideout to blow the top off a defense.
Newton’s longest pass of the year is 51 yards, but he has the ability to throw 70 with ease if he had a man deep. Carolina also does not get a lot of yards after the catch, which limits what an offense can do, particularly in third-and-long situations and in the two-minute offense.
Luke Kuechly is a great all-around linebacker, and the heart of the defense. He covers well and is a solid run-stopper. He has speed, strength, awareness and is one of the best open-field tacklers in the NFL. He leads the Panthers with 38 tackles, including four for loss, but has only recorded one sack so far.
In fact, the unit as a whole has struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks. Mario Addison is the team leader with 3.5 sacks. The team has recorded 12 this year.
The Panthers have a solid secondary that has ripped off seven interceptions already, but the defensive line needs to apply more pressure. The longer a play is extended, the more likely it is for a receiver to find separation.
Carolina is close. They are not there yet.
But this team is full-to-bursting with potential. With a few more pieces, and if they can find a way to fix the little things, they have the potential to be great.