Back when Monday night's game was scheduled, incredibly high expectations surrounded both the Philadelphia Eagles, who seemed poised to make a Super Bowl run, and the Carolina Panthers, an up-and-coming squad led by star quarterback Cam Newton. Since then, both teams have fallen apart, and both will be picking early in the first round of next year's draft. But while the Eagles must truly start over after this season, the Panthers have someone to build around in Newton.
In 2011, Newton helped the Panthers win four of their final six games, including a triumph over the Houston Texans, sparking hopes that they would turn from a bad team into a good one. Newton and Carolina seemed primed to take the next step in 2012. But they didn't -- the young quarterback and the entire offense struggled, and the defense wasn't good enough to carry them.
The team already has started making changes, from firing general manager Marty Hurney to axing special teams coordinator Brian Murphy. When those kinds of changes start coming during a season, many more can be expected after the season ends. In the Panthers' case, most of those changes will be made to benefit Newton, like adding new players around him and making sure the offensive system is more suited to the quarterback.
This year, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski attempted to do more with Newton, trying to utilize all of the quarterback's talents to his full advantage. But more Newton proved to be less productive for the Panthers. On Monday night, Panthers coach Ron Rivera admitted the following, according to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer: "The thing is, we put a lot on his plate early in the year, and we've taken some of it back. He's reacted to that very well."
As with all quarterbacks, while it is important to know what to do, it can be even more important to know what not to do. The San Francisco 49ers understand this better than most teams. They have had two different quarterbacks succeed with their system, which highlights the skill sets of both players.
The Panthers are learning more about Newton with each game this season -- positively and negatively. The team should be getting a better idea of how to shape the offense around him. But any potential changes to the staff, whether with regard to the head coach or any other offensive position, could result in the implementation of a new system, a new offense and a new learning curve. For the Panthers to be successful next season, they must correctly identify their real problems -- from players to coaches to schemes -- and then handle them correctly.
That will be the challenge for the new general manager: Pinpointing the flaws that need fixing. Most people instinctively want to make big changes to losing teams, but strategic change will solve the Panthers' problems.
Carolina doesn't need a general manager who will come in with a broom and sweep everyone out. The Panthers need someone with an understanding of this team as it relates to the competition. The new GM must totally understand both the NFL and Newton's talents, and he must mesh these understandings together to create the right system.
Newton's unique talents make everyone think he can do it all. However, doing everything with Newton means that, at times, the offense will get nothing accomplished. The Panthers learned that the hard way this season.
The new GM must understand what Newton is capable of handling, in terms of offensive volume as well style. Long-range thinking will most benefit the Panthers and Newton moving forward. The team must consider what is best for Newton today, tomorrow and two years from now.
Figuring that out will be hard for the Panthers, but if they do, they'll gain an advantage over the NFL, where most teams don't even ask the right questions.
THINGS I LOVED
I loved that the Atlanta Falcons pulled out yet another close victory. Against good and bad teams, the Falcons find a way to triumph, and this will benefit them greatly in January. It creates the kind of "never-say-die" attitude they'll need when the games are more meaningful -- and even more difficult to win. Atlanta is proving its mental toughness, and I love it.
I loved that the Jacksonville Jaguars were able to win at home, moving the ball and making plays on offense for the second week in a row. Quarterback Chad Henne was not perfect, but at least he afforded the Jags a chance to compete. He might not be the long-term answer at the position, but his play has proved, beyond a doubt, that injured ex-starter Blaine Gabbert isn't the future, either. As long as there was any hope about Gabbert, Jacksonville's search for his potential replacement had to remain on hold. Now, thanks to Henne, the Jags can begin the process of solving this problem in earnest.
I loved how Ryan Tannehill bounced back, following up a bad outing in Buffalo in Week 11 with an outstanding performance against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The athletic Tannehill is best when he can operate in a balanced offense that allows him to make plays with his arm and feet. Problems are created when Tannehill has to play from behind, with the burden of the offense on his shoulders. The way he led the Dolphins to the winning field goal on Sunday is the kind of thing that best bonds a team, and will make Tannehill an effective leader.
THINGS I HATED
I hated Charlie Batch's Phil Niekro impersonation. Trying to throw against the Cleveland Browns' secondary on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers' backup quarterback really resembled the Atlanta Braves' famous knuckleball pitcher. I'm happy the Browns finally beat the Steelers, but Pittsburgh did everything possible to lose the game, from playing Batch to fumbling the ball. If the Steelers don't make the playoffs this year, it will be because they kept Batch and Byron Leftwich, who have both seen better days, as their backup quarterbacks.
I really hated watching the San Diego Chargers give another game away. The Chargers took away all the deep options on that crucial fourth-and-29 play, and as a result, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco did not try to force the ball downfield, instead dumping the ball to his best player, Ray Rice. Yes, the Chargers were beaten on fourth-and-29 with a check-down. I'm sure most of the Ravens coaches were upset when Flacco made the throw, then were elated with the result: With the help of an incredible block by Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, Rice made the first down, thus ending the Chargers' season. I hated having to watch that.
I hated watching the Arizona Cardinals' offense play with a rookie quarterback and a bad offensive line. Ryan Lindley had to throw the ball 52 times against the St. Louis Rams; unfortunately for him, two of his passes were taken back for touchdowns by Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Cards are a bad team on offense. They have no run game, no offensive line and no quarterback. Arizona is wasting the prime of receiver Larry Fitzgerald's amazing career by forcing him to play without a quarterback.
THINGS ON MY MIND
» I have thoroughly documented the Philadelphia Eagles' collapse this season. Talented teams don't lose seven in a row. Even the Eagles' three victories were decided by narrow margins; they're closer to being winless then they are to being a talented team. As their season has essentially ended, so has my writing about them.
» Every time the Kansas City Chiefs kicked a field goal rather than going for it in fourth-and-short situations, I asked myself if the Chiefs really thought an additional three points would be enough to beat Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Kansas City had nothing to lose; why not be aggressive?
» I am now convinced that whoever plays quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, the team will make him look good. San Francisco's offensive staff, as well as coach Jim Harbaugh, have done an incredible job making both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick look sensational. Taking nothing away from either player, I'm more impressed with the 49ers' overall offensive scheme. Coach Bill Walsh would have loved it.
» I know the Oakland Raiders are rebuilding, but they're playing at a level below "rebuilding" right now. The Raiders need to find a way to make something positive happen over the next five weeks, and build for 2013.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.