Exit Interview: Panthers must learn to win close ones in '12

With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for most NFL teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "exit interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of the 2011 season for each team and look ahead to 2012.

2011 in a Nutshell: As Bill Parcells always used to say, "you are what you are." The Panthers, despite losing many a close game, were a 6-10 football team in 2011. Head coach Ron Rivera developed some young talent, starting with quarterback Cam Newton, but ultimately saw his team fail to close the door in six one-score losses.

What Went Right: Well, Newton sure as hell went right…a lot righter than most personnel executives expected. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance was his ability to hit big plays downfield as a rookie, and not playing scared. In fact, Newton completed 34 passes of 25-plus yards in 2011, eighth most in the league. Overall, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski orchestrated an attack that led the entire NFL in big plays. (Of course, Panthers fans need to pray that Chudzinski doesn't take a head coaching job somewhere.)

Despite having one of the youngest rosters in the league, Carolina was able to stay in games with the big boys and upset a few teams along the way, like the Texans in Week 15. Some of that was due to a running-back-by-committee that posted over 150 yards per game. Don't discount the play of long-time Panthers WR Steve Smith, whose 79 catches and 1,394 yards represented his best season in years.

What Went Not So Right:While the offense produced regularly, the defense sure did give 'em up. Losing linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis early hurt all year, as Carolina was near the bottom of the league in overall defense (see chart below). Part of the problem was a pass rush that didn't get home often enough, including Charles Johnson. The defensive end signed a big deal in the offseason but wasn't quite the force he was in 2010 (nine sacks). Greg Hardy did a decent job at the other end, but the interior of the line failed to stop anyone's running game.

It's hard to win in the NFL giving up 130 yards per game on the ground, much less at a frightening 4.6 yards-per-carry clip.

Offseason Crystal Ball: Considering the average age of this team coming into the season was around 23, and Rivera's new coaching staff didn't get OTAs to implement schemes, the 2012 offseason should be all about just that -- emphasizing the basics of an offense and defense learned on the fly in 2011.

Newton will have a chance to develop cerebrally, while defensive coordinator Sean McDermott must find ways to stop the bleeding at both the first and second levels of his 4-3 defense. Having young defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain stay healthy to see what they can do as sophomores would be a start.

Team Needs and Draft: The Panthers could use help in the secondary and linebacker corps for certain. The latter is important with two former starters coming off serious injuries. But finding a wideout complement to the aging Smith would ratchet up Newton's game a notch.

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