Do a little wiggle, Panthers fans. Or burn some sage. Or pray, or sweat it out, or scrub extra hard in the shower or whatever method you might feel will work best to exfoliate this season from your skin.
It’s all but over. Carolina will not make the playoffs after losing its final home game Saturday to Atlanta, and will not be able to scrape to at least a .500 record. There have been season-ending injuries to key members of the line, a star linebacker absent because of a concussion (and a coach making the right call thereafter), and a quarterback who, after an MVP season, finished five of his past six games with less than half of his passes completed.
And yet …
There is reason to hope. There are a few young and eager faces ready to break through, and we might just see them do it next year.
Bradberry is one of the two rookie corners brought in after the Josh Norman era ended in Carolina. He missed three games to a turf toe suffered on the fateful day Julio Jones and the Falcons put a beating on the Panthers’ secondary (Bradberry left the game early). While his absence put the secondary in flux, once he returned it was clear his ceiling is high.
Bradberry has gotten extremely diverse in coverage and, while good for one rookie mistake a game (read: Trying to strip Falcons running back Tevin Coleman instead of tackling him, which helped Coleman along to a 55-yard touchdown run), he has adapted well to the learning curve. In that same rematch with Jones, he held the receiver to 60 yards and had a gorgeous pass breakup.
Bradberry, 23, is most frustrated with the fact that he only has one interception this season. But, the future looks very bright for the corner, whom coach Ron Rivera said he can see sticking around for awhile.
While the absence of star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is not a good thing, it has allowed Thompson to step more into the spotlight.
Thompson, usually in on a case-by-case basis at the Buffalo nickel, played a little middle linebacker and got his first career interception against the San Diego Chargers late in the year. He kept his momentum going against Atlanta with 11 tackles (second on the team behind Thomas Davis), and looked excellent when dropping into coverage.
The Panthers have made it clear that they are aware of Thompson’s versatility, but have hesitated to “put too much on him” at 22 years old.
When he was forced into that larger role, though, he performed extremely well.
Larsen, a third-string center who went undrafted out of Utah State in 2014, rode the bench behind Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil and capable backup Gino Gradkowski.
Then the two ahead of Larsen were placed on injured reserve on the same day, and Larsen had to step up at one of the toughest positions in football – and set the players beside him, who had also been reshuffled after the loss of left tackle Michael Oher (concussion) and guard Daryl Williams (ankle).
Before the Falcons game Saturday, that line had not given up more than two sacks in a game (it had given up 25 by the time Larsen was called up to start), and did not let the Seattle Seahawks get to quarterback Cam Newton once.
Considering the circumstances that surrounded him, Larsen has played remarkably well and has certainly made a case for himself – if not to the Panthers, to another team looking for blossoming talent at the position.
Butler, a defensive tackle, rounded out the slew of 2016 draft picks with injuries (corner Daryl Worley was in the concussion protocol twice, corner Zack Sanchez went on injured reserve, Bradberry had turf toe), with a high ankle sprain midseason. That kind of an injury is hard to recover from if you’re pushing 300 pounds, but after a few wobbly weeks, he started making an impact.
Butler has not been on the field much even when healthy, but had his best showing of the year against Washington in Week 15 when he had three quarterback hurries and batted a pass. He partially blocked a kick Saturday against the Falcons and is credited with a sack and a half on the year.
Look, I was first in line of those ready to write Benjamin off. I even called him a wet napkin where a pickaxe was needed, after the lack of energy and effort he showed over the course of several games.
However, after Newton stood at the podium following Carolina’s 33-16 loss to Atlanta and spoke highly of Benjamin and how willing he’s been to improve, I began to feel optimistic about the third-year receiver (who missed a year with an ACL tear).
Newton said he had a talk with Benjamin, whom he said was “overthinking some things” and needed to simplify.
“I definitely haven’t played with that energy I played (with Saturday),” Benjamin told reporters after the game. “It was a crazy season. There was a lot going on. But you can’t really dwell on it. It’s whatever. You move on. The criticism, I take it. I just take it, eat it up. This offseason, I’m going to go work and come back even better.”
Of course, the monster stiff arm Benjamin laid on a hapless defensive back (who flew back about 5 feet), coupled with Benjamin running through three more defenders for an 18-yard gain did a lot to sway me, too. He showed a flash of his true potential.
Whether he – and the Panthers themselves – live up to it next season has yet to be determined.