Carolina Panthers bests and worsts from the first half (plus a game) of the season:
Highlight: Philly Brown’s 79-yard punt return against the Bears. On his first punt return of the day, Brown was about to field the punt when Bears’ speedster Teddy Williams hit him before the ball arrived. The ball was loose as Bears and Panthers players looked around. Brown saw the ball, picked it up and ran down the sideline for a touchdown.
Lowlight: Steve Smith’s 61-yard touchdown. There’s plenty to pick from for a team with five losses, but this one burns. Former Panthers receiver Steve Smith caught a fluke deflection and ran into the end zone untouched for a touchdown in Week 4’s 38-10 loss to Baltimore. He’d score another touchdown against the Panthers and finish with 139 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Biggest second guess: Not adding a tackle in the offseason. Jordan Gross retired in February, so that gave the Panthers ample time to figure out what they needed to do at offensive tackle. They didn’t have the money to get a big-time free agent, and they picked too late in the first round to get a top-tier rookie. But they completely ignored the position in the draft and, aside from adding undrafted rookie David Foucault after a tryout, they did little to add depth behind Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. Midway through the year, Bell and Chandler are banged up, backup Garry Williams is on injured reserve and the Panthers have burned Foucault’s redshirt. Mulligan?
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Best decision: Starting Derek Anderson in Week 1. Cam Newton wasn’t ready, and he even admitted that. But that didn’t stop him from all but begging Rivera to let him play the season opener against the Bucs. Anderson led the Panthers to the 20-14 victory that really wasn’t that close.
Worst decision: Playing Charles Godfrey out of position. The Panthers wanted to do right by Godfrey, who was their long-time safety before tearing his Achilles last year. They slashed his base salary by nearly $4 million and signed Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud in the offseason. Out of space at safety, the Panthers put him at corner. But Godfrey never regained his speed, and it was dreadfully obvious. He’s now with Atlanta.
Best quote: “Hindsight is 50/50.” – Cam Newton. Twice this season the Panthers’ quarterback has said this. After the tie in Cincinnati, and after a chuckle or two from the media he corrected himself. The following week in Green Bay he got it right. But after the loss to Seattle, Newton went back to the malaprop.
Worst quote: “ ” – DeAngelo Williams. The Panthers’ all-time leading rusher has played in three games this year, and he’s talked to the media twice. He declined to talk multiple times at training camp as well.
Best rookie: Kelvin Benjamin is the pick almost by default. Kony Ealy has played about a third of the snaps, Trai Turner and Bené Benwikere have been hurt, Tre Boston just got his first start and Tyler Gaffney isn’t on the team anymore. Benjamin has played well enough to put himself near the top of the Offensive Rookie of the Year award conversation. But he still has plenty to work on: his downfield blocking, his work ethic and his drops.
MVP: Tight end Greg Olsen. He’s still on pace to have career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Before two weeks ago, he looked well on his way to his first Pro Bowl appearance in eight years in the NFL. Newton’s most reliable target on an offense that has struggled all season long, Olsen has just four catches for 46 yards in the past two games, though, mostly because he’s had to stay beside the offensive line and help the banged-up unit block.