What a difference five games can make. The Carolina Panthers started the season 1-3 and many were calling for the firing of coach Ron Rivera. Now, after winning five games in a row, the team is poised to make a playoff run. It's safe to say that tonight's Monday Night Football game against the Patriots is the hottest ticket in town.
Charlotte Observer Sports Columnist Tom Sorensen joined us to discuss the turnaround for the Panthers.
Kevin: Good morning, Tom.
Sorensen: Good morning.
Kevin: Well it didn't seem like all that long ago things were looking pretty bad for the Panthers. So, what happened?
Sorensen: You know, they were 1-3, it was business as usual. High expectations, low performances. And then, it turned. A couple of things happened. One is that the defense, which was good, suddenly became the best in the league, or among the best. They are playing superbly. And Cam Newton has really emerged as a quarterback and a leader. When they played Arizona, which was their last loss, I think Cam was sacked six times and hit 20 times. He never complained, and his body language never gave it away. He didn't yell at his offensive lineman, he just sucked it up and took it. He got knocked down, kept getting up, and stayed enthusiastic. And I think when you do that you really become a leader. And he has. And add Cam's progression with that defense and I think you've got a great chance at success.
Kevin: Well, it seems like the attitude of the fans has turned around as well.
Sorensen: Yeah, they don't hate the Panthers anymore. The Panthers are no longer a joke. People wanted to cheer. There are a lot of new fans, obviously because of the bandwagon, and that's ok. But there are lots of people, thousands of people who suffered through the lean years with this team. Suffered so long that it just seemed like the status quo. So this has just been a revelation. It was unexpected. It's exciting, and they are really having fun with it.
Kevin: Well, up until the 49ers game last week the argument could be made that the wins they were getting weren't against incredibly strong teams. How big was it for them to get that win against a very talented 49ers team?
Sorensen: They had beaten the bottom feeders which is what you are supposed to do. Then, they fly across country, which usually takes something out of a team. And then they play in a very loud stadium with very loud fans against a very good team. One of the most complete teams in the league. They were down 9-0, and they easily could have crumbled and panicked. This was a new level for them. They were the team that kept its poise. Cam was as efficient as he had to be, and the defense just took over. By the end of the game, Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco quarterback reacted on every pass as if he was going to get hit, and he was usually right.
Kevin: There were a lot of people early in the season who were calling for head coach Ron Rivera's head. Is his job safe now?
Sorensen: Probably. With Ron it was cumulative. It was two season ago, and it was last season, and it was this season. It was 1-3 and it was just another poor start. He would almost withdraw on the sidelines. He would coach conservatively. Coached - you could say - not to lose. And then he just let go. Then he became "Riverboat Ron." He prefers "Calculated Risk Ron." He still has to win. If they go into the tank, if they fail to make the playoffs, if they go 8-8, I assume he would not be here next season. But right now that seems like such a small possibility. He is a guy that everybody pulls for. He is a guy - and this is important - that even when they were losing, he never lost the support of the players. I mean they worked hard for him. Great expectations but poor performance this last season, and they stuck with him, and they stuck by him early this season. I remember Steve Smith once saying "It doesn't help when you guys speculate in print about Ron Rivera's job security." And he was right, it didn't help. But that speculation is gone.
Kevin: You mentioned "calculated risks." Is it at all a matter of those risks paying off now when they weren't paying off before?
Sorensen: He didn't take those risks before. He was very conservative. If it was 4th and 1, he was punting. If it was 4th and 1, he was kicking a field goal. And now it's Ron, and it's Offensive Coordinator, and it's his position coaches. They have the plays, and they are confident. And success begets success, and it's working.
Kevin: Ok so Monday Night Football tonight. They are playing the 7-2 Patriots. It is a big game. How big of a game is it actually for this Panthers team?
Sorensen: You know the last big game that they played - the last big game that was comparable at home was in 2008 when they were in the playoffs. But people expected success then. They finished 12-4 that year so you were expecting victories. You were accustomed to it. This is a pleasant surprise. You know a month ago you could have seen New England coming in as a 9-point favorite. Would the Panthers be able to hang in there? And people would go to the game because it is an event. Now the Panthers are favored by 2 1/2 points, and people are expecting a victory, and it is going to be wild. Downtown is going to be full of people who don't go to the game, they don't have tickets, they just want to be around it through osmosis. They want to feel it. It is a really neat thing for our city.