The NFL season is a grueling 16 games long with a select few getting to play on in hopes of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end.
Before, during and after these 16 games though we see teams all around the league battered and bruised throughout the year, hit with injury after injury to a number of key players, forcing teams to dig deep on their roster and into the free agent pool in hopes of preventing a drop off.
And the Panthers are no exception. From the preseason to the NFC Championship game, Carolina has dealt with their fair share of injuries to notable, big-time players leaving the troops thin and depleted.
But one of the signs of a true champion is how well you can overcome adversity and in the NFL that culminates to one single word: Depth.
And that’s been one of the Panthers’ biggest assets this season.
No team is saved from the “world-ending” injury to a dynamic, star player, as was the case in the preseason when Carolina’s number one wideout Kelvin Benjamin went down with an ACL tear. Afterwards, this team was all but written off as one that would flounder with no postseason hopes without their big playmaker out wide and with no one for Cam Newton to throw to.
Instead, an unlikely crew of Ted Ginn Jr.., Philly Brown, Devin Funchess and Jerricho Cotchery wound up as clutch playmakers ready to pick up right where Benjamin left off. Ginn became the number one guy, and a go-to target for Newton while recording one of his best seasons as a pro (44-receptions, 739-yards, 10-touchdowns) while Brown, Funchess and Cotchery each had solid seasons (all with 30+ catches, 440+ yards, and 3+ scores) of their own filled with a number of key contributions in critical moments during the season.
Not only did the receivers step up, but one could argue that it also was a big reason for the MVP performance Newton displayed all season long as he was forced to live without his top weapon and progress to the level of play he is at now.
Although the Panthers’ receivers were constantly overlooked and underestimated during the 2015-16 campaign, their secondary also started to take some heat as a weak link on the team.
All was well with this unit until veteran cornerback Charles Tillman went down with a knee injury which sidelined him for four games. In his place, second-year corner Bene Benwikere step in and played extremely well until he broke his leg in the late minutes of the team’s Week 14 matchup with Atlanta. Tillman returned but his season came to halt when he tore his ACL in Week 17.
These injuries left Carolina with veterans Cortland Finnegan, fresh out of retirement, and Robert McClain, a former Panther to man the nickel and outside spot in this ferocious defense that now had a few areas of concern.
It’s been a seesaw affair for these two as a whole with a bit of bad mixed in with the good but what they’ve contributed has clearly been good enough (most notably in the NFC title game when the two locked down the threatening Arizona receiving corps) for Carolina to be in the position they are today.
And although it was less talked about, the brief injuries at safety to both Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper in Week 17 and the NFC Title game, respectively, forced Tre Boston into action who responded with key plays in almost each game since, like his sack in the Divisional Round and a late interception last week.
The receivers and the secondary were the big areas of concern due to injury but the depth that has been on display from the linebackers has been just as impressive.
Both Luke Kuechly and now Thomas Davis have been sidelined at opposite ends of the season, but the top reserves behind them performed with little to no drop off. A.J. Klein and this year’s first-rounder Shaq Thompson have stepped in for both of the Panthers’ star linebackers and played extremely well.
While replacing Kuechly early on, Klein manned the defense as the signal caller, sitting at or near the top of the leaderboard in team tackles each game he played. And last week, Thompson filled in for Davis after he broke his arm and provided the defense with the same intensity and speed that Davis has been known for.
It’s just another example of the depth of this Panthers team and how it has strengthened and helped propel this team to this point.
Whether it was Benjamin in the preseason, Kuechly in the early weeks or Tillman in the regular season finale the Panthers have been able to overcome them all by having a strong and hungry crop of players waiting in the wings to get their chance and produce for this Super Bowl team.