Head coach Ron Rivera summed it up best when he said instruction manuals aren’t written on how to handle seasons like the Carolina Panthers had in 2014.
Quarterback Cam Newton missed the season opener with fractured ribs, then sat out at Week 15 victory after breaking two bones in his lower back during a car crash. Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy spent the final 14 games on the commissioner's exempt list, awaiting the resolution of his domestic violence case. The offensive line and running backs corps were decimated by injuries, leading to a 1-8-1 stretch.
But because the NFC South was so down, the Panthers made the playoffs with seven wins. They won a wild-card game before losing at Seattle in the divisional round.
MVP: Tight end Greg Olsen. Throughout a season of inconsistency for the team, Olsen exemplified consistency on the field while dealing with his 2-year-old son's heart condition. There were times when Olsen actually left the field during practice to be with his family in the hospital. Despite that, he had a team-best 84 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns to make his first Pro Bowl. He was among the league leaders at his position all season in catches and yards. His numbers would have been even more impressive had he not had to stay in to block when the line was being revamped due to injuries.
Best moment: For the team it would have to be the 41-10 victory at New Orleans. At a point when the rest of the NFL had given up on the Panthers, they put together their best game of the season. But to me the best moment was when backup quarterback Derek Anderson, forced to start a late-season game against Tampa Bay when Newton was injured in a car crash, did Newton's trademark first-down point as a tribute to his teammate after running for a touchdown. It showed the next-man-up mentality and tightness of the locker room that kept this team moving forward in hard times.
Worst moment: Newton's scary car crash was one. On the field, it had to be a 31-13 loss at Minnesota when the Panthers had two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in the first half. Other than the blocks, Carolina outplayed the Vikings in a game it needed to win coming off a late-season bye. The breakdowns epitomized the inconsistency of the special-teams unit and the team in general before its late-season run.
2015 outlook: As badly as things went at times, the future looks bright. Seven rookies started in the final two regular-season games and played well, which should lessen the urgency to sign big-name free agents to fill gaps. The defense that finally came together after a midseason loss at Green Bay returns almost all of its key pieces, most notably two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly. The offense also returns intact with the biggest question mark being whether to re-sign left tackle Byron Bell, which seems unlikely. The salary-cap situation isn't nearly so dire, either, giving the Panthers room to sign Newton long term and add much-needed pieces such as a left tackle and a speedy receiver.