As the house lights blink to signal the end of intermission, the second act of the Panthers' 2011 season is set to begin Sunday with one primary question: Can Carolina convert an opening act that kept everyone on the edge of their seats into a happy ending?
The first half of the play was thrill-filled as the Panthers scored more touchdowns than they did over the entirety of the 2010 season. They led the league in plays of 20 or more yards with 47 and marched up and down the field with an NFL-best 13 touchdown drives of 80-plus yards.
There was no shortage of stars. Rookie quarterback Cam Newton captured the imagination of the Carolinas as well as country with spectacular yet efficient play. Wide receiver Steve Smith came back to center stage after a couple of years out of the limelight. Tackle Jordan Gross, center Ryan Kalil, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and tight ends Greg Olson and Jeremy Shockey played best supporting roles.
The defense was not so fortunate. Understudies had to replace Jon Beason and Thomas Davis at linebacker, and a youthful cast tried to find its footing. However, that cast is still unsettled, and the lineup shuffle continues week-to-week.
The favorable reviews have far outnumbered the critical, but being so tantalizingly close is agonizing for players, coaches and fans. Six games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and the Panthers have been on the wrong side of five of them.
Defensively, the Panthers have remained status quo from a year ago, currently an identical 18th in yards allowed. After dropping to last on offense in 2010, Carolina has been in the top five most of the season, but the victory count remains below anyone's wishes.
How do you increase the winning percentage going forward?
Some of the answers are obvious: Improve a minus-3 turnover margin that includes just nine takeaways in eight games. Reduce the penalties that are the second most in the NFL. Improve play against the run, where the Panthers rank 27th. Avoid lulls on offense at critical times. Stay healthy.
However, the solutions are not so obvious.
It is hard to run an aggressive scheme to force turnovers when the heart of the defense is changing weekly. The same goes for run defense. Staying healthy has been easier said than done as well.
The ultimate solution may point in another direction. The axiom that success breeds success is evident throughout the league every Sunday, and the Panthers have to find a way to the other side.
More than anything, the Panthers need to experience winning and the confidence that comes with it.
This season has brought hope and excitement. It has resulted in more yards and first downs than the opposition, producing statistics that are not reflective of a 2-6 record.
The Panthers have made a sizeable turnaround since the curtain lifted some three months ago. A good second half would send everyone home happy.
Director of Communications Charlie Dayton has worked 34 years in the NFL. Before joining the Panthers in 1994, he was VP of Communications for the Washington Redskins. Dayton has worked on the NFL media staff for 25 Super Bowls, is a past winner of the Horrigan Award and was recently recognized with the National Association of Black Journalists Merit Award.