09/23/11 — Stevens: Rivera has Panthers headed in right direction despite 0-2 start

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Stevens: Rivera has Panthers headed in right direction despite 0-2 start

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on September 23, 2011 1:48 PM

Success, in the world of sports, is ultimately measured in wins and losses.

Following a 2-14 season in 2010, success for the Carolina Panthers has to be measured in on-the-field progress and player development long before wins and losses and playoff berths re-enter the conversation.

Sure, Carolina is 0-2 through two games. But compared to where the franchise was a year ago at this time, there's plenty to like.

The Panthers have racked up a gaudy 952 yards of total offense -- a number that ranks second in the league behind only New England. Carolina finished dead last in total offense in 2010.

Rookie quarterback Cam Newton has thrown for 854 yards, the most by any player through the first two games of their career. Newton trails only Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady for the most passing yards in the league and is on pace to shatter Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 yards.

Last season, the Panthers ranked last in the league in passing yards with 2,289. Newton is on track to surpass quarterback Jimmy Clausen's 1,558 yards from a year ago by Week 4.

Perhaps the biggest change through the first two weeks has been Carolina's ability to be competitive. The Panthers lost five games by 21 or more points in 2010. Carolina has been in each of its games this season well into the fourth quarter. The Panthers were a failed fourth-down conversion from potentially tying the game late in a 28-21 loss at Arizona.

Carolina built a 13-0 first half lead on defending world champion Green Bay last week and cut the deficit to 23-16 early in the fourth quarter.

Defensively, Carolina ranks seventh in the league in yards allowed despite having lost starting linebackers and team captains Jon Beason and Thomas Davis to season-ending injuries.

The Panthers marched inside Green Bay's 20-yard line six times last week -- another sign of improvement -- but came away with only two touchdowns. Newton has both of Carolina's rushing touchdowns. The Panthers' once dominant running game has gained just 145 yards and ranks 29th in the league. Carolina is averaging only three yards a carry and hasn't had a run longer than 13 yards.

Newton has shown signs of inexperience. He was picked off three times against Green Bay and despite piling up all those yards, the Panthers have scored just 41 points.

Carolina didn't score its 41st point until Week 4 last season and Newton's decision-making ability should continue to improve with experience. A stronger commitment to the running game by offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski will come as he gains more confidence in what's been a shaky offensive line.

Asking a fan base to be patient with a rebuilding franchise can be difficult. At 0-2, the Panthers are exactly where they were record-wise a year ago at this time.

In terms of on-the-field product, Carolina is much farther along than it was 12 months ago. And for a franchise that's lost 16 of its last 18 games, the wins don't seem nearly as far out of reach.