A year ago the Panthers' offense was limping toward the finish line of one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
The anemic offense wasn't just bad; it was boring.
It's a different attitude this year around Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers have an innovative, top-five offense, a head coach who's not afraid to let his offensive coordinator call trick plays and an enthusiasm stemming from a balanced attack in which everyone gets to touch the ball.
Even a fullback nicknamed "The Mauler."
A day after Richie Brockel scored on a 7-yard touchdown run on a Fumble-rooskie in a 28-13 win at Houston, the play continued to generate a lot of online interest. A video highlight of Brockel's touchdown on NFL.com had been viewed nearly 34,000 times as of Monday afternoon.
First-year coach Ron Rivera added to the buzz by revealing the Panthers were calling it "the Annexation of Puerto Rico," after a play from the 1994 peewee-football comedy, "Little Giants."
Rivera said the movie was not necessarily the inspiration for the call against the Texans, but there were similarities.
"Honestly, it's one of those plays that if the timing is right and you call it at the right time, it's about as good as it gets," Rivera said. "Just so you know, the unofficial name - I don't know if you guys have ever seen the "Little Giants" - it's called the Annexation of Puerto Rico. I've seen the movie a hundred times with my kids."
Rivera said what made the play work was the set-up. Leading 14-0 late in the first half, the Panthers sent out a personnel group that included Brockel, running back DeAngelo Williams and receiver Steve Smith in the backfield.
On first down from the Texans' 11-yard line, Cam Newton threw a 4-yard pass on the right side to Brockel, who had one catch and no carries entering the game. Hurrying to the line for the next play, Newton took a quick snap from center Ryan Kalil, stuck the ball between the legs of Brockel, and spun right as though he still had the ball.
Brockel paused to let the defense follow Newton, then raced untouched around the left end for his first career touchdown. The trickery sent the stunned Texans into the locker room down 21-0 at halftime.
Meanwhile, the Panthers celebrated with Brockel, whom Newton dubbed "The Mauler" in training camp for his rugged running style.
"When we put it in, I never thought in a million years that that play was going to work, let alone get a touchdown," wideout Brandon LaFell said. "So we were pretty hyped about it."
It was the second trick play called by offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski in the past three games. In a 38-19 win at Tampa Bay on Dec. 4, Newton caught a 27-yard, throwback pass from receiver Legedu Naanee to set up a touchdown.
An updated offense
The trick plays are representative of the fresh approach Rivera and Chudzinski have brought to the Panthers after nine years of John Fox and his conservative scheme. Fox built his offense around the running game: In 2008, Williams and Jonathan Stewart became the first backfield tandem in NFL history to run for 1,100 yards each.
But in a quarterback-driven division and league, the Panthers were looking for a more dynamic, downfield attack when they were searching for Fox's replacement. Rivera had a defensive background, but had worked for Philadelphia's Andy Reid and San Diego's Norv Turner, two of the league's more creative offensive coaches.
"It's really just what I've seen, what I've been around. The things that we do fit what we have," Rivera said. "This was the package I was bringing. This is what I wanted. Chud fits exactly what we were looking for, and the offense he has put in is exactly what I was looking for."
Chudzinski was the Chargers' tight ends coach when Rivera was Turner's defensive coordinator. Chudzinski, the former Cleveland offensive coordinator, strives to get yards in "big chunks" in a scheme that features a vertical passing game.
With two games remaining, the Panthers (5-9) lead the NFL with 80 offensive plays of 20 yards or more - nearly double their total of 44 last year when they tied with Atlanta for last in the category.
The Panthers were last in the league in 2010 in total offense, passing offense and scoring. With Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen at quarterback, the Panthers managed just 16 offensive touchdowns.
Newton alone has 30 touchdowns - a rookie record.
"We were doing so bad last year, we wouldn't ever try anything new," LaFell said. "This year we're getting in the flow of things now. We're getting scores every now and then. So we've got an opportunity when we get leads to try new, different plays - trick plays."
The gadgets and gaudy numbers are nice, and Chudzinski's offense is drawing raves around the league. But Rivera wants the big-chunk plays to be accompanied by big wins, like Sunday's against the playoff-bound Texans.
"It's not necessarily the reason we're here, to get everybody excited about (the offense), but to win football games," Rivera said. "That's probably the biggest thing. It goes back to what my philosophy is and what I think we can become."