Every year, a team surprises to get in the playoffs.
But this year, it seems the Panthers are practically expected to miss them.
A team that won the NFC South and 12 games last year has taken hit after hit this offseason.
Left tackle Jordan Gross retired. Wide receiver Steve Smith was cut because he didn’t play well with others. Quarterback Cam Newton had ankle surgery that kept him out of OTAs. The entire secondary was either cut or allowed to leave in free agency.
That’s a lot of stuff. Seeing how they handle all those changes will determine whether they can post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.
1. Is the quarterback going to be OK?
As it pertains to Newton, that’s a question that supersedes the recent rib injury that has him limited in practice this week, and uncertain for Sunday’s opener in Tampa.
Newton missed practically the entire offseason program while recovering from ankle surgery, and that’s the greater concern.
In Washington, Robert Griffin III showed us last year how easy it is to skip OTAs and come in ready for the opener. While his injury might have been more serious than Newton’s, the time away is what will be missed.
Considering they have an entirely new receiving corps and plenty of doubt along the offensive line, there’s no sure thing when it comes to Newton.
2. Will Ron Rivera ever remember how to lose?
The Panthers were a mess a quarter of the way into last season, and it looked like Ron Rivera was on the verge of being fired.
He was 14-22 overall, and 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Then he started going for everything, and his team responded, winning 11 of their last 12 games last year.
Now teams have had a year to study Rivera’s tendencies, and with a sore quarterback, going for every fourth down might not be as good of an idea.
3. Can that defense be good enough to stop everyone?
Maybe is the short answer.
Their front seven is as good as any in the league. Their back four goes the other direction. When you spend 21 percent of your salary cap on two defensive ends, and they produce the way Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have, you’re always going to have a chance.
But other than Antoine Cason (who plays well in a Ron Rivera-Steven Wilks defense), the Panthers don’t have a corner who can cover the big receivers in the NFC South. And they replaced their safeties with a pair of divisional cast-offs, with Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper.
The Panthers aren’t built to get in track meets with teams, but this secondary might not be able to prevent it.
4. Will they be able to run?
Given the iffy status of their quarterback, they’re going to have to put the ball in the hands of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and let them make hard yards.
That’s a hard way to do business when the league limits contact during training camp, but that’s what the Panthers are going to have to do. Both have taken major paycuts in recent years to stay, but they need to earn every nickel for the Panthers to have a chance.
5. Can they get every break again?
Again, the Panthers forgot how to lose from October until the playoffs. And they caught so many fortunate bounces, it’s hard to imagine them repeating.
From the flag picked up to help them beat the Patriots to fumbles that kicked back their way, the Panthers were a fortunate team in many ways.
Simple math makes it hard to imagine them winning 12 again. And playing in the division they play in will make it that much harder.