There were points last season when it appeared time to start writing the obituary for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and the team built by former General Manager Marty Hurney.
Then Rivera’s team did a funny thing — they forgot how to lose.
The Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games last year, and only a loss to the 49ers in the playoffs spoiled an unpredictable run built on defense and a singular talent at quarterback.
Of course, they spent the offseason subtracting more than they added, cutting past fat into meat and bone to try to keep a good roster intact.
But that’s what they’re going to have to do for another year or so (when it’s time to pay the next wave of young stars), and they’ve done it well.
In quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have perhaps the best bail-out-a-play guy in the NFL.
It seems no play is over for Newton, who has matured as a passer while remaining dangerous as a runner. His ability in short-yardage helped spark last year’s belief that they could win, and his growth as a passer helped him make plenty of big plays through the air as well.
Newton will need to be incredible, because they took away most of his help (more on that in a moment). But he is incredible, and looks comfortable running an offense which is far from cutting-edge.
It doesn’t need to be complex it if works, and he’s reached what appears to be a good relationship with play-caller Mike Shula.
They also have what might be the best defensive front seven in the NFL.
They have a pair (for a year anyway) of double-digit sack ends, which only required using more than 20 percent of their cap to keep them.
Greg Hardy got the franchise tag after an impressive salary drive (7.0 of his 15.0 sacks came in the final two games), while overpaid-but-productive veteran Charles Johnson has been a steady presence (44.0 sacks the last four season) against the run and pass.
Paired with a interior that included 2013 top picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and a group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers can match personnel with anyone in the league.
It’s a front designed to take the pressure off a suspect back, but it did just that a year ago, succeeding without much pedigreed talent in the secondary.
As long as you spend so much on defensive ends, you’ve got to scrimp somewhere. So the fact they’re using temps in the secondary is nearly a non-issue.
What they’re doing without on offense is alarming.
The Panthers lost two of the five or six best players in franchise history when Steve Smith was cut and Jordan Gross retired.
Smith was cut for reasons that exceeded age and production, as all the wideouts who caught a pass last year are gone. If he wasn’t so much of a grouch, they’d have possibly let him ride off into the sunset next year, but they wanted to let Newton take control of the locker room as well as the huddle.
Instead, they signed just-a-guys Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to play stable-pony for first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin.
A good running game (everybody’s healthy for a change) and tight end Greg Olsen take some of the pressure off this odd lot of guys to perform. Which is good, because that seems unlikely.
But for all the consternation about the receivers, what happened to their offensive line is worse.
They needed an upgrade from right tackle Byron Bell, but instead they’re letting him compete for the left tackle job along with converted defensive tackle Nate Chandler. They made a run at former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins in free agency, but otherwise did nothing to improve the team’s most glaring weakness in a post-Gross environment. They’ll find out in a hurry how much they miss Gross, which might make management re-think squeezing veterans into dramatic pay cuts in the future.
The middle of the line could be OK, with center Ryan Kalil there to help along a young group. If former second-rounder Amini Silatolu plays to his pre-injury form, they have a chance. Third-rounder Trai Turner is going to have a chance to win the right guard job, and might have the quickest path to the starting lineup of any of their rookies.
Perhaps the biggest change for the Panthers was in Rivera himself.
Once a guy with a 2-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, Rivera started rolling the dice and it kept working.
It wasn’t just going for fourth downs (but that’s easier when you have a giant quarterback and a big fat fullback such as Mike Tolbert), there was a different air about the Panthers last season.
They went from playing to unfulfilled potential and bloated salaries to playing like a team with something to prove.
In fact, they did have plenty to prove, as a losing record last season might have triggered a huge house-cleaning by new G.M. Dave Gettleman.
He’s talked for two years about the cap issues created by the previous administration (the cost of owner Jerry Richardson spending none of the money before his lockout, and then spending it all at once afterward). Gettleman’s done a good job of filling in the blanks with day laborers, and appears to have done so again.
Losing players such as Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn shouldn’t sting as much, considering they were a minimum-wage free agent and a seventh-round pick. He found spare parts before, and has again, with cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud in line to be this year’s beneficiaries of a pass rush.
The Panthers need to find a pair of starting wideouts, and it would be swell if Benjamin would grow into the job in a hurry. Beyond that, they have a bunch of unproven receivers who will be angling for significant roles, from journeyman haircut Tiquan Underwood to kids including Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.
There’s also some shuffling among the offensive line jobs and in the secondary, with plenty of roles to fill.
One guy who might need to win a job is former starting safety Charles Godfrey, who tore his Achilles last year and then was forced into a pay cut just to have a chance. Godfrey could end up playing as their nickel, and he has some corner skills from his college days. Whether he can run remains to be seen.
It’s hard to not expect regression, considering the way the Panthers exceeded every reasonable expectation last year.
Their defense and Newton gives them a solid base to build upon, but it will only get harder from here.
They’re built to beat the best teams in the conference, and might have played the Seahawks tougher than anyone in Week One (before anybody realized they were any good).
If they find two dependable tackles and can get something — anything — from their receiving corps, they have a chance to pull off the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.
But it’s hard to consider either of those feats a given, which makes this a team which could still play well, but win far fewer games.