For a team with a lot of star power, the Panthers get to enter this season without the burden of expectations which weighed on them after a Super Bowl appearance.
But if things break right for them, they might be more talented than the team that went 15-1 en route to the NFC title.
There’s still plenty of work to do, especially on offense. They’re trying to “evolve” on that side of the ball, because, well, they needed to. With Cam Newton playing slowly and/or hurt last year, it was hard for all those long-developing deep routes to get open (and when they did, Ted Ginn dropped them half the time). So the emphasis this year is on allowing Newton to get the ball out more quickly, and let some fast young kids help him. The hope is that keeping him from feeling compelled to run as often will benefit him from a health and a strategic standpoint as well.
He’s also coming off surgery on his throwing surgery which cost him the entire offseason program and OTAs. So they’re installing (and writing) new chapters of the playbook on the fly in training camp, when we assume Newton will be well.
They’re also going to lean on a defense with several highly paid stars (Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short), some veterans who need to win soon, and some young cornerbacks who showed real promise last year. James Bradberry looked more polished as a rookie than the guy he was replacing (Josh Norman) did at a similar point in his career. And any defense which already included guys such as Thomas Davis, Star Lotulelei, Charles Johnson, and Kurt Coleman is going to be factor.
Then they added some reinforcements, for what they think is a run at the top.
Biggest positive change: Former General Manager Dave Gettleman went down the grocery list this offseason, filling just about all of the major questions marks from last season. Speed on offense? Check (Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel). Starting-caliber left tackle? Check (Matt Kalil). Veteran pass-rusher? Check (Julius Peppers). Nickel corner? Check (Captain Munnerlyn). Veteran strong safety who can be trusted to allow Kurt Coleman to play deeper? Check (Mike Adams).
Now all of those guys have to play to the level they can. Kalil in particular is going to have to be better than he was the last few years in Minnesota, but they’re hoping he’s healthy now and in a more conducive environment.
Biggest negative change: The Panthers’ bench is nearly as deep as it used to be. And that only has a little bit to do with the roster.
They lost assistant G.M. Brandon Beane and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to the Bills as their G.M./head coach. That’s not an insignificant loss, for an organization which prides itself on stability.
And that’s before they fired Gettleman Monday, leaving them short-handed in personnel at a time of year when decisions have to be made.
They’re also a little picked-over in terms of players. Losing guys like Luke Kuechly-understudy A.J. Klein to the Saints isn’t fatal, but they’re not as well-equipped to handle injuries as they have been in past years. That’s what happens when you build a top-heavy roster.
Coaching thermometer: It’s far from boiling in this pot, as Ron Rivera’s a two-time coach of the year. But you could definitely poach something in it.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson rejected former coach John Fox’s pleas for a lucrative extension in part because he never had back to back winning seasons. Well, Rivera hasn’t either. Their three straight division titles included a backed-in 7-8-1, leaving the franchise still searching for that mythical feat. With Rivera in his seventh season, the clock is ticking, and if they don’t have their traditional bounce-back year he’s not going to be the only one around there on unsteady footing.
We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Peppers remains one of the most fascinating players of this generation. Blessed with NBA-caliber athleticism, he’s remained a productive sack man throughout his long career, and now ranks fifth on the league’s all-time list. He has never been a big talker, and his first stint in Carolina was marked by his extreme privacy, the result of being a homegrown star and in a bit of a fishbowl. But he’s opened up a bit in time, and has a better perspective on the game (and life) than he’s been willing to show to most people.
How they can prove us wrong: For all the offseason additions, the core issue will be for Newton to play better. Though he was dealing with injuries (to himself and several important others), Newton simply wasn’t very good last year, a big drop-off from his MVP the season before. If he can spread the ball around better, and if his big, plodding receivers (Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess) can get themselves open and catch it when it gets there, if Kalil makes the same kind of jump under this coaching staff that Michael Oher did, and the defense stays healthy, they have a real opportunity to contend for a playoff berth and much more.