SPARTANBURG,S.C. — The month of July reads like a press release in the NFL.
Everyone’s excited. This is every team’s year. There’s always something for fans and players alike to point to, especially in the professional league with more parity than any other.
The Panthers aren’t immune from that line of thinking or excitement around the organization.
What if Cam Newton cuts down on the turnovers? What if the recently solidified defensive front gives a boost to last season’s weak secondary? What if a team that lost seven games by six points or less makes a couple more plays?
“There are going to be teams who are Power Ranking No. 1 and as soon as the season starts, they slip and find themselves at the back. You can’t foreshadow the way things are going to happen,” Steve Smith said. “You just have to let it happen as the season progresses.”
Smith knows games aren’t won or lost in July. The Panthers have only dealt with living in a dorm for two days and haven’t even practiced in full pads yet.
“The difference that we’re trying to get [from the rest of the NFL], we’re trying to maintain that enthusiasm throughout the camp to sustain that so that we can start games fast,” safety Charles Godfrey said.
That’s easier said than done, though. The heat of the dog days of summer have always gone hand in hand with training camp — like the clacking of pads and the dorm rooms, and that’s no different this summer.
The theory is simple: Prepare for what you’ll see in September.
Three weeks in the sweltering mid-state heat at Wofford College. Three weeks living in dorm rooms. Three weeks to unite as a team and get prepared for the 16 games that await.
But the Panthers came out anything but hot in head coach Ron Rivera’s first two seasons, going just 2-8 over the first 10 games. As a result, Rivera went back to the drawing board for this camp. He called coaching friends around the league to check in and see how they were doing things. From the structure of the practices, to the water breaks, to the schemes, everything was evaluated.
“I think we have changed some things and are going to do some things differently. Not so much as to look to quote on quote start fast, as much as it is to make sure we start playing the way we left off,” Rivera said.
The changes aren’t major, but there are important ones like moving the majority of the practices to the early morning to help the players deal with fatigue. There will be more water breaks and longer breaks, in general, in between periods. Rivera said his staff found that injuries typically come after the two-hour mark, so they wanted to limit that as much as possible.
The results have been a more up-tempo practice when they’re out on the field.
“Coach Rivera, he’s up-tempo,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “Last year, we kind of started practice, we gradually got into it. This year, he’s upping the tempo, he’s making us practice faster so we won’t have that slow start and come out flat like we did.”
The start was undoubtedly flat, but the finishes have been excellent. The Panthers went 5-1 to end 2012 and 4-2 to end the previous season. They want to continue being those guys. If they can do it when it doesn’t matter late in the season, why not when it matters?
“We can’t put ourselves in that hole and think a late, six-game push is going to put us over the top; not when you start out 2-8, that’s not the way it works,” said tight end Greg Olsen. “You need those late-season pushes — but to put you into the playoffs, not to just salvage a season which is kind of how it’s been for us the last couple years.”
Added Smith: “Slow starts will get you fired, cut, or changed real quick. That’s for everyone.”
That was true for former general manager Marty Hurney, who didn’t even make it the mid-season point last year before being relieved of his duties. And that will be true for Rivera this season, if the Panthers replicate the slow starts of 2011 and ’12.
The late-season push brings confidence but not complacency. Right now everyone’s strengths are just on paper.
**Will the Panthers’ front seven be as strong as it looks on paper?
**Will the Carolina secondary be overwhelmed again?
**Can the running back tandem (Jonathan Stewart/DeAngelo Williams) get back to an elite duo and keep Newton from again leading the team in rushing?
**Are the two rookie defensive tackles (Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short) truly difference makers up the middle?
Just like Rivera’s change in practice philosophies, no one in July knows how it will work out.
“Last year is last year. I’ve been on teams that have been great at the end of one year and bad at the beginning of the next and vice versa,” Gross said. “Really, all last year did was give us a little bit of excitement going into the offseason. But this year is a new team and a new season, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be good.”
The same sentiment can be heard at 31 other training camps.