Despite record, Panthers believe future is bright

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The Carolina Panthers may be the most optimistic 2-6 team in NFL history.

Sure, they'd like to have to a better record heading into their bye weekend - and they probably should. But those within the organization sense the big picture for the future is extremely bright.

The primary reason for that optimism is the play of rookie Cam Newton, who has finally given the Panthers a quarterback with outstanding playmaking ability.

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney stressed during last year's 2-14 season that the team's primary need was to find stability at that position. The Panthers did months of research on which direction to proceed - free agency, a trade or the draft - but eventually settled on Newton as their guy.

And they couldn't be happier.

''We did a lot of research on Cam, and the more research we did the better we felt,'' Hurney said. ''The more we're around him the more it confirms our feelings.''

Newton, the No. 1 pick in the draft, has shown all the earmarks of a franchise quarterback, not only in terms of his production on the field but with intangibles such as leadership and accountability.

Newton is second in the league to Drew Brees in yards passing and has 18 combined touchdowns: 11 passing, seven rushing.

Coach Ron Rivera said he's stunned with Newton's poise in the pocket and how quickly he's learned to read defenses and make good decisions. The Panthers are fifth in the league in total yards and yards passing after finishing dead last in 2010 with Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore at the helm.

And yet, there's a sense Carolina's offense hasn't even scratched the surface of its potential.

''When we really being to learn what's going on, this group of men has an opportunity to do some special things because of the personnel we have,'' Rivera said. ''I really do mean that.''

What Carolina's record doesn't take into account is the number of starters on injured reserve.

The Panthers lost starting wide receiver David Gettis and right guard Geoff Schwartz, as well key backups in tight end Gary Barnidge and Garry Williams, the offensive line's sixth man. Defensively, they lost two of their best three players after middle linebacker Jon Beason went down in the season opener with a torn Achilles and outside linebacker Thomas Davis tore his right anterior cruciate ligament a week later. That came after defensive tackle Ron Edwards, the team's highest-paid free agent acquisition, tore his triceps on the first day of training camp.

In addition, the Panthers were at a disadvantage from the start with only limited time to install an entirely new offensive and defensive system due to the NFL lockout.

All of that makes you wonder where the Panthers would be right now if this had been a normal year and they'd stayed healthy.

Nonetheless, the Panthers have been competitive in every game. They've led or been tied in the fourth quarter of every game except one and five of their six losses are by seven points or less.

In most cases, the problem hasn't been the offense.

Carolina's special teams have allowed two costly punt returns for touchdowns, and Olindo Mare missed a chip shot field goal last Sunday that would have tied the game with 26 seconds left against Minnesota. Defensively, the Panthers are 29th against the run and 31st in third-down defense, both huge trouble spots. They haven't been blitzing like they'd planned because they continuously seem to be rotating new players in and out of the starting lineup; those players don't know the entire scheme.

However, with the offense being so explosive there's a feeling the Panthers are never out of a game.

''The biggest thing is Cam has changed our expectations,'' Rivera said. ''We've gotten more than we expected from him at an earlier time. And that's great. That has helped us to develop the offense a lot faster. As he continues to progress, this system will continue to grow.''

Added Hurney: ''He has the ability to raise the level of play of other people around him, and that's big. We saw that at Auburn and we're seeing it here. Obviously it's very hard for a rookie quarterback to step in and do what he's done. He's quickly become one of the leaders of our team.''

In fact, tackle Jordan Gross said he'd be shocked if Newton didn't have a captain's ''C'' on his jersey next season.

Rivera said the Panthers plan to approach the final eight games as an entirely new season, not worrying about the past, focusing on the future. He wants to use the momentum from a strong finish this year and carry it over to 2012, when the Panthers get some players back and have more practice time to perfect their schemes.

All 22 of Carolina's projected starters next year are under contract, which means the team could be in good position financially to add key pieces in free agency.

''To be 2-6 is not acceptable by any means, and it's disappointing,'' Rivera said. ''But what we can do, and what we have the ability to do, is more important to our guys right now.''

When Rivera gets frustrated, he reminds himself that building a winner is a ''process.''

As for Newton, forget the so-called rookie wall. He's eager to power through the bye week and get back to work and turn things around.

''It's far from over,'' Newton said of the season. ''If anything we're using (the first half of the season) to drive us to prove something to ourselves. We just have to focus on what we have to do and everything else we want will take care of itself. And that includes being relevant and winning some football games.''

Tagged: Panthers, Ron Edwards

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