Panthers can’t wait, must start strong

The Carolina Panthers should be better offensively than a year ago when then-rookie quarterback Cam Newton set a bevy of records and the unit was one of the more entertaining in the NFL.

The Panthers’ defense should also be improved, as it is healthy – knock on wood – and made some changes that should make for at least a slightly better pass rush, pass coverage and a greater ability to stuff the run and get off the field on third downs more frequently.  

They have a new punter and placekicker, dumping older players for younger ones with optimism they will grow in their roles. Even the special teams as a whole should be in better shape.

And head coach Ron Rivera is in his second year. He knows what the deal is now, and he had a full offseason with the team as opposed to last year when a lockout gave him little time to put his fingerprint on the franchise. That’s now five fingers and a palm.

With this, the Panthers should be an improved football team in every conceivable fashion this fall. They went from 2-14 in 2010 to 6-10 last year with several losses coming late and often because of simple breakdowns on defense or special teams. And when you start talking about nine and 10 victories you are also talking about them becoming a playoff team.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the New York Giants finished the regular season at 9-7 a year ago and then won the Super Bowl.

The optimism in the Carolinas reaches the Super Bowl in some minds, but for the most part it’s a playoff thing for sure. But with a schedule that includes those same Giants, the AFC West, plus contests versus Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and home-and-homes with the entire NFC South, navigating toward a playoff spot will be a considerable task.

And perhaps at no point will it be more challenging than right out of the gate.

Carolina opens Sunday afternoon at Tampa Bay, a team that fell back to earth a year ago, but has a new coach and more than enough talent to make a comeback. Then it’s a visit from the New Orleans Saints, who are still the division favorites despite suspensions to some players and head coach Sean Payton.

Eli Manning and the Giants come to town four days later before the Panthers hit the road for another divisional matchup against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.

Four games – three against division foes with two on the road – that could make or break the season.

Carolina started out slowly a year ago, dropping eight of its first 10 contests, but the team continued plugging away and found itself in late November. That was fine in Year 1 of Cam and Ron, but it won’t be in their second stints. Carolina doesn’t have to make the playoffs this season to keep the nose pointed in the right direction, but it must make progress. And anything other than at least splitting those first four games won’t be progress.

Plus, if the playoffs are a legitimate goal, the odds are slim for a team to start out 1-3 and make the postseason. Of the 264 clubs that have qualified for the playoffs since the new format was adopted in 1990, only 21 teams have actually started out 1-3, and only four of those teams reached a conference championship game.

Cam and company have the goods to make a push for the postseason, and it begins this weekend in Florida. The NFL doesn’t allow for in-season development to be much of a storyline. You have to be effective out of the gate. And that must be the Panthers’ mantra.