Panthers look to buck trend, return to Super Bowl after loss
FILE - In this Dec. 27, 2015, file photo, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates his touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game in Atlanta. Newton, the NFL MVP last season, anchors the top-scoring offense in the league. The games most versatile quarterback threw 35 touchdown passes and ran for 10 more TDs in his fifth season, (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Ron Rivera isn't giving his team a free pass this offseason when it comes to hard work.
In fact, the Carolina Panthers coach is pushing his players to work even harder after a 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.
Just look at the team's recent minicamp, where Rivera brought his players together at midfield on multiple occasions to let them know their concentration level just wasn't there and they were making too many mistakes.
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''The truth is you can never be satisfied,'' said Rivera, a two-time NFL Coach of the Year. ''If you're satisfied, it's time to move on because you're done. And again, we didn't win the Super Bowl. So that right there is enough for us to stay motivated and keep moving toward our goal.''
Rivera's goal is simple: Avoid complacency.
He's well aware it has been 23 years since an NFL team that lost the Super Bowl got back to the big game the next season.
''The one thing I've found that people talked about is being complacent – that they let some things slip and slide,'' Rivera said. ''I'm trying to make sure to take that away and make sure we have a sense of urgency and remind them that the season is coming fast.''
That's why Rivera has steadily reminded everyone of how many days it is until the Panthers open the regular season against the Broncos in a Super Bowl rematch.
The Panthers, who finished 17-2 last season, should be in good shape to challenge for another NFC championship.
They return the bulk of their roster – with All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman being one notable exception – and will get wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back from a knee injury.
Cam Newton, the NFL MVP last season, anchors the top-scoring offense in the league. The game's most versatile quarterback threw 35 touchdown passes and ran for 10 more TDs in his fifth season, helping the Panthers to a 15-0 start. But Newton was left stunned after the team's poor showing in the Super Bowl.
That's why he's out to get better.
''I haven't peaked,'' Newton said. ''I always can find ways to take my game to the next level.''
Here are five things to watch entering training camp:
REPLACING NORMAN: The most intriguing position competition at training camp should be at cornerback.
The Panthers have parted ways with Norman and veteran Charles Tillman, leaving both starting spots in flux. Bene Benwikere, who is coming off a broken leg, is expected to be one starter, while the other will likely go to one of the three cornerbacks the Panthers drafted – James Bradberry, Daryl Worley or Zack Sanchez.
The secondary could be a concern given the Panthers play in the pass-happy NFC South that includes quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston.
BENJAMIN'S RETURN: The Panthers are anxiously awaiting the return of Benjamin, who is expected to be at full speed when training camp begins.
Benjamin established himself as the team's No. 1 receiver in 2014 as a rookie with 1,008 yards and nine TD catches. But the 6-foot-5, 245-pound former first-round draft pick tore his ACL last summer in training camp and missed the team's Super Bowl season.
With Jerricho Cotchery gone, Benjamin is expected to return to the starting lineup alongside last year's rookie Devin Funchess, who had a strong minicamp.
REMMERS AT RIGHT TACKLE: The Panthers will have to decide whether Mike Remmers, who gave up two costly sacks to Von Miller in the Super Bowl, will be the team's starting right tackle this season.
All signs point to yes, considering Carolina is 22-4 overall when he is the starting right tackle. However, he'll receive competition from last year's rookie Daryl Williams.
ON THE SHORT LIST: The Panthers are still looking to extend the contract of defensive tackle Kawann Short, who was the NFC Defensive Player of the Month twice last season. It's expected that Short will attend training camp rather than hold out even if he doesn't have a new deal.
KUECHLY READY TO ROLL: Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly is expected to be back on the field for the start of training camp following offseason shoulder surgery. The three-time All-Pro has become the heart and soul of the Panthers defense and is considered by many to be the NFL's top linebacker.
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