Panthers look to end long playoff drought in 2013

The Carolina Panthers have been a dynamite team in

post-Thanksgiving Day games the last two years with a combined 9-3

record.

Problem is those games haven’t mattered much.

By starting each of the last two seasons 2-8, the Panthers have

rendered the season’s stretch run meaningless when it can to the

postseason.

Tight end Greg Olsen said if the Panthers hope to return to the

playoffs for the first time since 2008, they’ll need to start

faster this season.

”We can’t put ourselves in that hole and think a late six-game

push is going to put us over the top when you start the season

2-8,” Olsen said. ”We need those late-season pushes, but that is

to put you into the playoffs not to just salvage a season. And

that’s kind of how it’s been the last couple of years – the games

at the end of the season, even though they’re good to win, they

kind of became meaningless.

”We need to make those games in November and December real and

the only way to do that is to put ourselves in playoff contention

early.”

Here are five things to watch as the Panthers try to end their

playoff drought:

CAM NEWTON’S MATURATION: Newton has scored a combined 62

touchdowns and thrown for more yards (7,920) than any quarterback

in NFL history his first two seasons in the league. But Newton is

13-19 as a starter since taking over a team that was 2-14 in 2011

and said he needs to be smarter and ”value every possession.”

”These past two years there were too many series where we put

ourselves in bad third down situations,” Newton said. ”So it’s

about maximizing every down and perfecting each and every

drive.”

RUNNING BACK PRODUCTION: Mike Shula takes over for Rob

Chudzinski as the offensive coordinator and while the plays won’t

change all that much, the philosophy will be tweaked. Shula wants

the Panthers to return to a ”more traditional” running offense.

Newton led the team in rushing last season, but Shula would like to

cut down on his quarterback’s carries. That doesn’t mean the

Panthers plan to abandon the zone read option altogether, but they

certainly won’t use it as much as they did under Chudzinski. ”We

(as running backs) have always been involved in the running game,

but I think we got away from it a few years ago,” said running

back DeAngelo Williams said. ”We got a new offensive coordinator

so we’re starting off with a clean slate. We’ll see how it

goes.”

THE FRONT SEVEN: If outside linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas

Davis can stay healthy and budding NFL star Luke Kuechly continues

to progress, the Panthers have a formidable starting linebacker

unit to go along with defensives ends Charles Johnson and Greg

Hardy, who combined for 23.5 sacks last year. The Panthers added

Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short and re-signed Dwan Edwards – who

had six sacks last season – to shore up their defensive tackle

position, so the front seven looks to be pretty strong. ”Every

defense has an identity, and coming out of the shoot the front

seven is certainly what we think on paper will be our strength,”

said Panthers defensive coordinator McDermott. The concern is the

secondary where the Panthers don’t have a true shutdown corner.

Drayton Florence and the undersized Captain Munnerlyn are expected

to start at corner and Mike Mitchell appears to have won the

starting strong safety spot and will play alongside free safety

Charles Godfrey.

RON RIVERA’S FUTURE: Rivera is 13-19 in two seasons and was

allowed to keep his job after a meeting with owner Jerry Richardson

in January. Rivera insists he’s not worried about his job, but

another slow start could spell the end of Rivera’s tenure in

Carolina. This is clearly a make or break year for Rivera.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Panthers haven’t had a big play returner

since Steve Smith returned kicks a decade ago, but Rivera believes

the team has solved that problem with the acquisition of Ginn. On

his first opportunity of the preseason, Ginn returned a punt for a

touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens. Ginn was let go by Miami

and struggled to find a home in San Francisco, but seems eager to

rejuvenate his NFL career with the Panthers.

Online: AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org

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