Panthers optimistic with QB Newton at the helm

Cam Newton cracks a knowing smile when asked about his team’s

prospects this season.

Like many of his teammates, Newton has a hard time suppressing

his enthusiasm when it comes to talking about what’s happening

these days in Carolina. There’s an undercurrent of confidence here

after the Panthers finished strong in 2011, winning four of their

last six games.

”I think the whole vibe around this team is different this

year,” Newton said. ”There’s a sense in the air that everybody is

anticipating something great is going to happen and that’s

exciting.”

Blame it on center Ryan Kalil if you’d like.

Convinced the Panthers are on the verge of something special the

team’s three-time Pro Bowl center took out of full-page

advertisement this summer in a local newspaper promising fans the

franchise would win its first ”sterling silver Vince Lombardi

trophy.”

Naturally, Kalil took some heat for the bold prediction

considering the Panthers won just six games last season.

He doesn’t care.

”The idea wasn’t the hope of being wishful for a Super Bowl,

but really that I feel confident that we have the talent, drive and

commitment to make it happen,” Kalil said. ”Yeah, it’s a bold

thing to say. But all I care about is who I wrote it for, our fans

and my teammates.”

Kalil hasn’t backed down from his prediction and others in the

organization quickly rallied behind him.

Now it’s become a rallying cry.

Coach Ron Rivera said he wants more players on his roster with

that same attitude.

”I’m right behind him and I feel the same way,” said Rivera,

in his second season with the Panthers. ”In fact, I’m stepping out

in front and saying the same thing. This is a group of men that if

they understand and work hard and put it on themselves, who knows,

the sky can be the limit.”

Said defensive end Charles Johnson: ”I agree with him. People

don’t say it publicly, but I agree with him.” Owner Jerry

Richardson even said Kalil’s prediction ”pretty cool.”

To make this a Super Bowl season the Panthers need to stay

healthy and learn how to win close games.

They didn’t do either last year.

Seventeen players finished on injured reserve, including

defensive leaders Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. The Panthers led or

were tied in the fourth quarter in 12 of 16 games. In two others

they were within four points of the lead.

”We have to finish,” Newton said.

Newton, who has become the team’s unquestioned leader, is

clearly a big reason for the team’s optimism this season.

Carolina went from last in the league in scoring and total

offense in 2010 to fifth and seventh, respectively, in those

categories last year.

Newton set a rookie record with 4,051 yards passing and proved

to be incredibly dangerous with his feet, rushing for 706 yards and

14 touchdowns – the most ever by an NFL quarterback.

The AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, Newton put up huge numbers

despite not having an offseason. He arrived at training camp after

the NFL lockout never having run a play in practice, but in a few

weeks earned the starting job and never looked back.

”This year, having that offseason, the minicamp and the OTAs

are huge, especially for a young team with a young quarterback,”

Kalil said. ”Cam did a great job last year in the short time he

had to prepare. So we have tremendous expectations especially now

that we’re in the same system. We can clean up some of the things

that we didn’t do well last year.”

Even Newton said last year was a bit of a whirlwind.

”There were a lot of times I felt like I was guessing,” Newton

said. ”That can happen in this league and sometimes it

showed.”

Newton’s growing pains are the least of this team’s

concerns.

The goal during the offseason was to improve the defense and

special teams.

Key injuries caused constant shuffling on defense and forced

coordinator Sean McDermott to keep his scheme simple. The Panthers

suffered, finishing 28th in total defense while surrendering 26.8

points per game. Special teams blunders led to three losses,

including the season opener when they allowed Patrick Peterson to

return a punt 89 yards in the fourth quarter, the deciding points

in 28-21 loss to Arizona.

If the offense can remain productive and the defense and special

teams can improve just a little, the Panthers surely could be a

playoff team.

”Yeah definitely, I mean it’s not rocket science or anything,”

safety Charles Godfrey said.

If the Panthers can do that, Newton’s smile might just get a

little wider.

”I can’t wait,” Newton said. ”I think it’s going to be a fun

year.”

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