Carolina looks to build on strong finish last year
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton proved his critics wrong last season, showing that he could be an elite NFL quarterback despite just one year at a major college program.
Now the question is can he get his team to the playoffs? It's hard to bet against him.
The No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft burst onto the scene in last year's season opener by throwing for 422 yards and scoring three touchdowns - two passing and one rushing - in a 28-21 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
He didn't let up, and went on to Peyton Manning's rookie record for yards passing with 4,051, set an NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 14, and was voted AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
In doing so, the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder developed an even bigger following across the nation with his versatile and fearless style of play. The only problem was Newton didn't get to enjoy much of his personnel success.
The Panthers went 6-10 under first-year coach Ron Rivera. And while it was a four-game improvement over the previous year, it didn't mean much to Newton after coming off back-to-back championships at Blinn Junior College and Auburn.
Losing was not something he dealt with particularly well and it bothered him to the point where he'd sulk at his locker following defeats.
''Winning is all that matters to me,'' Newton said recently. ''That's what we play this game for - to get the W.''
Rivera firmly believes Newton and the Panthers have what it takes to win. Carolina won four of its final six games last season and hopes to build on that momentum. But like so many other teams, Carolina's success depends on its ability to stay healthy, something they were unable to do last year.
The Panthers could have used a direct line to the league office in New York last year when it came to reporting injuries. They placed 16 players on injured reserve, including five starters on defense. They lost space-filling defensive tackle Ron Edwards in the preseason to a torn triceps and linebackers Jon Beason (torn Achilles) and Thomas Davis (torn ACL) in the first two weeks of the season.
Those injuries forced the Panthers new coaching staff, which was already at a disadvantage last year because of the shortened offseason due to the NFL lockout, to abandon early plans and make adjustments on the fly. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott expected the Panthers to be an aggressive, blitzing team but that plan never got off the ground.
While Carolina's offense finished fifth in scoring, the defense struggled. The Panthers were 27th in points allowed. General manager Marty Hurney has made offseason changes. Carolina added Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly with the ninth overall draft pick, and the Panthers believe they've found a late-round gem in cornerback Josh Norman from Coastal Carolina, who could step in and challenge for starting spot.
They didn't add much up front outside of defensive end Frank Alexander from Oklahoma, a fourth-round pick, but Hurney believes they have a good, young nucleus led by Charles Johnson.
Hurney said if there's one silver lining for the Panthers it's that last year's injuries allowed younger players to see action and gain experience.
''We have a lot of young guys who've shown they can play,'' Hurney said.
The Panthers, though, will only be as good as Newton is in a league where so much emphasis is on the quarterback. One thing is for sure - Newton isn't resting on his accomplishments.
''There were a lot of times last year I felt like I was guessing,'' Newton said. ''That can happen in this league and sometimes it showed. So I have to get better.''
Rivera said nobody has worked harder on his game this offseason than Newton.
''The neat thing about it is you see a lot of the different things we're trying to do and develop within our offense,'' Rivera said during the team's most recent OTA session. ''Cam seems to be grasping those very well.''
The Panthers gave Newton another weapon to work with in Mike Tolbert, a free agent fullback from San Diego who can block, catches passes and work out of a one-back set. He could take some of the pressure off Newton in short-yardage and goal-line situations and help eliminate wear and tear on the young quarterback's body.
Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith re-signed in the offseason and Greg Olsen gives the Panthers a threat at tight end. Third-year wide receiver Brandon LaFell will start opposite Smith and David Gettis, back from a torn ACL, is expected to be the No. 3 receiver.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart give the Panthers a formidable running back tandem and the offensive line remains one of team's strengths.