Panthers report sensing big season ahead
SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) -- The Carolina Panthers reported to Wofford College for training camp Friday with pillows, small refrigerators and a new sense of optimism.
After winning four of their last six games in 2011, the Panthers believe they have what it takes to make some noise this season. Center Ryan Kalil declared as much when he took out a full-page advertisement this week in a Charlotte newspaper predicting the Panthers would win their first Lombardi Trophy.
Many of Kalil's teammates, and coach Ron Rivera, have since said they agree with the three-time Pro Bowler.
Wide receiver Steve Smith is one of them.
Smith senses there's a different feel entering his 12th season with the Panthers. He says "it has to be" different, especially with quarterback Cam Newton a year more experienced.
Much of the optimism surrounding the Panthers focuses on the huge strides they made last season on offense behind Newton, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft.
The Panthers went from last in the league in total offense, passing offense and points scored in 2011 to the fifth-highest scoring team in the NFL under Newton, who was selected as the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Smith believes the Panthers can be even better this year after adding versatile fullback Mike Tolbert to the mix.
"We know what we can do," Smith said. "It's, `Can we build on it? Can we double the numbers?' I think it'd be great to double the numbers. That'd be good."
You mean double the yardage and scoring, Steve?
"All of it," Smith said. "Why not?"
That would be a remarkable achievement considering the Panthers averaged 25 points and 390 yards last season.
Tight end Greg Olsen, who had 45 receptions and five touchdowns in his first season with the Panthers, said "you can't take anything for granted in this league."
"Last year we had some success offensively but that doesn't mean automatically it will happen this year," he said. "Teams will be ready for a lot of things they hadn't seen before last year. We're going to have to be better and evolve a little bit."
What may be more realistic is hoping for some major improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
There's certainly plenty of room for it.
Carolina was 28th in the league in total yards (377.6) and points (26.8) allowed per game last season after injuries devastated their defense.
This season, all of their defensive stalwarts are healthy and should be ready to go when practice begins Saturday night.
There's a belief that if the Panthers can improve on defense -- and the offense remains as productive -- they should be a playoff contender.
"That's the truth," said linebacker Jon Beason, lost to a season-ending injury early in 2011. "We finished 27th in the league and you can't win with that. The offense sells tickets, but we're supposed to win games. We win championships (on defense). If our offense is scoring 28 points per game, well, that should be a walk in the park for us on defense."
Maybe then Kalil's prediction has a chance of coming true.
He's received major support from his teammates after his bold prediction promising that fans would be rewarded for their unwavering backing with a Super Bowl win.
"I thought it was fantastic," Smith said. "I wouldn't necessarily say he put added pressure on any of us. When you come to training camp everybody believes their team has the right formula and the right guys that will transfer over to the season and you'll be that team. Why is that wrong to have that standard? I love it. I'm right there next to him."
Said Olsen: "It really comes down to what Ryan said -- we need to have the attitude that we're going to go out and win every game."