Rivera optimistic as training camp opens
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — If the fan turnout for the Carolina Panthers first official practice of the 2012 season is any indication, optimism abounds that something special may soon be on the horizon.
More than 13,000 spectators endured intense heat and humidity at Gibbs Stadium on the campus of Wofford College on Saturday evening to watch their Panthers begin what most believe will be a season that at least culminates with a playoff appearance. Others are expecting more.
Second-year Panthers' coach Ron Rivera loved seeing the big crowd and said it presented a hardline warning to his team. "It is exciting for us," he said after practice. "And the neat thing is our fans have high expectations, and I told our players, ‘Don't let their expectations be higher than ours.' It was certainly a great atmosphere."
Quarterback Cam Newton, who is also in his second season, is at the core of the excitement. He set numerous rookie records for his position a year ago and nobody in these parts are expecting anything remotely close to a dropoff. In fact, center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer earlier in the week guaranteeing a spot in the Super Bowl.
If he's that confident Newton has improved, than the fans are naturally going to jump on board. After all, Newton and Rivera led the team to five more victories last season than the team had in 2010, when they went 1-15.
Rivera was obviously happy to get this thing going.
"Yes, it is very good to get the first one in the books, especially we had so many guys that missed last year we had to put on injured reserve," he said. "We had a lot of good things happen, some bad things that we have to get corrected and fixed up. Pretty exciting and I look forward to seeing it on tape tonight."
A few items of interest that he pointed out without provocation:
Rivera singled out tight end Greg Olsen, who looked as athletic as ever; the running backs, including new fullback Mike Tolbert, whom the team acquired from San Diego; the coach was pleased with how the quarterbacks threw the ball, singling out third-year signal caller Jimmy Clausen; Rivera even went out of his way to comment on the team's wide receiver, "Steve Smith looked as young as ever and had a lot of fun out there. So that was good to see."
The only injury of note during the first practice happened to Smith, who banged knees with safety Charles Godfrey about midway through the workout. Smith ran a crossing pattern, left to right, and grabbed about a four-yard pass from Newton. As soon as he planted his feet, he and Godfrey briefly made contact with each other.
Smith fell to the ground and immediately began rubbing the knee. The fans let out a noticeable "uh oh," but cheered when Smith got up and gently walked to a trainer. He sat out for a while, sometimes stretching the knee area, though he later participated in half-speed plays versus a dummy defense and took several reps in the final drill of the night. He looked fine and even spent part of the evening joking with fans in the stands.