(Sports Network) - "The time is now," according to Carolina Panthers
quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton said that during a radio interview and touched on how the atmosphere is
much different than a year ago. Whether the new attitude serves a purpose in
2013 is unknown, but Newton is saying all the right things.
"We're looking at the small things that can make a big difference. It starts
here in practice. We can't hold ourselves accountable to a standard in a game
if we don't do it in practice," Newton said. "That's been something of a
different vibe in practice. It's been working out for us."
The Panthers enter the new season with a chip on their shoulder and teams
should be wary of what they could do. After a lowly 1-6 start a season ago,
the Panthers were able to come together and finish strong, going 6-3 the rest
of the way with four straight victories to close the season.
Carolina hasn't had a winning season since 2008, when it was 12-4 and finished
the 2009 campaign at 8-8. So why does Newton have so much confidence for this
year's version of the NFC South also-rans? Because Newton knows how he goes
the Panthers go, and he's the ultimate weapon much like Randall Cunningham was
dubbed by Sports Illustrated back in 1989.
Newton can do it all: Run, pass, break tackles, make something happen with his
feet when coverage is tight. The former Heisman Trophy winner helped the
Panthers improve on offense last season, especially over the last few weeks.
Newton and the Panthers gained 12,008 total net yards in the last two seasons,
the most in a two-year span in team history, and the QB produced a career-high
86.2 passer rating in 2012, throwing for 3,869 yards, 19 touchdowns and 12
interceptions. He also led the Panthers with 741 rushing yards.
But Newton can't do it all. For how talented he is, it's not wise to have your
quarterback lead the team in rushing. That's where DeAngelo Williams and
Jonathan Stewart come into play. Stewart was hurt most of last season and
Williams was spotty, rushing for 737 yards in 16 games. Stewart is still not
100 percent and could start the season on the PUP list. If that happens he
will miss the first six games of the season.
"We all know what the situation is and we just hope that when he comes back,
he comes back healthy," Newton said of Stewart. "We don't want him to rush
anything. We know what he brings to the table."
The Panthers play in the tough NFC South with Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa
Bay. If there are teams who can stop them it will be the Falcons and Saints
because their offenses are high-powered behind quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Drew
Brees, respectively. The Saints have head coach Sean Payton back after his
one-year suspension for his alleged role in a bounty program and it's clear
the they still have a bitter taste in their mouths.
Ryan and the Falcons were the best in the NFC a season ago at 13-3, so there's
not much talk around the water cooler about Carolina dethroning both Atlanta
and New Orleans as the division's best. The Panthers, though, do have second-
year stud linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was the NFL's top tackler his rookie
season with 164 stops. Kuechly helped turn around Carolina's defense by
season's end and earned the praise of his teammates.
"He's done a fantastic job. He just makes plays. He's a young guy who
didn't come in entitled. He was real eager to learn. He takes notes," Panthers
star wide receiver Steve Smith said. "It doesn't surprise me how much success
he's having. I think he hasn't even cracked the surface."
That's a scary thought and the rest of the NFC should start taking notes
themselves on the 2013 version of the Panthers.
2012 RECORD: 7-9 (tied for second place NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008 (lost to Arizona in wild card round)
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Ron Rivera (13-19, third season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Shula (first season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Sean McDermott (third season)
KEY ADDITIONS: LB Chase Blackburn (from Giants), CB Drayton Florence (from
Lions), S Mike Mitchell (from Raiders), WR/KR Ted Ginn (from 49ers), WR
Domenik Hixon (from Giants),
KEY DEPARTURES: LB James Anderson (released), CB Chris Gamble (released), WR
Louis Murphy (Giants), TE Gary Barnidge (Browns), DE Antwan Applewhite
QB: Arguably the most athletic player in the NFL, Newton has high expectations
for his third season in the league. The former Rookie of the Year could be the
most important player to his team for how much he's involved with the offense
because not only does he play QB, but he's a huge part of the running game.
Newton (3,869 yards, 19 TD, 12 INT) has rushed for more than 700 yards in each
of his first two seasons and has 22 rushing TDs in that time.
Last season he was the first quarterback to lead a team in rushing since
Donovan McNabb in 2000. Only Robert Griffin III (815 yards) ran for more yards
than Newton last year. Newton's arm is one of the strongest and his 7,920
career passing yards are the most in a player's first two NFL seasons, passing
the previous mark held by Peyton Manning (7,874). Newton is also the only
player in NFL history with 30 or more passing touchdowns (40) and 20 or more
rushing scores (22) in his first two seasons.
The only way backup QB Derek Anderson will see the field is if Newton goes
down with injury and the Panthers have their fingers crossed that won't
happen. Jimmy Clausen is still putting along as the third-string quarterback.
RB: Remember everything that was stated in the previous section in regards to
Newton and his running ability. But obviously Newton cannot do it alone and
head coach Ron Rivera shouldn't have to rely on the legs of his signal
Rivera may not have a choice with Stewart still iffy. Williams (737 yards, 5
TD) and Stewart (336 yards, TD) combined for 1,814 yards even though the
latter missed the last five games with an ankle sprain and appeared in
nine games total. Williams capped the 2012 season in style, rushing for a
team-record 210 yards against the Saints. Williams is still a viable threat to
defenses and helped Carolina rank ninth in the NFL with 2,088 rushing yards
In fact, the Panthers have registered an NFL-best 11,277 rushing yards since
2008 and have eclipsed the 100-yard mark in a game 25 times in the last 30
contests. It's safe to say the strength of the offense is its ground attack.
Fullback Mike Tolbert (183 yards, 7 TD) is a proven blocker and goal-line
threat and running back Kenjon Barner was drafted in April out of Oregon.
WR: There's not much receiving wise after the great Steve Smith, who appears
headed toward Canton when it's all said and done. Smith (1,174 yards, 4 TD)
only had four scores in 2012 and caught 73 passes. Actually, Smith has hauled
in 100 or more passes only once in his career (103, 2005), but doesn't mind
that he's not the epicenter of the offense. Smith isn't getting any younger
and cannot do it alone. He needs assistance from Newton, of course, and a
balanced attack. Smith has a franchise-high 43 100-yard receiving games
and his seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons are tied for third-most among
The undersized Smith and five-time Pro Bowl selection is first on Carolina's
all-time receiving list with 71 total touchdowns, 63 receiving touchdowns, 772
receptions, 11,452 receiving yards, 14.83 receiving average, and 43 games with
100 or more receiving yards. He also has a reception in 91 consecutive games,
dating back to 2006.
After Smith, the Panthers have Brandon LaFell, newcomers Domenik Hixon and Ted
Ginn, and Armanti Edwards, a two-time Walter Payton Award winner given
annually by The Sports Network.
GRADE: B (only because of Smith)
TE: Greg Olsen (843, 5 TD) was second on the Panthers in receiving yards a
season ago and is a decent option for Newton. Not so much a strong blocker up
front, Olsen is still athletic enough to beat coverage and has great size and
hands. After his career in Chicago fizzled out,
Olsen has found a home with the Panthers and caught a career-high 69 passes in
2012. Olsen's role expanded as soon as the mouthy Jeremy Shockey left and set
new season records for a Panthers tight end with 69 catches for 843 yards,
surpassing Wesley Walls. His five touchdown receptions led the receiving core.
Olsen's 2012 campaign marked the fourth in his last five with at least 500
yards receiving. Olsen isn't going to sell jerseys hand over fist and isn't
considered a top fantasy player, but he fits well into the Panthers' system.
OL: For how elusive Newton is he was sacked 36 times in 2012, one more than
his rookie season. It's one thing for Newton to shred up defenses with his
legs, but the offensive line deserves some blame for not opening holes for
Williams and Stewart.
The durable Jordan Gross is entrenched at left tackle and started all 16 games
last season, helping Carolina's offense amass 5,771 net yards and 328 first
downs. Both of those numbers are the second-highest marks in franchise
history. Gross's 151 career starts are a team record.
At left guard is Amini Silatolu, who started 15 games as a rookie, and with
another offseason and training camp under his belt should excel even more.
Center Ryan Kalil is back after injury and the released Geoff Hangartner took
over the last eight games at center. He was part of an o-line that
surprisingly produced 123 rushing first downs, which is the second-highest
mark in team annals.
Right guard Garry Williams started nine games in 2012 and the last seven,
while right tackle Byron Bell struggled at times and made 14 of 15 starts at
the position. The Panthers' line simply needs to play better in order to
compete in the NFC South and sacks must be limited.
Guard Edmund Kugbila was drafted in April to provide depth.
DL: Left defensive end Charles Johnson (43 tackles) recorded a team-leading
and a career-high 12 1/2 sacks last season and is Carolina's top pass rusher.
Johnson has posted 33 1/2 sacks over the past three seasons and is the fourth
player in team history with 10 or more sacks in multiple seasons. Johnson's
seven forced fumbles ranked second in the NFL and his sack total could
increase in 2013.
Right defensive end Greg Hardy (61 tackles) was second on the team last season
with 11 sacks, a career high, and became the sixth player in Panthers history
with 10-plus sacks in a season.
Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (52 tackles, 6 sacks) started 14 games last
season after singing just a week prior to the season opener. His six sacks
were third-most among DTs Edwards will be pushed by rookies Star Lotulelei and
Kawann Short, while Lotulelei should get the job at nose tackle alongside
Edwards, who was re- signed in March.
Defensive tackle Colin Cole was added for depth in February and hasn't played
a game in the NFL since 2010 with Seattle. The Panthers ranked 10th in total
defense (333.1), the team's first top 10 ranking since 2009. They allowed
110.1 rushing yards and averaged 39 sacks on the season.
LB: Kuechly stole the show in his first season and was the first rookie to
lead the NFL in tackles since 49ers star Patrick Willis did it in 2007. That's
what a linebacker is supposed to do: See the ball carrier and attack. Kuechly
started all 16 games in 2012 and the last 12 at middle linebacker, where he
will most likely be the next few years.
Chase Blackburn is right behind if Kuechly goes down or suddenly loses
interest. Speaking of injuries, weakside linebacker Jon Beason (27 tackles) is
back and ready to roll. Beason has been limited to five games over the past
two years after playing in all 16 games in his first four. The oft-injured
Beason said he was "happy to be back out there" during training camp and the
Panthers hope he can revert back to his durable days from 2007-2010. Beason,
nicknamed "The Beast," missed 27 out of a possible 32 games after inking a
five-year contract before 2011 and all eyes will be back on the three-time Pro
Bowl pick. He underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee last October
and said he is going to "go hard" like he used to.
Thomas Davis (105 tackles) was second in tackles last season and will play the
strong side. Davis has a history of knee issues, too, and returned last season
after a third ACL injury. Durability and health are key to this unit, which
aided the Panthers in holding opponents to 36.1 percent on third down. Iowa
State's A.J. Klein was drafted in April for insurance.
DB: Some new faces will be in the Panthers' secondary this season, but
cornerback Captain Munnerlyn's isn't one. First of all, to have a first name
Captain means something. Munnerlyn (61 tackles, 2 INT) entered the starting
lineup after a season-ending injury to veteran Chris Gamble, who was released
in the offseason, and had two interception returns for touchdowns. The
Panthers tied a team record with three interceptions returned for TDs in 2012.
Free safety Charles Godfrey (69 tackles, 2 INT) is the other familiar face in
the defensive backfield and he was tied for the team lead in picks with two.
He also returned an INT for a score against New Orleans.
Expected to start at left cornerback is veteran Drayton Florence. Florence,
who broke his arm in Week 2 last season and returned in Week 11, spent 2012
with Detroit and totaled 19 tackles, one interception and seven passes
defensed in eight games. He is expected to bring leadership and stability,
while safety Mike Mitchell joined the Panthers after four seasons with the
It will take an entire offseason and training camp for this unit to understand
each other's tendencies and not much is expected from the secondary,
especially playing in a division with the pass-happy Falcons and Saints.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Graham Gano made 9-of-11 field goals in the final six games
last season, while Justin Medlock booted 7-of-10 attempts through the
uprights. Gano is the favorite to earn the job, while punter/holder Brad
Nortman is back for his second season in the league. As a rookie for Carolina,
Nortman averaged 43.0 yards on 76 punts and landed 20 inside the 20-yard line.
His longest was a 63-yard boom and 19 of his punts were a fair catch.
Speedy receiver/return man Ginn was added in the offseason to improve field
position and J.J. Jansen is slated to be the longsnapper. Edwards and Joe
Adams could also see time in the return game if Ginn fails to produce.
COACHING: Rivera met with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson in January and it
was decided that he will return for a third season. But 2013 could be his last
if the Panthers fail to meet expectations. Carolina was 6-10 in Rivera's first
season, but the team rallied at the end of 2012 to finish 7-9. The four-game
winning streak to end the season gave hope to Rivera.
"We played a lot of young players who gained valuable experience that should
help us in the coming season," Rivera said. "There are a lot of positives to
take away from last season, but they are only meaningful if we learn from them
McDermott is back running a defense that was 10th in total yards allowed, 13th
against the pass, 14th in rushing yards allowed and 18th in rushing yards per
attempt. He is getting back Beason, who could make a difference as long as the
injury bug doesn't surface, and has a talented front four. Drafting Lotulelei,
who has drawn comparisons to Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, can only make defensive
results improve and some new faces in the secondary are supposed to tighten up
As for offensive coordinator Mike Shula, he understands this offense after
serving as quarterbacks coach the previous two seasons. The Panthers recorded
an NFL-best 165 plays of 20-plus yards and that total should increase this
season. Shula, a veteran of 25 years as a coach, has played a major role in
the development of Newton and has even more control.
THE SKINNY: Newton set the bar high this offseason by saying the time is now
for the Panthers to take that next step. They certainly could with a new
offensive coordinator and key contributors on the mend.
Playing in the NFC South does no favors for Carolina and a third-place tag in
the division is the proper prediction. But that doesn't mean this team won't
compete for a playoff spot even though the Panthers will play seven games this
season against teams that finished 2012 with a .500 record or better. Six
opponents even made it to the postseason, a destination not entirely far-
fetched for the Panthers.
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