Ron Rivera’s third season as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach may be his last if the team can’t make the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season. Team owner Jerry Richardson made Rivera wait six agonizing days after the 2012 season before deciding that the former NFL linebacker for the Chicago Bears deserved another shot at leading the team in 2013. Rivera had been put on notice that he was on the hot seat following the Panthers’ disappointing 1–5 start that cost longtime general manger Marty Hurney his job. The new decision-maker is Dave Gettleman, who had been with the N.Y. Giants organization since 1998.
The Panthers dug themselves too deep of a hole to make the playoffs last year but did finish 5–1 over the final six games to end up with a 7–9 record. They managed top-12 rankings in both total offense and total defense and will build this year’s team around quarterback Cam Newton on offense and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly on defense. With Rivera’s fate likely hanging in the balance, this could be the year the team makes a leap. For the popular coach’s sake, it better be.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 14th
It starts with Newton, who will have a new offensive coordinator this year since Rob Chudzinski was the surprise choice for the Cleveland Browns’ head job. Mike Shula was promoted from quarterbacks coach to replace “Chud,” who was running the zone-read in 2011 with Newton well before it became such a hot NFL trend.
Newton became a slightly more conventional quarterback in 2012, as his rushing TDs went down and his time in the pocket went slightly up. He remains very effective as a dual-threat quarterback — he led the team in rushing with 741 yards — but the Panthers would like to cut down on the number of hits he takes. He is already protecting the ball better, having thrown a team-record 176 straight passes in 2012 without an interception.
Ageless wide receiver Steve Smith had his seventh 1,000-yard season in 2012 and, at 34, will remain the Panthers’ biggest receiving threat in 2013. He has found new life with Newton, but the question is how much longer he can stay effective. The Panthers badly need Brandon LaFell — their clear No. 2 receiver now — to emerge more frequently in 2013. Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn, two veteran free agents, will likely compete for the No. 3 job. Tight end Greg Olsen is Newton’s favorite target other than Smith and possesses some of the best hands on the team.
Newton can hand the ball off to three solid backs in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. The Panthers have so much money invested in that trio that there has been speculation one of them must go given the club’s constant salary-cap problems, but the team has managed to keep them so far. Williams is the game-breaker, Stewart the between-the-tackles bull and Tolbert the short-yardage specialist who hopes to take that burden off of Newton. As of the beginning of training camp, Williams was the only one of the three not dealing with an injury with Stewart still recovering from offseason surgery on both ankles and Tolbert dealing with a hamstring issue. This also presented an opportunity for sixth-round pick Kenjon Barner to get some meaningful reps in practice and show the coaching staff what he brings to the table.
The offensive line is the biggest question on this unit. Left tackle Jordan Gross still has good feet but doesn’t have many years left. Center Ryan Kalil is one of the league’s best, but the other three spots all have question marks. Every team’s defensive game plan involves going after Newton, and whether this group is up to the task of protecting him will have much to do with how the season goes. If Newton were to go down, veteran backup Derek Anderson would direct the team. He’s a good thrower, but the team would then be forced to use a much more conventional offense.
Kuechly’s outstanding rookie year was the biggest revelation in 2012, a year in which the Panthers improved to 10th in total defense — 18 spots better than they had been a year before. Kuechly took over for injured middle linebacker Jon Beason early in the season and played so well he ended up as the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is a tackling machine and led the NFL in tackles, becoming the first rookie to do so since San Francisco’s Patrick Willis in 2007.
After that year, Kuechly isn’t going anywhere even though Beason is trying to return after major injuries short-circuited each of his last two seasons. Like Kuechly, Beason is a very fast, side-to-side linebacker who can play in all situations when healthy. Strong-side linebacker Thomas Davis made a tremendous comeback in 2012 after three ACL surgeries on the same knee and will man that position once again. Free agent signee Chase Blackburn will provide depth and a steady locker-room presence.
The Panthers’ defensive front should be one of the team’s strengths. In 2012, defensive ends Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks) and Greg Hardy (11) gave Carolina its first pair of double-digit sackers since 2002. Hardy has faced some maturity issues but seems to have picked up some of Johnson’s quiet resolve. At defensive tackle, veteran Dwan Edwards will be joined by a pair of top-50 draft picks — Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Both will help by keeping blockers off Kuechly, who does his best work when he’s free to roam.
The secondary is where the most questions lie. Gettleman restructured a lot of it with some under-the-radar free agent signings in 2013. Cornerback Drayton Florence and strong safety Mike Mitchell are low-profile veterans who will both have a chance to start. Cornerback Josh Norman started for 12 games as a rookie in 2012 and then got benched, but Gettleman likes his potential. Charles Godfrey is the leader in the back at free safety. Captain Munnerlyn is an undersized but tough nickel cornerback. Whether this group can survive repeated attacks by the franchise quarterbacks of the NFC South is key.
This is a middle-of-the-pack group at best. Placekicker Graham Gano came on in 2012 after the Panthers cut ties with Olindo Mare, who was one of Hurney’s real miscalculations. Brad Nortman had an uneven rookie year as the team’s punter and needs to improve. Ginn, who returns kickoffs and punts, should add a splash of excitement for the first time since Smith handled those jobs early in his career and perhaps spell the end of the Armanti Edwards experiment.
Final Analysis: 4th in NFC South
In their first two years under Rivera, the Panthers have gotten off to horrible starts that doomed the season. They can’t afford to do that again. Newton and Kuechly are fine cornerstones on which to build, and there are fewer holes on this team than you would likely expect from a squad that hasn’t had a winning season since 2008.
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Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
NY Jets (8/15)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)
Tampa Bay (8/15)