Their climb was rapid. Their fall was even steeper.
Now, the Carolina Panthers find themselves at the base of the NFL mountain once again, trying to secure a foothold with a “Greatest Hits” mix of old and new players.
The “old” is not that old, but quarterback Cam Newton turned 28 in May and will be entering his seventh NFL season. Newton took a couple of steps backward in 2016, suffering a career low in completion percentage as the Panthers stumbled to a 6–10 record after making the Super Bowl with a 15–1 team the year before. Besides the inherent pressure of attempting to return to his Most Valuable Player form of 2015, Newton has the additional burden of coming back from March surgery on the partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.
On the other hand, he will have more weapons on an offense that too often looked stale and slow in 2016. Dynamic rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel will get on the field quickly as the Panthers try to insert more speed and elusiveness.
The Panthers do have a few advantages that could lead to a bounce-back season. Their schedule is slightly easier in 2017, and they have acquired a couple of veterans who played in Charlotte before and should fit right in again in defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Left tackle Matt Kalil became the most expensive — and the riskiest — free-agent gamble in Carolina history when he joined brother Ryan on the Panthers in a five-year, $55.5 million contract. The Kalil deal ended up being one of the last made by Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who was fired by owner Jerry Richardson on July 17. Now the focus will turn to head coach Ron Rivera, who needs to avoid two disappointing seasons in a row.
Score more points. This has become the Panthers’ offseason mantra after the offense was average at best in 2016 and failed time and again in the clutch. After a 2015 season in which Carolina finished No. 1 in the NFL in scoring (31.3 ppg), the Panthers dropped to 15th in 2016 (23.1 ppg). And given that Carolina lost six games by three points or fewer, the goal this year is to once again top the 30-points-per-game threshold.
The Panthers had what they called a “position catastrophe” on the offensive line last season, and in the season finale they had four players playing out of position. They are trying to avoid that in 2017 partly by throwing huge money at Matt Kalil — a contract that shocked many because of its sheer size — to protect Newton’s blind side. Michael Oher was limited to three games last season due to injuries and severe concussion-related symptoms. While Oher would be the Panthers’ first choice to be the right tackle, veteran Daryl Williams was decent last season in a battlefield promotion and can play both tackle spots. Second-round draft pick Taylor Moton has the size needed and also could be a factor. Center Ryan Kalil will call the shots for the line as usual and tease his younger brother as warranted. Guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell are solid run blockers.
At running back, bruiser Jonathan Stewart returns but is nearing the twilight of his career at age 30 and in his 10th year in the NFL. McCaffrey, the heir apparent, is a far different type of back who is more elusive and better in space but not as effective in between the tackles. Fullback Mike Tolbert was released as the Panthers plan to go more to three-wide sets and let their new slot receiver, rookie Curtis Samuel, run a lot of the deep routes that Ted Ginn Jr. used to before he bolted for New Orleans.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin has not been able to achieve the separation he needs to from defensive backs, and his on-and-off battles with weight are part of the problem. He has a lot to prove this season. Tight end Greg Olsen is a consummate pro and has made the Pro Bowl three years in a row. His sticky hands have made him Newton’s favorite target. Devin Funchess has been a poor man’s version of Benjamin, which is not a compliment. Like Benjamin, Funchess badly needs to show improvement in 2017. Damiere Byrd is undersized but very fast and could surprise.
Although the defensive numbers weren’t particularly impressive last season, less has been done to this unit than to the offense. The thinking is that any team with Pro Bowl linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in the middle is already off to a very good start. And the Panthers did finish No. 2 in the NFL last season with 47 sacks, although they were well distributed, and no one had more than defensive end Mario Addison’s 9.5.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has departed for the head job in Buffalo. New coordinator Steve Wilks was the secondary coach and has long been considered the heir to the job. Don’t expect much to change.
He will have some “gently used” toys to play with, though. Peppers makes a popular return at defensive end at age 37, with the Panthers hoping he can squeeze at least another year and five to eight more sacks out of a body that first entered the NFL in 2002 with Carolina. Munnerlyn returns as the nickel corner, where Carolina too often got beaten last season by the pass-happy offenses of the NFC South. And Mike Adams comes aboard to likely start at strong safety at age 36, having made two Pro Bowls in the past three years. His arrival will allow ball hawk Kurt Coleman (11 interceptions over the past two seasons) to move to his more natural position of free safety.
The Panthers have invested a lot of time and money on their defensive front. Kawann Short was the biggest investment, as Carolina gave him a whopping five-year, $80 million deal in the offseason to lock up one of the best pass-rushing tackles in the NFL. Charles Johnson is nearing the end of his career and doesn’t have the burst he once did but is still a force against the run. Addison is a speed rusher who wants to be known as a complete player. Peppers’ role will be situational and depend on how much he seems to have left.
Strong-side linebacker Shaq Thompson has become a decent player who is overshadowed by teammates Kuechly and Davis. But the Panthers’ next big defensive star could be cornerback James Bradberry, who steadily improved as a rookie and enters his second season as the closest thing to a true cover corner that the Panthers have.
Carolina’s secondary was torched repeatedly in the first part of 2016 as it tried to make up for the loss of Josh Norman on the fly, but Bradberry and fellow 2016 draft pick Daryl Worley both got better as the season progressed. They give the Panthers youth and speed at the corners.
One of the biggest training-camp battles will be between incumbent placekicker Graham Gano, who missed eight field goals last year, and seventh-round draft pick Harrison Butker. Punter Andy Lee was having a terrific year in 2016 until he had a season-ending hamstring injury.
McCaffrey will start out as the No. 1 punt returner, but the Panthers don’t plan to use him on kickoffs for now. Samuel might be a factor on kickoffs if he can beat out Fozzy Whittaker.
Despite all the changes, the key to it all is Newton. The quarterback has to have better mechanics. He has to use his new weapons effectively. He has to get rid of the ball quicker. He has to will the Panthers to some wins in the fourth quarter.
Carolina has surrounded Newton with a good team, but it will be great only if he can ascend to somewhere near the level he played throughout 2015 prior to the Super Bowl. If he cannot, Carolina will linger around .500 once again.