There's no more ducking under the radar for the Carolina Panthers. Success tends to do that and the Panthers have a target on their back for the 2014 season.
Carolina didn't get it together until Week 6 of last season following a disappointing 1-3 start. The Panthers then won eight in a row and finished the regular season with 11 victories in the last 13 weeks to win the NFC South and capture a playoff berth for the first time since 2008, the last time they finished with a 12-4 record.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was on the hot seat prior to the season and his job status looked bleak after a 22-6 loss at Arizona in Week 5. That's when the Panthers stepped up for their head coach and emerged as a contender in the NFC. Included in the eight-game winning streak were big wins over San Francisco, which got revenge when it counted most, and New England.
The streak stopped in a 31-13 loss at New Orleans, but the Panthers never wavered with three subsequent wins to close the regular season and host a playoff game versus the 49ers. Premier quarterback and the one better known as "Superman," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw two costly interceptions and a spotty defense cost the team a trip to the NFC title game.
Carolina is known for having a stout front line of defense and that will be the team's calling card once again in 2014. However, that wasn't the case in allowing 126 rushing yards to the 49ers, who played well enough to win and kept the Panthers off the scoreboard in the second half.
Newton had a lot of time to think about the loss, but has moved on since. He underwent ankle surgery this offseason and the procedure tightened ankle ligaments that had been stretched out. Newton, 24, threw for 3,379 yards, 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 16 games last season. He also carried the ball 111 times for 585 yards and six scores.
The former Auburn star's latest setback is a hairline fracture to a rib that shouldn't prevent him from missing the season opener against Tampa Bay on September 7.
"This morning he came in and he was very, very sore," Rivera said recently. "I do (think Newton will be ready for Week 1). He's got to get past the soreness, which we expect. Then we'll see how he starts to progress."
The Panthers, winners of a combined 15 games from 2010-2012, exercised Newton's fifth-year option on his contract this offseason.
Earlier this offseason, Newton said he needs to get cardiovascular exercise in after practice because of the ankle issue and that helps with a grinding season on the horizon. And nobody knows that more than Newton, who carried a major offensive load because he is blessed with talent. Riding an exercise bike has been his "crutch" in rehabilitation.
"There has not been a timeline set, and I don't think you can put a timeline on a particular injury like this," Newton said. "The competitive side always tells the person that they can keep going, but that is when the smart side has to come in and figure out that the big picture is to be 100 percent by Week 1."
Not only does Newton have to be smart with his ankle and rib, but building a strong rapport with new receivers could be even more vital. We all know Newton will be ready for Week 1 and it's unclear the same can be said for chemistry. Gone is longtime Panther and fan favorite Steve Smith. Enter a new crop of receivers that include Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and first-round draft choice Kelvin Benjamin.
"Everybody has accepted the challenge," Newton said of his new teammates learning the nuances of playing together. "They have a wide-open opportunity, and we are going to see what they are going to do with it.
"If we can keep this mentality, our anticipation for this season is going to rise. But we've got to focus in each and every day to get better."
It should help that Newton and the offense is going against one of the toughest defenses in the NFL.
Carolina is ready to compete for another division title, but will have to face the challenge of being the hunted for once.
2013 RECORD: 12-4 (first place NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2013, lost to San Francisco in NFC Divisional Playoff
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Ron Rivera (25-23, fourth season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Shula (second season with Panthers)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Sean McDermott (fourth season with Panthers)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Jerricho Cotchery (from Steelers), WR Jason Avant (from Eagles), WR/QB Joe Webb (from Vikings), TE Ed Dickson (from Ravens), TE Mike McNeill (from Rams), CB Antoine Cason (from Cardinals), S Roman Harper (from Saints), S Thomas DeCoud (from Falcons)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Steve Smith (to Ravens), WR Brandon LaFell (to Patriots), WR/KR Ted Ginn (to Cardinals), WR Domenik Hixon (free agent), OT Jordan Gross (retired), OT Bruce Campbell (to Jets), G Geoff Hangartner (retired), G Travelle Wharton (retired), G Jeff Byers (retired), CB Captain Munnerlyn (to Vikings), S Quintin Mikell (free agent)
QB: Newton and his gifted ability helped turn around the franchise last season and earn Rivera a contract extension through 2017. Arguably the most dangerous quarterback in the game, Newton (3,379 yards, 24 TD, 13 INT) threw for a career high in touchdown passes and didn't have to run as much. That's putting it lightly because he still ran for a career-low 585 yards on a career-low 111 carries.
The Pro Bowl selection had a team-best six rushing scores and keeps the defense on its toes. Newton continues to develop at the NFL level, and needs better play from his offensive line as evidenced by a career-high 43 sacks in 2013. His 61.7 completion percentage was decent, but could use improvement. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula worked wonders for Newton in his first season at the helm and looks for even more in 2014.
Derek Anderson, Matt Blanchard and Joe Webb are right behind Newton under center. Anderson has plenty of experience and is a serviceable backup.
RB: The Panthers were 11th in the NFL in rushing yards per game last season with 126.6. And they can thank Newton for that. DeAngelo Williams (843 yards, 3 TD) led the team in rushing and the veteran back hasn't reached 1,000 yards since 2009 -- his fourth year in the league. Williams needs to find the end zone more, but it has been hard sharing time with oft-injured running back Jonathan Stewart (180 yards).
Stewart played in only six games last season and has appeared in a total of 15 games the past two seasons. The last time Stewart reached 1,000 yards on the ground was the same year as Williams. Stewart, though, pulled his hamstring late last month and said the injury is "very frustrating." He was optimistic for this season after having a promising OTA and minicamp. Stewart, who had surgery on both ankles prior to the start of the 2013 season, said he will be fine when the season starts.
The Panthers also still have short-yardage back Mike Tolbert (361 yards, 5 TD).
WR: It will be odd not to see Smith catching passes and getting the most out of his compact frame for the Panthers, but life must go on. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon are gone, too. Smith is now with Baltimore and the Panthers have welcomed some fresh faces to the mix, including talented rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin.
Benjamin starred at Florida State and will use his 6-5, 240-pound frame to his advantage. Newton should love hooking up with Benjamin, who sustained a bone bruise in practice that isn't deemed serious.
Cotchery (602 yards, 10 TD) was a touchdown machine for Pittsburgh last season and hopes to move on with his third team. The former New York Jet has been durable throughout his career and brings a veteran leadership to the fold. He played in every game last season.
Avant (447 yards, 2 TD) was weeded out of Philadelphia after eight years with the Eagles. Avant has strong hands and primarily works out of the slot.
TE: Greg Olsen (816 yards, 6 TD) led the Panthers with a career-high 73 receptions last season and has played in every game the past six seasons. Olsen is Newton's safety valve and also an excellent run blocker.
The Panthers added Ed Dickson (273 yards, TD) of the Ravens for depth.
OL: The offensive line has to be the biggest concern for Carolina. Not only is the health of Newton important, but keeping the offense balanced in the run game is vital to the success of this team. Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross both retired in the offseason, tackle Nate Chandler had his contract extended and the Panthers drafted guard Trai Turner out of LSU.
Turner could crack the starting lineup come Week 1. The Panthers hope starting guard Amini Silatolu can stay healthy to play alongside center Ryan Kalil, who was named to his fourth Pro Bowl last season. Tackle Byron Bell played in all 16 games with 14 starts at right tackle in 2013 and will shift the all- important left side this year.
DL: Besides Newton, how the defensive line goes, the Panthers go. Defensive end Greg Hardy (39 tackles, 15 sacks) is a stud and a force up front. He disrupts at the line and has recorded at least 11 sacks in each of the previous two seasons. Hardy, though, was arrested on domestic violence charges in May and could be suspended at the start of the season. Hardy tied a franchise record with 15 sacks in 2013, so the Panthers placed the franchise tag on him at a cost of $13.1 million this season.
Charles Johnson (25 tackles, 11 sacks) is Carolina's other nightmare defensive end and he has registered 11 or more sacks three times in the past four seasons. Johnson became the first player in franchise history to have nine or more sacks in four consecutive seasons. DE Kony Ealy was also drafted in the second round out of Missouri.
At defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei (42 tackles, 3 sacks) is back for his second season and serves as an admirable run stopper. Kawann Short (30 tackles, 1.5 sacks), Dwan Edwards (19 tackles, 3 sacks) and Colin Cole (15 tackles, sack) were a part of a defense that finished first in sacks (60) and second in yards allowed (301.2) and rushing yards (86.9). The front line could be even better this season with more experience across the board.
LB: Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is a beast. Kuechly (156 tackles, 2 sacks) had four interceptions last season and has played in all 16 games his first two seasons in the league. The former Boston College star is one of the top middle linebackers in the game and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season and should have plenty more ahead.
Playing the WILL spot is Thomas Davis (123 tackles, 4 sacks) started every game last season and is second in team history in tackles. Davis can cover well, which is a surprise after undergoing multiple ACL surgeries in his career.
Chase Blackburn (27 tackles) and A.J. Klein (21 tackles) will battle for the SAM spot, and it appears Blackburn has the upper hand.
DB: The Panthers were sixth in pass defense last season (214.3 ypg) and bolstered the secondary with the addition of safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper. DeCoud and Harper are very familiar with the Panthers having played for Atlanta and New Orleans, respectively.
DeCoud (65 tackles) spent the past six seasons with the Falcons, while Harper (27 tackles) spent eight seasons with the Saints and appeared in only nine games a season ago. The new faces will replace the departed Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell. Robert Lester and Colin Jones will serve as backup safeties.
Melvin White (47 tackles, 2 INT) and Antoine Cason (12 tackles, 2 INT) should start at cornerback and former safety Charles Godfrey (10 tackles, sack) moved to cornerback. Safety Tre Boston and cornerback Bene Benwikere were drafted in May. The team will miss slot star Captain Munnerlyn, who left for Minnesota in free agency.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Graham Gano connected on 24-of-27 field goal attempts last season and made all six of his 50-plus yard tries. He nailed all 42 of his extra points. Gano led the NFL with a 77.8 touchback percentage, the highest touchback percentage in the NFL since 1994.
Brad Nortman will handle punting duties again and averaged 47.8 yards per try, sending 25 inside the 20-yard line.
With Ginn gone, it could be a committee of players working in and out on kickoff and punt return. Corey Brown (punts) and Fozzy Whittaker (kickoffs) seem to be the frontrunners in the preseason.
COACHING: The Panthers bailed out Rivera with a playoff run last season and will be guided by the former player the next few years. Rivera brings a defensive-minded mentality to forefront and it's obvious for how well the stop unit has played the past few years. Rivera appreciates the support and confidence in him shown by team owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Dave Gettleman.
Carolina has improved each year under Rivera and Newton, who both joined the team in 2011 -- Rivera as John Fox's replacement and Newton as the No. 1 draft pick. The two will try for even more success in 2014. Meanwhile, Shula has the luxury of working with Newton and the offense, and hopes a new core of receivers can literally catch on.
The Panthers have won 16 of their last 20 regular-season games dating back to a four-game winning streak to end the 2012 season, and a lot of the credit goes to defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
McDermott has been blessed with two quality ends and the generosity of the ownership in landing free agents. In the past two seasons, McDermott has helped Carolina improve its total defense ranking 26 spots, the best by any team in the league. McDermott's group led the league in sacks while finishing second in scoring defense, second in rushing defense, sixth in passing defense and third in red zone defense. It allowed just 15.1 points per game, the fewest since 1996, and set a team record with an NFL-low 21 touchdowns allowed. The Panthers posted 30 takeaways and set a team record with four defensive touchdowns.
THE SKINNY: The Panthers won't have it easy in the NFC South with New Orleans and Atlanta, and new-look Tampa Bay. Newton will once again have to lead the offense and try to stay on track after a successful end to the 2013 campaign. Carolina only hopes a rib injury and a previous ankle problem won't alter his play.
The odds of Carolina churning out another 12-win season is remote because of a tough schedule that includes matchups with Detroit, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Green Bay, Seattle and Philadelphia. Questions will surround the receivers, but certainly not the defense. Look for eight to nine wins and a possible wild card berth for the Panthers.