Panthers carry a different look
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Just about everything is new with the Carolina Panthers.
A new coaching staff, a new franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, and a new positive and noticeably relaxed attitude following a draining 2-14 season under lame duck coach John Fox.
About the only thing that’s not different, for the most part, are the players.
Despite last year’s debacle, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney didn’t try overhaul the roster but instead stayed the course, confident in the team’s young group of “core players.”
He convinced owner Jerry Richardson to dole out more than $200 million in contracts to keep running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Charles Johnson and linebackers Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and James Anderson. The Panthers also got good news during the offseason when wide receiver Steve Smith decided to come back rather than push for a trade.
The Panthers weren’t afraid to add key pieces where needed, including trading away a third-round draft pick to Chicago to acquire tight end Greg Olsen, who figures to be a major factor in an offense geared around the position he plays.
After a year where the Panthers cut several veterans and decided against bringing in big-name free agents, Richardson took advantage of an opportunity to jab back at his critics.
“Does anybody feel just a little bad about calling me cheap last year? Just a smidgen?” Richardson said with a satisfied smile.
The excitement is returning to the fan base, thanks in large part to the addition of Newton and the new offensive scheme being installed by coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
The Panthers haven’t had a big-name college prospect at quarterback like Newton since drafting Kerry Collins with the fifth pick in 1995. Newton, who led Auburn to a national championship and won the Heisman Trophy last season, didn’t disappoint in his first preseason game against the New York Giants, showing good poise in the pocket.
Earlier in training camp coach Ron Rivera was asked to describe the team’s No. 1 pick and simply answered, “Wow!”
“He’s on his back foot throwing 50-yard passes. I mean, c’mon,” Smith said of Newton. “I’m not going to sit here every week and say how good Cam is. He didn’t win the Heisman Trophy because there was bad counting on the ballot. He won because he’s good.”
For now, Newton remains entrenched in a quarterback battle with Jimmy Clausen, who is hoping to rebound after going 1-9 as a starter last season. Now matter what, it’s pretty clear Newton is their long-term guy.
The Panthers were a wreck on offense last year, scoring just 16 touchdowns while finishing last in the league scoring, total offense and passing yards.
Chudzinski’s new offense figures to change all that. It features an aggressive downfield passing attack not unlike the system he and Rivera had with the San Diego Chargers last year. The Chargers, with Philip Rivers at quarterback, led the league in offense.
“It’s a fun offense,” Olsen said. “It’s fun for the quarterbacks, the running backs, the tight ends and the receivers. It’s fun knowing anybody can score at any given time.”
Defensively, the Panthers will also feature a different look.
Beason, the team’s anchor at middle linebacker, said the Panthers will feature an aggressive, attacking style that will be “night and day” different compared to last year. Beason estimates the Panthers blitzed 30 percent of the time last season, but said he expects they’ll blitz twice as much this season.
Beason said opposing quarterbacks will need to do their homework.
“It’s not going to be, hey, we know about the Panthers and we know about their scheme,” Beason said. “It’s going to be a completely different defense.”
In a word, Beason describes the new scheme being installed by Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott as aggressive.
“We will not sit back and be dictated to by anybody,” Beason said. “We’re going to dictate what we want to offenses. We’re going to be aggressive and blitz-happy and we’re going to force a quarterback to be in some uncomfortable situations. That part of it is going to be fun.”
The optimism, it seems, is everywhere, and it all starts with Rivera, a first-year head coach who players are quickly growing to love.
“I’m optimistic about who we are and who we can become,” Rivera said. “Would I like to win them all? Absolutely. Do I think we can win 10? Yes. I think we can win 10.”