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NFL: Panthers still look to improve

By Steve Reed
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers are on pace to win four games this season, which would double last season’s output.
First-year coach Ron Rivera doesn’t feel that is an acceptable scenario.
Rivera said the Panthers (2-6) are more talented than their record indicates, and wants his players to attack the second half of the season with a new sense of vigor and focus.
That’s one of the reasons he held a full-padded practice Monday after the players returned from a four-day vacation, a decision players loathed before heading out to the field but felt good about afterward.
The coach said he will be “disappointed if we don’t win more than four.” He said the Panthers have that kind of ability and potential, adding, “maybe I’m pie in the sky. That’s me.”
Maybe.
It was Rivera, after all, who said back in training camp he could see the Panthers winning 10 games.
That’s unlikely to happen now with a tough closing schedule that includes seven against teams with record of .500 or better — Detroit (6-2), New Orleans (6-3), Houston (6-3), Atlanta (5-3), Tennessee (4-4) and Tampa Bay (4-4) twice. Their other game is against winless Indianapolis.
Despite the formidable task ahead of them, the Panthers remain optimistic about the future beginning Sunday when they host the Titans.
“We got a heck of a schedule these next eight games but there’s no reason we can’t win out,” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “It’s crazy to say but I don’t think anyone is counting this season over.”
Not with Cam Newton running the show.
With the rookie under center, the Panthers have made a dramatic turnaround statistically going from the worst offense in the league in 2010 to a top-five unit in terms of total offense and yards passing. They’re more explosive. They’re move competitive. They’re more fun to watch.
And yet, they have just two wins.
On one hand there’s enthusiasm from the fan base over the franchise’s long-term future, but also a sense of disappointment they’ve lost so many tight games. Carolina has been close in all six of their defeats, losing five by a touchdown or less. In the other, a 14-point loss to Atlanta, the Panthers actually led 17-14 in the fourth quarter.
One major problem for the Panthers has been with what Rivera calls “self-inflicted wounds.”
The Panthers have been penalized 65 times, fourth-most in the league, for 560 yards.
Prior to Monday’s intense practice, he made cutting down on those penalties a point of emphasis in the second half of the season.
“It’s been disappointing,” Rivera said.
He suggested the amount of penalties might be a reflection on his status as a first-year NFL head coach.
“I will be honest with you, I feel as a first-year head coach you’re not getting the calls that you would like,” Rivera said. “You get balanced out, but that’s kind of the way it is. As we become the type of team where people pay a little more attention to us and respect what we do, we’ll get some breaks.”
Rivera added that “certain coaches do get a little more toward their way.”
Still, he said, the Panthers have to go out and earn it.
And that’s what Monday was all about.
“We got back to work and put the pads on we were really hitting,” linebacker Dan Connor said. “You don’t see that much coming off a bye week. I like it. You have to keep a routine and when you’re off a few days your body starts to ache. You need to get back into it and feel like you’ve played a percentage of a game at least.”
Connor and Gross called practicing in pads a great decision, although both admitted they were a little leery before they went out.
“We got better and it will steamroll us into the rest of the week,” Connor said.
Will it start the snowball rolling in Carolina, who knows?
Despite the brutal schedule ahead, Gross believes the Panthers can get on a run.
He points out that the Panthers have shown they can compete against anyone in the league, including the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, whom they lost to 30-23 in the second week of the season. Gross said Carolina’s goal should be to finish the second half of the season with a winning record.
“Our honeymoon period is over with this offense and with this coaching staff,” Gross said. “Really there are no excuses for us not to do well.”
As for Rivera, he’s learned not to put a number prediction on anything.
“We’re managing expectations, but I certainly want to see us trending up,” Rivera said. “I want to see us finishing hard, playing fast and physical. At the end of the year I was us to be look at it and say we did exactly what we hoped and thought we could do.”
NOTES: Rivera said the team will make a decision Tuesday on whether or not to bring rookie cornerback Brandon Hogan off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Hogan returned to practice three weeks ago after suffering a torn ACL in his knee last December while playing for West Virginia.

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