Panthers look to buck NFL trend, return to Super Bowl

Published 12:29 am Saturday, July 30, 2016

By Steve Reed

AP Sports Writer

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Ron Rivera is a student of history, which is why he has been quick to address the elephant in the Carolina Panthers locker room.

The two-time NFL Coach of the Year reminded players that the last team to return to a Super Bowl after losing it the previous season was the 1993-94 Buffalo Bills. The road ahead will be difficult, but he wants to avoid being another NFL statistic.

“We know we are the hunted,” Rivera said.

The Panthers took the field Thursday for the start of training camp with their focus on bucking that 23-year NFL trend.

It would seem they have the personnel to do it.

Back is league MVP Cam Newton. So is Kelvin Benjamin, the team’s No. 1 receiver who missed Carolina’s franchise-record 17-win season with a torn ACL. The Panthers defense, which led the NFL in takeaways last season, is mostly intact with the exception of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. The entire coaching staff is returning, too.

“The talk all offseason has been, ‘Hey, how do we get back?,’” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “It’s been 20-something years and believe me, we’ve heard all of that forever now. But if there has ever been a group of guys who can do it, it’s this group. Just because of what they’re made of physically and intellectually and the character that we have inside.”

Marv Levy, who coached the Bills to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s, said having players with high character was essential to overcoming adversity.

“Ability without character is nothing,” Levy said.

The day after Buffalo’s crushing loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl 25 (when kicker Scott Norwood’s potential game-winning field goal sailed wide right), Levy posted a poem his mother once read to him on a message board outside of the team’s meeting room in Orchard Park, New York.

The poem, written by an unknown author, read:

“Fight on, my men,” Sir Andrew said.

“A little I’m hurt but not yet slain.

I’ll just lie down and bleed a while,

And then I’ll rise and fight again.”

Levy’s players asked for copies of the poem, and it became a source of inspiration and pride for the Bills over the next three seasons.

Nearly 25 years later, Levy can’t explain why it has been so tough for Super Bowl losing teams to get back to the big game. He said free agency might be one issue.

“There is no hard and fast formula,” Levy said. “But I think one of the big factors is you have to have players with tremendous character — and part of that is resiliency. You have to have guys who aren’t going to give up. We were blessed to have that.”

Rather than ignore history, Rivera has chosen to confront it.

He’s even sought out the advice of others around the league, including former NFL coach John Madden. Rivera has stressed the importance of paying attention to details with his players and taking nothing for granted.

They seem to be listening.

“We aren’t going to win the Super Bowl today, but we are going to need to do all of the right things that lead up to your first preseason game, your first regular season game and so on,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said.

Olsen joined the Bears as a rookie in 2007, just months after their Super Bowl loss to Indianapolis. Like many previous Super Bowl losers, the Bears failed to make the playoffs the following season.

“I think everyone — not just the players (but) the team, the community and the fans — just assume that ‘Hey, you got the same guys back why would it be any different?’” Olsen said. “But in the NFL, every game is different, every season is different. There are so many moving parts that go into whether you have success or not.”

He said the natural human tendency is for a team to rest on its laurels — something he said the Panthers can’t afford to do.

“If we think we’re going to just show up week one and rattle off 14 wins in a row like we did last year just because we’re the same guys in the same uniforms you are going to find yourself in a bad spot,” Olsen said. “It’s just not the way this league works.”