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Panthers tackle history
Carolina's never posted consecutive winning seasons
Published Tuesday, July 22, 2014 3:53 pm
by Herbert L. White

The Carolina Panthers have to buck their own history to make the NFL playoffs in 2014.

The Panthers, who open training camp on Saturday in Spartanburg, S.C., went 12-5 last season and won the NFC South, but lost to San Francisco in the divisional playoff round. The result was good enough to earn head coach Ron Rivera a contract extension.

Coming off a postseason berth should be cause for optimism, but Carolina’s history suggests a healthy dose of temperance. The Panthers have never had consecutive winning seasons, so getting back to the playoffs could be difficult. New Orleans returns its core and quarterback Drew Brees and Atlanta is betting last year’s stumble was an aberration.

For Carolina to get past .500 and contend for the postseason, the Panthers have to deal with several scenarios, namely:

Cam Newton’s ankle. The quarterback underwent offseason surgery and has been limited in team activities as part of Newton’s recovery. He isn’t 100 percent yet and the coaching staff will ease him into game condition. With the overhaul on offense – especially with a new group of receivers – Newton is the keystone to Carolina’s season.

Greg Hardy drama. The defensive end’s legal issues won’t help his effort to get a new contract in Carolina given the franchise’s sensibility to domestic violence issues.

If Hardy can match or exceed 2013’s 15-sack campaign, it might be enough to convince the front office to talk long-term deal. St. Augustine’s graduate Alex Hall, who’s back in the NFL after a 16-sack campaign last year with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League, will compete for a job as will draft pick Kony Ealy (Missouri).

New leadership. The locker room culture is going to be less volatile with the departure of receiver Steve Smith to Baltimore. Newton has the attention of the entire team, but will it be enough to rally an offense that struggled at times last year with a veteran core?

The defense – one of the best in the NFL – is in much better shape with linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly as unquestioned leaders.

Remade offensive line. Left tackle Jordan Gross and guard Geoff Hangartner are gone. Byron Bell, who played right tackle last year, and Nate Chandler are competing to replace Gross. That position is especially critical as the blind-side protector for the right-handed Newton in passing situations.

Establsh a stud receiver. Carolina’s top four pass-catchers from a season ago are all gone, which necessitated a major restocking program. Kelvin Benjamin is tall and speedy, but no one expects Carolina’s first round draft pick to turn the league on its ear as a rookie.

Tiquan Underwood, Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery are serviceable, but won’t scare opponents.

Rebuilt secondary. As good as the front seven are on paper, the back four are an unknown. Safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud were free agent acquisitions from division rivals New Orleans and Atlanta. Cornerback Antoine Cason, who signed after a season in Arizona, played for Rivera in San Diego.

A couple of wild cards are Josh Norman, who missed most of last season with a torn Achilles, and Josh Thomas, who played well in six starts.


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