Ron Rivera returns as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Everyone in Charlotte is wondering how he is going to do this year, but he isn't worried.
"We know where we stand," said Rivera. "We know we have some things to work on but we like our chances."
He has only managed a record of 13-19 in his first two years and that doesn't cut it in the NFL. If Rivera doesn't find a way to get his team to the playoffs this season, he may be looking for work as a defensive coordinator next season.
Mike Schula, son of the infamous Don Schula, was promoted to offensive coordinator after Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach in Cleveland. Schula didn't have much success in his previous stint as a OC, back n Tampa Bay from 96-99 but the team hopes his experience with Newton as the quarterbacks coach will help ease the transition. If the team hopes to do anything significant this year they are going to need the offense to get on track.
Cam Newton is never going to be the type of quarterback that Peyton, Brady or Brees are, but he can be very effective and productive. Last season he said his goal was to cut down on turnovers, and he did by dropping from 17 to 12. Critics have questioned Newton's mental toughness during difficult times and starting out fast and successful will go a long way towards keeping his confidence high. He has made some noise about wanting to follow Chudzinski to Cleveland, but that will all disappear quickly if he sees some early success.
The Panthers have invested a huge amount of money in their running backs; Williams and Stewart. Both guys could do more than Chudzinski asked of them and a well balanced offense will need to include them more. Both of their main guys have different styles, a key component of a good 1-2 punch. Stewart is a punishing runner with a low center of gravity who knows how to move the pile. Last year Williams showed he still has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field. Having a running back who can hit the home run at anytime keeps defenses aware of the backfield threat.
Steve Smith remains a top wide receiver in the NFL. Even though he gets attention and recognition, I think he deserves even more credit than he gets. When you consider the fact that he is only 5-7 and hasn't had a real No.2 option since Muhammad (2004) to take pressure off him his numbers are phenomenal. Last season he hauled in 73 catches for 1,174 yards but had only four touchdowns. He will once again be the teams leading receiver and hasn't show signs of slowing down yet even though he is 34 years old. Olsen also provides a reliable option at tight end.
The defense didn't get much credit for the performance they turned in last year, even though it was a top-ten performance. However, they will have a hurdle to overcome with the loss of Chris Gamble.
When Kuechly stepped in as the middle linebacker in week 5 the team immediately started to turn it around. He finished the season as the AP Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in tackles. That means Beason will move to the outside along with Davis. Davis came back from an ACL surgery last year and looked very good.
The Panthers have some issues in the secondary with the loss of Gamble. After releasing him because of salary cap issues the former cornerback inexplicably retired. Either way, the team finds itself in a passing oriented league without a No. 1 cornerback. The team drafted Norman in the 5th round last year, but he played himself right on to the bench. They've got Munnerlyn and signed Florence during the offseason, but this unit is definitely going to be a weakness.
The Panthers are not in a good position. The team has talent on both sides of the ball, including two rookie of the year winners, and still haven't produced. That indicates either a lack of motivation or bad coaching. If that is the truth it means this year won't be much different than last. They missed a big opportunity last season with the problems in New Orleans and Tampa Bay rebuilding. They may be able to improve to 9-7 but they need something different if they want to win the division.