Adversity has already put the Panthers in danger of suffering a letdown following their exit from the postseason in losing a divisional home playoff game to the San Francisco 49ers. Quarterback Cam Newton appeared to take big strides in his third year under center, but he underwent offseason ankle surgery in March and is expected to take four months to recover.
Head coach Ron Rivera is renowned for his defensive brilliance, which showed itself last season when Carolina ranked second in scoring defense and in total yards allowed. The problem is on offense, a unit that is in question not only due to Newton's health, but also for the dearth of weapons at his disposal.
Longtime Panthers receiver Steve Smith is now with the Baltimore Ravens, Brandon LaFell skipped town for the New England Patriots, Ted Ginn Jr. joined the Arizona Cardinals and Domenik Hixon is a member of the Chicago Bears. Oh, and Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross announced his retirement in February.
CBSSports.com's Will Brinson weighed in on the thin group of receivers:
The Panthers plan to saturate other teams with free agent WRs to free up wideouts in the draft is working perfectly.— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) March 18, 2014
The only moves general manager Dave Gettleman made to help Newton in the passing game were acquiring veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, along with tight end Ed Dickson. Needless to say, there is some work to be done for Carolina to put enough points on the board.
Cotchery is excited about the new opportunity to play with Newton after spending the previous three seasons in Pittsburgh, per Panthers.com's Bryan Strickland:
I left Ben Roethlisberger. If you're going to leave a quarterback like that, you better be sure that you're going to go to someone that can play at a high level. We have that here with Cam Newton. I've got 10 years in the league, so hopefully I can help him and we can grow the same bond that I've always had with quarterbacks. Hopefully we can make this thing go in a special way...Watching from afar last year, they had a great year. Guys played lights-out. They fell short in the playoffs, but hopefully I can come here and help this team take the next step and hoist that Lombardi.
But with the New Orleans Saints coming off a trip to the playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons poised to bounce back after an injury-riddled 2013 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers revamping their roster under new head coach Lovie Smith, the NFC South should be as competitive as ever. That will make Cotchery's ambition to contend for a Super Bowl all the more difficult.
Below is an overview of the Panthers' schedule for the 2014 campaign, along with some analysis and a look ahead at some of their biggest games.
|1||Sunday, Sept. 7||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|2||Sunday, Sept. 14||vs. Detroit Lions||1 p.m.||Fox|
|3||Sunday, Sept. 21||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|4||Sunday, Sept. 28||at Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Sunday, Oct. 5||vs. Chicago Bears||1 p.m.||Fox|
|6||Sunday, Oct. 12||at Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||Fox|
|7||Sunday, Oct. 19||at Green Bay Packers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|8||Sunday, Oct. 26||vs. Seattle Seahawks||1 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Thursday, Oct. 30||vs. New Orleans Saints||8:25 p.m.||NFL Network|
|10||Monday, Nov. 10||at Philadelphia Eagles||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|11||Sunday, Nov. 16||vs. Atlanta Falcons||1 p.m.||Fox|
|13||Sunday, Nov. 30||at Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||Fox|
|14||Sunday, Dec. 7||at New Orleans Saints||1 p.m.||Fox|
|15||Sunday, Dec. 14||vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|16||Sunday, Dec. 21||vs. Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|17||Sunday, Dec. 28||at Atlanta Falcons||1 p.m.||Fox|
Judging the strength of a schedule based on opponents' records from the previous year is usually not a great idea because of the parity and volatility the NFL tends to nurture for all 32 teams. It's rather appropriate that Carolina has a mixed bag of sorts in that context.
Which team will win the NFC South in 2014?
A continually developing passing game should make the Bears dangerous, with Jay Cutler triggering and the receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery wreaking havoc on secondaries. Carolina is stronger in the front seven, yet it should match up well and limit Matt Forte's production on the ground.
The Detroit Lions have immense talent but have fallen short of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. It will be interesting to see how new coach Jim Caldwell changes the leadership dynamic.
Cincinnati won the AFC North at 11-5 for its third consecutive playoff berth and fourth in five seasons, which it didn't convert into a win yet again. That division is wide open, since the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are often among the league's elite but are both coming off 8-8 marks in 2013. With the number of high draft picks the Cleveland Browns have, they could even be on the rise to surprise.
As an appropriate transition toward the next section, the outlier games on tap for Carolina are against the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and last year's NFC East winners, the Philadelphia Eagles.
In the 2013 season opener at Bank of America Stadium, the hosting Panthers played the Seahawks tough, but Seattle emerged with a 12-7 victory. The two teams nearly met in the conference title game if not for Carolina falling short to San Francisco.
It should be a physical, smashmouth brand of football when the Seahawks travel to Charlotte again this time around. Seattle QB Russell Wilson threw for 320 yards and a touchdown in last year's Week 1 triumph, but he ran for just seven yards on five carries. Superstar linebacker Luke Kuechly was able to help spy Wilson and discourage him from scrambling, aided by the efforts of exceptional defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy applying pressure from the edge.
Newton should be in full force by then in the middle of the season, and it will be interesting to see how his ankle procedure impacts his mobility and athleticism. It's possible those attributes could even improve, which is a scary thought for opposing defenses. However, Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary won't be intimidated by anyone. This game will serve as a true indicator of just how good the Panthers are in 2014.
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly had mixed results in his first year at the helm, yet his innovative offense was successful more often than not, leading to an NFC East crown. Unfortunately, Philadelphia fell to the Saints at home in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, but the team has retooled its roster to position itself for an even bigger step forward.
A lot of Kelly's system relies on tempo and getting the ball to playmakers in space. The loss of DeSean Jackson was compensated for by landing electric running back Darren Sproles in a trade. Sproles recorded at least 71 receptions in each of the past three seasons in New Orleans, so he figures to be quite the complement to 2013's NFL rushing champion in LeSean McCoy.
Kuechly, Thomas Davis and the rest of the Panthers defense should be well-prepared and conditioned enough to handle the Eagles in a Monday night showcase, as Philadelphia has questions of its own on the defensive side of the ball. It does help that the Panthers have grown accustomed to facing Sproles within the division, too.
There has to be significant concern about Carolina's chances to return to the playoffs, though—much less win the NFC South again. Between the question mark at left tackle, a lackluster receiving corps and Newton's questionable health, Panthers fans should be anxious.
The best way to go about that is to take full advantage of a deep backfield. DeAngelo Williams and a hopefully healthy Jonathan Stewart, along with fullback-halfback hybrid Mike Tolbert and speedy youngster Kenjon Barner, have the capability to pound the rock and control time of possession. It's a bit old school and simple, but it could be very effective if offensive coordinator Mike Shula chooses to go that route.
Considering the talent in this division, it's difficult to get a handle on how the Panthers project. All signs point to a regression with the current offensive personnel—a record in the neighborhood of 9-7 or 8-8.