Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the Carolina Panthers.
Last year’s record: 12-4
Coach: “Riverboat Ron” Rivera
2014 is about… Treading water. This is a team that won the division for only the fourth time in its 19-year history, and getting back there will be a major win, especially considering they’ve never made the playoffs in consecutive years. (Taken in that light, a step back that sees them snag a wild-card berth is still a rosy outcome.) But it won’t be easy.
Core players: Cam Newton (QB), Greg Hardy (DE), Luke Kuechly (LB), Charles Johnson (DE)
But they lost... Steve Smith (WR). No, he's not a potential All-Pro anymore and the older he gets the more his lack of size will hurt him, but he was easily Newton's favourite option last season. Also gone are Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon (WRs), the rest of the 2013 corps. They also lost the majority of their defensive secondary, including Mike Mitchell (S). Meanwhile, the offensive-line cupboard is approaching bare with the loss of Jordan Gross (LT) to retirement. But, hey, at least they still have two would-be No. 1 running backs, even though one of them is inevitably injured. Note: That one is almost always Jonathan Stewart. Also note: He has been injured once already this season. Yeesh.
Yeah, but they got... Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery (WRs), who will inherit the collective targets of the departed pass-catchers along with first rounder Kelvin Benjamin—who has looked terrific in the preseason and training camp. The veteran newcomers have been complementary receivers in the past, but if you believe returning tight end Greg Olsen, Newton will have more than enough capable targets. Time will tell.
Growing from within: Elite against the run and in pass defence (he intercepted four passes in 2013), the 22-year-old Kuechly went from DROY to DPOY in his first two seasons. If he continues on this trajectory, by 2016 they'll just have to start giving him trophies from other sports ("Here's the Ballon d'Or, Luke! And the green jacket!"). On the offensive line, someone from among Byron Bell, Nate Chandler and Garry Williams will need to step up and fill Gross's shoes at left tackle—the position made infamous in Blind Side. The former two are both 24, while the latter is 27 and coming off a season lost almost entirely to injury.
Why this team? Because early last season their coach threw out everything he knew about how to close football games and started looking at the analytics to help make decisions. And it worked. The one-eighty led to both more wins and a more exciting football team.
Why not? Because following the team means having to listen to endless "Cam Newton: Does he care enough about winning?" debates, mainly because he's got a bit of a body-language problem and in the past he's celebrated touchdowns with a kind of strained Superman-opening-his-shirt move (really, how much trouble does Superman have opening his shirt? The move looks more like a robot opening up its own chest cavity...) whether the team is winning or not:
Granted, it's kind of annoying. But... oh man, the debate's just so stupid. HE WANTS TO WIN. HE WOULD MUCH RATHER WIN THAN LOSE. END OF STORY.
Perfect for fans of... The Florida Panthers. I mean, most years this vanity licence plate would work for both teams! The two play in roughly the same part of the U.S., too, so you could feasibly see both on the same road trip while stopping off to golf in between. Bit of a drive, though.
How much hope? 6/10. The Panthers have the NFL's reigning defensive player and coach of the year, and a young franchise QB. But, as mentioned above, their path back to 12 wins is riddled with potholes. They're thin at multiple positions. The Saints have improved since last season, and, really, finished just a single game back. Also, the Falcons and Buccaneers couldn't possibly be as bad this year as last, so the Panthers won't get handed nearly as many gimmes.
Will you be mocked for front-running? Not in the least. Go to town.
A Meme To Remember: Greg Olsen positivity or no, Panthers fans didn't take lightly to losing their entire WR group without chasing a big name. So they did things like this. Cheers, Panthers fans.