The Panthers hired an assistant special teams coach in the offseason, signed several free agents with a strong special teams resumes and selected a pair of specialists with two of their seven draft picks.
Yet their coverage teams looked much like they did a year ago, allowing one of the league's most electric returners to carve them up in the Houston Texans' 26-13 victory Saturday in the exhibition opener at Bank of America Stadium.
Maybe Cam Newton can play special teams.
Newton had a short night. Newton, last year's Rookie of the Year, completed 2-of-6 passes for 17 yards in three series, including two three-and-outs as the Panthers struggled to pick up the Texans' blitzes.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said starters would play between 12 and 15 plays. Newton was in for 13, leading the Panthers to a field goal on his final drive before giving way to Derek Anderson.
The rest of the starters joined Newton on the sideline, including running back Jonathan Stewart, who signed a five-year contract extension about 90 minutes before kickoff.
Like Newton, Stewart did not get much work. Stewart had no carries, although his 13-yard reception produced one of only two first downs in the first quarter.
It was a lackluster night all around.
The Panthers gave up eight sacks, with third-string quarterback Jimmy Clausen going down five times. Clausen also lost a fumble.
The offense didn't do much with short fields, and Rivera was disappointed the second- and third-teamers didn't make more of a game of it.
But Rivera was most displeased with the kickoff team's inability to get off blocks and tackle Trindon Holliday, whose 90-yard kickoff return in the opening quarter gave the Texans an early lead and produced flashbacks for many in the crowd.
The Panthers allowed a franchise-high three punt returns for touchdowns last season, getting burned by such notable returners as Devin Hester and Patrick Peterson.
Holliday, 5-5 and 169 pounds, was an accomplished sprinter at LSU and is one of the league's fastest players. He got a running start on his touchdown after Justin Medlock's kickoff made it only to the 10-yard line. Medlock was among the Panthers players who whiffed as Holliday sped by them.
"Any time a kick returner can catch that ball going forward like he did, it doesn't give your coverage an opportunity to get all the way down and in position," Rivera said. "Then we've got to get off blocks."
Free safety Haruki Nakamura, one of the special teams pickups, said the coverage team - not Medlock or special teams coordinator Brian Murphy - was to blame.
"We brought in guys specifically to fix those problems and none of us are happy about it," Nakamura said. "It had nothing to do with the call. It had nothing to do with the kick. The coach makes the call, we kick it and you're supposed to run down and tackle him. That's on us as players, and we didn't do it."
Medlock, who spent the past three season in Canada, is competing for the kicking job with veteran Olindo Mare. Mare, who missed two fourth-quarter field goals last season, was booed when he came out for a 33-yarder on Newton's final drive.
Mare made it, and sent both of his kickoffs into the end zone, one for a touchback. Medlock connected on a 48-yard field goal in the second quarter that had plenty of distance.
But Rivera said neither kicker gained an advantage.
The news was not all bad for the special teams.
Rookie punter Brad Nortman, a sixth-round pick from Wisconsin, hit a 57-yard punt from the end zone. Nortman had good hang time, forcing a fair catch.
In the second half, fourth-round pick Joe Adams fielded a punt on the left sideline, reversed field and ended up darting down the right sideline for a 34-yard return.
Newton was ecstatic on the sideline, running behind the play and embracing Adams as he got off the ground.
Otherwise, there wasn't much to celebrate - a point Rivera made clear to his players afterward in the locker room.
"It was simple. He wasn't happy. And it was evident why. The effort out there wasn't good enough," Newton said. "Every time we come out and play in front of our fans we have a point to prove. At points in the game, myself included, it was lethargic and we could have put more effort into it.
"We never like to have those types of (post-game) meetings."
Or those types of games - preseason or otherwise.