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Sorensen: In my world without eternal optimism or golf shirts, Panthers will go 8-8

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

Only a secure team makes as few changes in the offseason as the Carolina Panthers did.

They retained their head coach, hired a general manager who declined to shake up his staff and promoted quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to offensive coordinator.

They either believe they have enough or were too tired to give up again and start over.

Owner Jerry Richardson is 77. He doesn’t want to start over. He doesn’t want to wait. As much as anybody in the organization, and probably more, he wants to win now.

Winning means making the playoffs. Colleague and friend Scott Fowler believes the Panthers will.

In Scott’s world there is eternal optimism and eternal sunshine. There are no problems, only opportunities.

I’ve visited Scott’s world, and while it was ever so pleasant – sunny and 78 degrees and populated by smiling men and women wearing colorful golf shirts – I couldn’t live there. I don’t own golf shirts.

What does Richardson do if Carolina finishes 9-7? Nine victories won’t get the Panthers to the playoffs, but it will be two games better than 2012. Does 9-7 save jobs? Or does it suggest that, while Carolina is gradually improving, it can’t quite close the deal?

The Panthers could finish 9-7. They also could, as Scott predicted months ago, finish 10-6.

I see 8-8.

I realize they won their final four games of 2012 and five of their last six.

You realize that momentum ends when the season does.

Look. Carolina has the potential to improve. By the end of the 2012 season, Cam Newton was a quarterback, not an athlete, and his progression continued in training camp. He often looked past favored targets Steve Smith and Greg Olsen and found alternate receivers such as Armanti Edwards.

The offensive line probably is the team’s weakest component. I trust some of the veterans but the younger and unproven players have not demonstrated they are legitimate NFL starters.

The Panthers will run more than they did last season and Cam Newton won’t lead them in rushing. Jonathan Stewart should but he’s out for awhile or indefinitely. If they can’t run, how do they win?

Shula was promoted to offensive coordinator so Newton wouldn’t have to learn a new offense. He has the continuity down. But does he have the expertise and creativity to be an offensive coordinator? We’ll know soon enough.

The defense will be better because of Star Lotulelei, whose last name, to my discredit, I still can’t spell without going to the roster. A 6-2, 315-pound rookie defensive tackle, Lotulelei is a force. Opponents have to account for him. He could make a run at defensive rookie of the year.

If Jon Beason retains his health, he and Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis will give the Panthers a smart, scrambling and disruptive group of linebackers. The defensive line was impressive last season. The Panthers have added defensive backfield depth. But did they find starters?

The offenses of NFC South rivals Atlanta and New Orleans are loaded. Do the Panthers have enough playmakers to win the close games they’ve failed to? I don’t see it.

I hope Scott is right. A run to the playoffs would light up Charlotte, Rock Hill, Raleigh and every other place fans of the Panthers tread.

If they go 11-5 I’ll buy golf shirts mauve, taupe and lavender.

But I believe my wardrobe is safe.

The Panthers are one of the many, neither terrible nor outstanding. They’ll be better. They won’t be good enough.

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