The 2013 Panthers ended a five-year playoff drought with a 12-win season that breathed life into the organization and its fan base.
The next goal will be proving it wasn’t a fluke.
A day after falling to San Francisco 23-10 in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, Panthers players were at Bank of America Stadium on Monday cleaning out their lockers and talking about the importance of sustained success.
In 19 seasons since joining the NFL in 1995, the Panthers have never had back-to-back winning seasons.
“You see a lot of flash-in-the-pan teams that come up, surprise some people, sneak in as a wild card. But I don’t think that’s what we were,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We beat some really good teams – at home, on the road; 7-1 at home this year in the regular season was pretty good.
“But there’s no guarantees in this business. So we’ll come back next year and try to get better as individuals and get over the hump.”
The Panthers have made the playoffs five times in their history. They followed their four previous playoff appearances the next season with records of 7-9 (in 1997 and 2004) and 8-8 (in 2006 and 2009).
Left tackle Jordan Gross has been a part of the past four playoff teams but believes these Panthers are better configured for a long run of success.
“There’s not a million holes to fill,” Gross said. “And that’s very exciting.”
Gross, whose contract automatically voids on Feb. 7, is one of 21 players set to become unrestricted free agents in March. Eight starters are on the list, including three defensive backs, two offensive linemen and defensive end Greg Hardy, who tied a franchise record with 15 sacks.
But the other 14 starters are under contract or club control through at least 2015, including four of the Panthers’ five Pro Bowl selections – quarterback Cam Newton, fullback Mike Tolbert, center Ryan Kalil and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
The Panthers can begin negotiating with Newton on a long-term deal at any time and have until May 3 to exercise the club option that would keep Newton under contract through 2015.
The Panthers have nearly $12 million in cap space to carry over to the 2014 salary cap, projected to be around $126 million.
“It’s definitely set up for long-term success, and I think this was just the beginning,” Gross said. “The quarterback is good. The core of the defense is good and young. Kalil is under contract for a long time (through 2017). They’ve got a good tight end (and) good depth at a lot of positions.”
The biggest question surrounds Hardy, who has developed into one of the league’s top pass rushers and wants to be paid accordingly. Hardy twice in recent weeks has said he would be open to giving the Panthers a hometown discount.
Hardy didn’t mention any type of discount Monday.
“I’m going to get what I want,” he said. “Once I get what I want, we’re good with whoever. Hopefully, it’s this place.”
The Panthers could choose to use the franchise tag on Hardy, which would keep him under contract for another season at approximately $12 million.
Strong safety Quintin Mikell played in Philadelphia when the Eagles were a perennial playoff team. Mikell went to the playoffs in six of his eight seasons with the Eagles, who advanced to the Super Bowl during the 2004 season.
Mikell said he talked to the defensive backs Monday about building on this season’s success.
“The main thing is not to let it be a one-shot deal,” he said. “As soon as you get this out of your system, start thinking about next year. To keep that winning consistency, you’ve got to always think about it.”
Mikell said the Eagles managed to keep their core intact during their playoff years.
“The best thing that happened during those years was that the nucleus stayed together. There wasn’t a whole lot of changeover,” said Mikell, who will be a free agent. “You bring in new pieces here and there. But for the most part the nucleus of guys stayed there. So hopefully we can keep that going here.”
Despite playing a first-place schedule in 2014, the road back to the playoffs appears to be less daunting, at least on paper. After having the league’s toughest strength of schedule (.543) entering the 2013 season, the Panthers’ 2014 opponents had a winning percentage of .469.
The Panthers will play six games against teams that made the playoffs this season – New Orleans twice, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Seattle and Cincinnati. But their strength of schedule is diminished by the two NFC South teams that finished 4-12 – Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
“We’re not going to be sneaking up on anybody anymore so we’re going to have to take a big step and find ways to improve,” defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said.
“Last year is good stuff to build on. But it will be a whole new season, a whole new group of guys. It’ll be totally different. You’ve got to do it year by year, but it’s still going to take a lot of hard work.”
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