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Carolina Panthers, ‘Riverboat Ron’ Rivera look to double down on playoff berths

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David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
Coach Ron Rivera, left, and general manager Dave Gettleman realize the Panthers have never had back-to-back winning seasons. “We have an opportunity to make some headway,” Rivera said.

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At the Carolina Panthers’ first meeting at training camp at Wofford, coach Ron Rivera spoke with his players about the first 19 years of the team’s existence.

It was part history lesson, part pep talk – although the history part probably wasn’t necessary except for the rookies and a few of the new guys.

For returning players who were a part of the Panthers’ worst-to-first turnaround in 2013, all they’d heard since earning the team’s first postseason berth in four years was why they wouldn’t do it again.

Before the Panthers suited up for their playoff game against San Francisco in January, they’d already been told that no NFC South team has ever repeated as champion since the NFL’s realignment in 2002.

For the Panthers, they face a double dose of bad historical karma.

In addition to the NFC South jinx, the Panthers have never posted back-to-back winning seasons.

“I told the players that,” Rivera said. “We have an opportunity to make some headway. We have an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been accomplished, and I’d like to see us do it.

“I told them if you want to listen to what the naysayers have to say, that’s fine. But the reasons they say we can’t do it is because nobody’s ever done it. So let’s find out.”

There are other reasons many are predicting the Panthers to take a step back. Among them: Cam Newton’s surgically repaired left ankle and his rebuilt receiving corps, the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross and a gutted secondary.

And while Steve Smith is not around to chastise media members who question the Panthers’ credentials, Rivera and his players believe there’s enough talent to return to the playoffs.

They’ll try to reverse the trend in a division that features two of the league’s top quarterbacks in Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and New Orleans’ Drew Brees, and a Tampa Bay team with a new coach in Lovie Smith and several high-impact free agents.

‘We’re going to do what we do’

Any buzz the Panthers created during free agency was for the release of Smith and the moves general manager Dave Gettleman didn’t make.

Gettleman was criticized for his handling of Smith, whose first hint he might be cut came through the media. Besides parting ways with the mercurial receiver, whose production was in decline, the Panthers chose not to re-sign several key free agents in the receiving corps and secondary.

The Panthers’ tight salary cap position limited Gettleman in free agency, although he signed kicker Graham Gano to a four-year, $12.4 million extension and put the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy at $13.1 million for this season.

The salary cap situation improves in 2015 and 2016, when the Panthers’ two cornerstones – quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly – are due for big extensions.

But Gettleman bristles at the notion the Panthers made moves with an eye on the future at the expense of this season.

“How could somebody say that? We kept the entire front seven together, franchised Hardy,” said Gettleman, the former Giants’ pro personnel director in his second year with Carolina. “I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have been around enough winners to see how they’re built. ... We’re building this the way Ron and I believe in.”

That means big bodies along both lines, with a commitment to the running game on offense and a reliance on a strong pass rush defensively.

The Panthers’ offense wasn’t flashy during Mike Shula’s first season as coordinator, but it was effective. Carolina controlled the clock, kept the defense off the field and mixed in the occasional big play from receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who’s now in Arizona.

Rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin looks like a star in the making, a 6-5, 240-pound hog molly – to borrow Gettleman’s term – in a receiver’s body. The first-round pick from Florida State could be staring at a lot of double coverage if veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant don’t stretch the field.

But Rivera is more concerned about the running game. The Panthers might have a group of proven and high-paid backs with nowhere to run.

The line didn’t exactly blow opponents back during the exhibition season, and the zone read could be rendered ineffective if defenses don’t view Newton as a threat after his ankle surgery.

Rivera and Newton say they’re not going to change their approach.

“Talking to (Shula) and knowing how he’s felt about Cam, we’re going to do what we do,” Rivera said.

Staying healthy a key

The key defensively will be keeping Kuechly healthy and replicating last year’s pass rush. The Panthers led the league with a team-record 60 sacks in 2013, when their front four’s ability to get to the quarterback took a lot of the pressure off a pieced-together secondary.

With Hardy finishing with 15 sacks and Kuechly and outside linebacker Thomas Davis combining for an average of 17 tackles a game, the Panthers were the NFL’s second-best defense behind Super Bowl-champion Seattle.

“That’s not going to win us any games. No one’s going to feel sorry for us or spot us any points, coming out up 7-0 or 10-0 because we won our division last year. The NFL is a league of parity, and every year is a different year,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said.

“You look at your schedule, and if you sit there and say, after the first month, the second month, we should be this-and-this, you’re going to set yourself up for failure because every team has a chance to win. It’s just a matter who can stay healthy, who can come together and stay together.”

The defense’s health has been an issue. Defensive end Charles Johnson played in only one exhibition because of a lingering hamstring injury, strong safety Roman Harper missed most of training camp with turf toe and Kuechly hyperextended his right thumb against Kansas City on Aug. 17.

Kuechly’s injury is not considered serious, which is a good thing: Losing the reigning Defensive Player of the Year for any length of time would be crippling. The same goes for Newton.

“He is a huge piece of this, but so is Luke,” Rivera said. “We’re fortunate. We’ve been able to put together what we look at and say, these are our two faces – offense and defense.”

Rivera isn’t worried about Kuechly’s thumb, and he’s confident Newton’s ribs will be healed enough for him to play Week 1 at Tampa Bay.

But injuries to a couple of the rookies and young starters have Rivera concerned. The two players expected to hold down the right side of the offensive line – rookie guard Trai Turner and tackle Nate Chandler – each missed at least one exhibition because of injury.

“Just the little knick-knack things are hard to deal with because we don’t have that type of veteran depth that we had in the past,” Rivera said. “We’re relying on a lot of young guys and a lot of new guys.”

A high-powered division

Among the new guys are two safeties who have spent their entire career in the NFC South. Harper and Thomas DeCoud combined for nine playoff appearances and three Pro Bowl berths while with New Orleans and Atlanta, respectively.

Both are coming off disappointing 2013 seasons. Harper was sidetracked by a knee injury; DeCoud was part of a Falcons’ defense that underperformed after a spate of injuries.

Harper and DeCoud pointed to parity within the division as the reason no NFC South team has won back-to-back titles. Hardy compared it to playing in college football’s toughest conference.

“It’s kind of like the SEC. It’s a lot of high-powered teams, man,” said Hardy, who played at Mississippi. “It’s a lot of ability to be good every year in and out. You have two of the best quarterbacks in the game (in Newton and Brees), at least up there in the top 10. And Matty Ice (Atlanta’s Matt Ryan) could be No. 3.”

The Panthers open the season with a divisional rival at Tampa Bay, looking to avoid the slow starts that have been a problem for Rivera and threatened to bury him last year before the Panthers climbed out of a 1-3 hole.

Rivera’s decision to get more aggressive and go for a couple of fourth downs in a Week 6 win at Minnesota kick-started an eight-game winning streak and earned him the “Riverboat Ron” nickname.

Rivera won Coach of the Year honors and received a three-year contract extension after the Panthers’ 12-win season.

With Rivera under contract through 2017 and a number of their top players entering their prime, Gettleman doesn’t want the Panthers to be a one-year wonder.

“The way the league’s designed, anybody can jump up and do it one year. You’ve seen it a million times. A team jumps up, they’re 10-6, 11-5, they go to the playoffs,” Gettleman said. “There’s only two teams that have been in the playoffs the last five years – Green Bay and the Patriots. So it’s not easy.

“But sustained success is something you shoot for. ... That’s what we’re working for. We’re here for one reason – win.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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