Levi’s Stadium will look a lot different Sunday than the last time the Carolina Panthers played in the San Francisco 49ers’ home in Santa Clara, Calif.
There won’t be any two-story banners of Cam Newton hanging outside the stadium, or references to Super Bowl 50 inside it.
Something else that’s been missing this week: Any sentimentality from Panthers’ players about returning to the site of the second Super Bowl appearance in team history.
“Different team, same place,” Panthers tight end Ed Dickson said Wednesday. “Familiar place. But that’s a couple years the other way.”
It’s been 20 months since the Panthers fell to Denver 24-10 in the golden edition of the Super Bowl. Half of the Panthers’ Super Bowl team has turned over, with 26 players remaining on the active roster.
But most of those holdovers had little interest in discussing this week’s return engagement in northern California – except as it related to beating the 49ers and getting off to the fast start that eluded them last season en route to a 6-10 finish.
“You don’t want put yourself in a hole when you have to have to must-wins,” Dickson said. “We break off some of these wins at the beginning and at the end ... every team has a goal of getting to the playoffs and then winning the Super Bowl.”
This storyline came up last season when the Panthers spent a week on the West Coast between games at Oakland and Seattle. Carolina practiced at San Jose State – its Super Bowl practice site – and stayed in a hotel just down the street from Levi’s Stadium.
If Panthers’ players needed closure, the week they spent in the shadow of the Niners’ stadium provided it.
“I think guys have moved on from that. We’ve had the opportunity to do that,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “I think looking back on that and thinking about it would be detrimental to the guys.
“You’re there to play San Francisco the first game of ’17 and it’s not the last game of ’15 against Denver. I’m not worried about it.”
Instead of preparing for Peyton Manning in the final game of his career, the Panthers will meet journeyman quarterback Brian Hoyer in his first start with San Francisco.
Hoyer is 16-15 in parts of five seasons as a starter, including a 1-4 mark last year in Chicago. Hoyer set a Bears record with four consecutive 300-yard passing games before breaking his left arm in an Oct. 20 loss at Green Bay.
“He’s a very veteran quarterback. He’s had some success in this league,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I think he’s a very consistent player. He manages things very well, but he has the ability to win a football game.”
Newton, the Panthers’ seventh-year quarterback, also is coming off surgery – a procedure in March on his partially torn rotator cuff. Newton attempted only two passes during the preseason after the team’s medical staff shut him down when he developed pain in his shoulder.
Rivera said Newton has no limitations, although Rivera would have liked to have gotten Newton preseason repetitions to work on the offense’s timing.
But San Francisco first-year coach Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl team last year, said he has seen enough from Newton over the years to know what to expect.
“I think everyone has a pretty good idea of Cam. Everyone knows how good he is throwing the ball and running the ball. He can make every single throw in the world and he can do it at anytime,” Shanahan said.
“He creates as many issues for a defensive coordinator and a defense in general as any player on the planet. I think we know what Cam’s capable of. We don’t need to see him in preseason to know what he is. He’s earned that respect throughout what he’s done his whole career.”
The lasting image of Newton from Levi’s Stadium was his post-game, podium pout in the bowels of the stadium after the game. But Newton is a lot more upbeat these days: When Rivera was answering a question about Julius Peppers during his media session Wednesday, Newton could be heard in the hallway yelling: “Julius. Oh, Julius!”
Dickson, the only Panthers player with a Super Bowl ring, says the Panthers have shaken off their Super Bowl hangover – no matter where this week’s game happens to be.
“We had our time of grief that offseason to the next year to the first couple games (of 2016). Deep down in our minds, we know we had an opportunity to win that game. We didn’t seize that opportunity,” Dickson said.
“We can’t let it affect us for the next few years. We got even stronger. We got some younger pieces on the team. We’re different.
“A couple guys left and went to different teams. A couple guys came back to this team from years past. We feel like we’re back at full-tilt. Now we’ve got to go out and prove it.”