No one took out any full-page ads in this newspaper mentioning the Super Bowl.
The longest-tenured player on the team wouldn’t go so far as to call the Panthers the team to beat in the NFC South.
But there’s a quiet confidence around veteran linebacker Thomas Davis and his teammates as they report to training camp Thursday as the two-time reigning division titlists.
The franchise quarterback is under contract through 2020, the middle linebacker and former defensive player of the year soon will join him, and general manager Dave Gettleman has surrounded Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly with a fair share of playmakers.
As he looks around at the returning players and new acquisitions, such as cornerback Charles Tillman and left tackle Michael Oher, Davis sees more talent than the previous two seasons.
“No question, without a doubt. I definitely feel like we have a better team right now than we did the last two years that we won our division,” Davis said last week.
“With all of that said, it’s really all about the work we’re going to put in during this period. Guys have to commit themselves to the ultimate goal, and that’s to win the Super Bowl. If we get everyone locked in on the same page for that goal, I definitely think we can accomplish it.”
The Panthers check into Wofford’s dorms Thursday and will practice for the first time Friday evening at Gibbs Stadium.
Coach Ron Rivera will start camp with a heavy heart. His older brother Mickey died this week after a nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Rivera is expected to be in Spartanburg on Thursday for the start of camp, but he will be leaving for his brother’s funeral.
At a charity golf event last week in Charlotte, Rivera was asked about the importance of getting off to a fast start.
His first three Panthers teams started 1-5, 1-6 and 1-3. Carolina was 3-2 after five games last season before a seven-game winless stretch threatened to destroy its playoff hopes.
After a youth movement injected enthusiasm and speed into the receiving corps and secondary, the Panthers rallied to win their final four regular-season games to earn the first consecutive playoff berths in franchise history.
Former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, one of Rivera’s mentors, advised Rivera not to get caught up in the talk of getting out of the gate quickly.
“John Madden told me, ‘You put so much emphasis on starting fast, what happens once you get past your first four?’” Rivera said last week. “So it’s really not just about starting fast, but playing hard and finishing strong.”
Davis, entering his 11th season, offered a perspective similar to Rivera’s.
“We’ve proven that we can finish a season since coach Rivera has been here,” Davis said. “It’s all about starting fast and maintaining and finishing faster than we started.”
The Panthers will hold 14 practices at Wofford, including two joint sessions with the Miami Dolphins, before camp wraps up Aug. 20.
Rivera said he didn’t schedule the practices with the Dolphins with an eye on starting fast but to break the monotony of camp and to get a gauge on where his team stands.
Davis said it would be easy to get a read on which players have been working out and those who took it easy during the six-week break.
The Spartanburg heat and humidity will find you.
“That’s one of the things you cannot hide,” Davis said. “When you come to training camp, everybody’s going to know what you’ve been doing. We’re going to know if you’ve been working or not.
“It’s unfortunate that you have some guys that do show up like that, but at the same time it allows you to see who’s out of shape and who hasn’t been working like they need to. And they still have time to get it right before the season starts.”
The Panthers’ season will start Sept. 13 at Jacksonville, their expansion partners in 1995. They’ll lug a 7-13 record in openers, a .350 Week 1 winning percentage that is the league’s worst.
A lot will happen during the five-plus weeks between dorm check-ins and the trip to Jacksonville. In every NFL camp, there will be injuries, surprise cuts and moves up and down the depth chart.
But the team’s elder statesman likes the Panthers’ starting point.
“I don’t want to sit here and say we’re the team to beat,” Davis said. “But we are the defending champion.”