The last time the Carolina Panthers played at Bank of America Stadium, they were coming off a 12-win regular season. The biggest worry? The status of receiver Steve Smith’s knee for the playoff game against San Francisco.
But since the final seconds of the first half of the Jan. 12 divisional-round game, when tight end Vernon Davis gave the 49ers a lead they did not relinquish, the news has been mostly bad.
Quarterback Cam Newton had offseason ankle surgery, then injured his ribs in the next-to-last exhibition against New England.
Smith, Carolina’s all-time receiving leader, was cut as part of a receiving rebuild that saw three others leave in free agency.
Defensive end Greg Hardy, given the franchise tag during the offseason, has a jury trial pending in appeals court after a judge found him guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend during an altercation at Hardy’s uptown condo in May.
The ugly details from Hardy’s case were rehashed this past week in the wake of former Baltimore running back Ray Rice’s release and indefinite suspension. Many media outlets called for the Panthers to take action against Hardy, who has not been disciplined by the league or the team.
Despite the offseason turmoil and this week’s distractions, a win against the Lions would give the Panthers their first 2-0 start since 2008, which was also the last time they won their opener.
Newton is expected to start after missing the Week 1 win at Tampa Bay. Hardy also will start, according to Rivera.
The Panthers will be trying to follow the BaltimoreRavens’ lead. After one of the more unsettling weeks in their history, they hammered Pittsburgh 26-6 on Thursday, three days after the world saw the TMZ video of Rice knocking out his then-fiancée.
Friday, Rivera said Smith’s comments after the Ravens’ win were on the mark.
“I think Steve Smith said it very well: ‘We’re professional football players, and we understand the serious nature of the situation. But we were able to compartmentalize it and focus in on what we had to do,’ ” Rivera said.
Smith had the only Panthers touchdown in the 23-10 loss to San Francisco in the playoffs – a 31-yard catch from Newton early in the second quarter. It turned out to be Smith’s next-to-last catch as a Panther: After a 9-yard reception, Smith was shut out over the final two-and-a-half quarters.
His release sent shockwaves through the team’s fan base and was accompanied by the departures of receivers Ted Ginn, Brandon LaFell and Dominik Hixon in free agency. Defensive backs Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn also received more lucrative offers to sign elsewhere.
“We couldn’t keep everybody. Our (salary) cap situation, we had to make some very tough and difficult decisions,” Rivera said. “That’s the one thing a lot of people don’t understand is every decision that was made was cap-driven. That’s the unfortunate part because you’re looking to build. So we made some decisions.”
The biggest decision the Panthers made was to tap into a deep group of receivers in the draft to find a No. 1 wideout they could pair with Newton for years to come. It turned out to be Kelvin Benjamin, who followed a strong preseason with a six-catch performance in his debut last week at Tampa Bay.
The Panthers brought in veteran wideouts Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant as much for their locker room leadership as their play-making abilities.
“We knew we were going to have to draft a wide receiver. But we also felt if we could find some quality guys to be able to put around this new wide receiver, we could be OK,” Rivera said. “And we did. We found two guys that fit that bill, two guys that are consummate pros. Cotch and Avant are two guys that do so many things for us, not just out on the field. There’s more to what they do.”
The Panthers decided to stay in-house to fill the void at left tackle, with Byron Bell following the retirement of Jordan Gross in February.
Defensively, general manager Dave Gettleman remade the secondary for the second year in a row, signing veteran safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Antoine Cason, a former first-round pick who played under Rivera in San Diego.
“We got rid of some guys and brought in new guys. But I think as a whole we’re a closer team, and that’s really all that matters,” backup quarterback Derek Anderson said.
“Some things people didn’t agree with, and publicly people didn’t understand it. But there were some things that had to happen, they did and we all moved on. I thought we had a great spring, camp was good and we got off to a good start last week.”
A successful start
Anderson led the Panthers to a 20-14 victory in the season opener, while Newton missed the first game of his NFL career. Newton was not happy about sitting, but Rivera said the team’s medical staff convinced him that one week would make a difference in allowing Newton’s ribs to heal.
Newton practiced all week and is officially listed as probable on the injury report. But Rivera said he has “no doubt” Newton will play against the Lions.
Newton, who will wear a flak vest to protect his ribs, expressed frustration this week that his ankle is still less than 100 percent. But he said he doesn’t plan to think about his ribs or his ankle Sunday.
“If you’re thinking, you’re wrong automatically,” Newton said. “The thing that makes the great players great, and separates players from different players is, when you go out there being prepared or not, you have to react. If you’re thinking, you’re already a step behind. ... If I’m so gun-shy in the pocket and not worried about the receivers that are flying or open downfield, something’s going to happen that’s not going to get the job done.”
Newton said he has confidence in his offensive line, which allowed Anderson to be sacked only once last week.
Rivera shares Newton’s faith in the front five. Answering a question about the Panthers’ offseason moves Friday, Rivera talked excitedly for more than two minutes about the team’s young linemen, beginning with Bell.
“Trying to replace your left tackle was hard,” Rivera said. “But there was a confidence that Byron Bell might be able to do the job and so far, knock on wood, he’s passed that first test.”
Bell did not allow a sack against the Bucs during his first start on the left side after three seasons at right tackle. Pro Football Focus gave Bell a perfect score in pass blocking efficiency for Week 1, tied with D.J. Fluker, Ryan Clady, Chris Clark and Joe Thomas for first among tackles with at least 35 pass blocking snaps.
The defense played well against the Bucs before getting too soft in its coverage and scheme after the Panthers led 17-0.
With middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, anchoring a front seven that returned intact, the Panthers’ defensive players have high expectations after finishing No. 2 in total defense last season behind Seattle.
“Our standards are very high. We’re not satisfied with what happened. We want to be the best defense in the National Football League,” defensive back Charles Godfrey said. “We came up short of that last year, and that is our goal. We’re going to do whatever it takes. And we feel we have to improve every week in order to get that done.”
A tough week
Rivera admitted this was a tough week for the Panthers’ players, who faced as many questions about Hardy and domestic violence as they did about the Lions’ personnel.
“They want to talk about football. They want to talk about who they’re playing against. They want to talk about themselves,” Rivera said. “They want to see their pictures in the paper doing good things. That’s the truth of the matter. It’s hard. It really is. And as a coach, you want your guys to be able to focus in on what they have to do.”
Ryan Kalil, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl center, said the amount of preparation that goes into an NFL regular-season work week makes it necessary to try to block out distractions. That bunker mentality is more difficult to maintain in the age of social media and a 24-hour news cycle.
“Doing what we do takes immense focus and energy to do it the best we can, so regardless of what the issues are internally (or) externally, we have to do our job,” Kalil said. “It’s hard. It’s a hard job. So I think for us it’s a matter of bringing guys together, staying focused, knowing when the right time is to speak up and when it’s not.”
Strong safety Roman Harper knows all about dealing with distractions. Harper played through the Bountygate scandal that rocked the New Orleans Saints’ organization several years ago.
Harper and Godfrey said closing ranks in the midst of controversy or adversity can make a team closer.
“The biggest thing is coming together and understanding what we’ve got to get accomplished. ... It’s all about winning and coming together, do whatever it takes. You can’t let anything else bother you or distract you,” said Harper, who joined the Panthers during the offseason.
“I’ve got distractions at home. I’ve got a fiancée, two kids. I get bothered all the time,” Harper added. “But I’ve still got to find time to do what I need to do workwise and get it done and show up, because at the end of the day nobody cares.”