Mike Tolbert kept up with the NFL during the offseason – with the exception of the Denver Broncos.
And as Tolbert checked out the landscape of the league in the months following the Panthers’ Super Bowl loss to Denver, the Carolina fullback didn’t notice anyone in the NFC that can hang with the Panthers.
A few minutes after checking into Wofford dorm room Wednesday morning, Tolbert was asked whether the Panthers were still the team to beat in the conference.
“I don’t see why we wouldn’t be,” Tolbert said. “We’re returning a lot of starters. We’ve got a lot of great players. Obviously, we’re missing one. But we’ve got some young guys that are going to come in and make up for it. And we’ll be good.”
The missing player of course is cornerback Josh Norman, whose fruitless contract negotiations ended with the Panthers pulling his franchise tag in April. Norman signed a five-year, $75 million deal with Washington and the Panthers received $14 million in cap savings, some of which they used this week to sign strong safety Kurt Coleman to a three-year extension.
“How about my man, Kurt Coleman?” Tolbert said without prompting. “That’s my guy. Goodness. I think he might take us to dinner tonight, too.”
As Panthers players filed into Shipp Hall after checking in for the start of training camp, the defense of their NFC crown began in earnest.
Players endured organized team activities and a couple of minicamps during the spring. But the 14 practices over the next three weeks in the Spartanburg swelter will shape the team that Ron Rivera will take to Denver on Sept. 8 for the Super Bowl rematch that kicks off the NFL season.
Turn the page
There are Panthers players who still haven’t brought themselves to watch the 24-10 loss to the Broncos in its entirety. Tolbert took it one step further.
“I still change the channel when I see anything Denver come on NFL Network,” he said.
Presumably, Tolbert is aware that Peyton Manning has retired and Von Miller has re-signed with the Broncos.
But most in the Panthers organization are ready to move on from Super Bowl 50. The phrase, “turn the page,” was being tossed around a lot Wednesday by media members.
Second-year linebacker Shaq Thompson said he closed the book on 2015 in June after Panthers received their NFC championship rings.
“We turned the page when we had that little ceremony where everyone got their rings,” Thompson said. “That’s over and done with. Last season is done. It’s out. It’s a new beginning, new year, new season.”
Tolbert isn’t quite there yet.
“I’m going on year No. 9, (Thompson) is going on year No. 2. So I know those moments are precious,” Tolbert said. “So I cherish every moment that I’ve had. It’s something that we want to get back to. It’s doesn’t happen often. But we want to make a shot at it.”
Rivera spent much of the OTAs and minicamps trying to nip any sign of complacency in the bud. He’s brought the same message to Spartanburg, saying everyone has to raise their standard to a championship caliber.
“My perceptions, the coaches’ perception, the players’ perception on what’s good enough has to change. It has to develop. It has to be more forward-thinking,” Rivera said. “The thing that we don’t want to do is be complacent and think that we can just show up.”
It’s been 23 years since a Super Bowl loser had a shot at the Lombardi Trophy the following season. The 1993 Buffalo Bills returned to – and lost – the Super Bowl for a fourth consecutive season. But besides those Bills teams, only two others – the 1987 Broncos and 1974 Vikings – made it back to the Super Bowl a season after losing it.
“It’s human nature. I think everyone just assumes, ‘Hey, you’ve got the same guys back. Why would it be any different?’” tight end Greg Olsen said. “And I think the answer is every game is different. Every season is different. Every season has its own history, its own storyline.”
The Panthers have bucked history in recent years, becoming the first team to win the NFC South three years in a row (no one had done it two seasons in a row before Carolina). So Tolbert isn’t too concerned about the 23-year drought involving Super Bowl losers.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Tolbert said. “Nobody ever said that the NFC South can be won twice, let (alone) three times in a row. Just be ourselves and keep doing what we’re doing and just give ourselves an opportunity.”
Panthers practice schedule
At Wofford College in Spartanburg
NOTE: Times subject to change; **—Fan Fest at Bank of America Stadium, ticket required