The Carolina Panthers don’t need more reminders of how close they came to winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl in February, but they’ll be walking into a city full of them this week when they step off the plane in Denver.
The Broncos reportedly are planning to bring out the Lombardi Trophy, bring back retired quarterback Peyton Manning and give their fans another chance to celebrate the Super Bowl 50 victory before Thursday night’s season opener at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Broncos officials are said to be taking steps to stage most of the pregame ceremonies while the Panthers are still in the locker room.
No matter, says Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.
“You already know it’s going to happen,” Kuechly said last week. “It’s not going to make me angry. It is what it is. They won the Super Bowl, so they should do that.”
What the Panthers plan to do is continue following the course set during the offseason by coach Ron Rivera, who sought advice from other coaches on how to avoid the so-called Super Bowl hangover and make another run at a title in 2016.
The most poignant pearl of wisdom came from former Oakland coach John Madden, who guided the Raiders to a Super Bowl victory in 1976 and had them back in the AFC title game the following season.
“You can’t start at the top again,” Madden told Rivera. “You’ve got to start at the bottom with base fundamentals and work your way back up.”
So while the Panthers finished one step short of the Lombardi Trophy in 2015, they’ll have to climb a 16-game set of stairs – and then at least two playoff games – to reach Super Bowl 51 in Houston.
Blocking their path will be the usual divisional rivals, expected NFC contenders Seattle, Arizona and Green Bay, and other unforeseen pitfalls such as injuries, in-fighting and the malaise that has tripped up other teams coming off big years.
“I think everybody understands that this is a new season. It’s a new opportunity and last year’s over,” Kuechly said. “Last year’s been over for a long time.”
Different season, different team
A day after Carolina’s 24-10 loss to Denver at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, oddsmakers installed the Panthers among the early favorites to win Super Bowl 51.
That was a couple of months before Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman pulled the franchise tag from Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, who went to Washington and remains by far the biggest loss from the Super Bowl team.
The Panthers return their seven leading rushers and 11 of their top 12 receivers from the NFL’s highest scoring offense (31.3 ppg) in 2015, with slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery the only departure.
The offensive line returns intact and No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who set the Panthers’ rookie receiving records in 2014, is back after missing last season because of knee surgery.
Also worth noting: Carolina has the reigning league MVP running the offense at quarterback.
No wonder the first question Cam Newton took after an exhibition victory at Nashville two weeks ago was whether the Panthers would win the Super Bowl this season.
“That’s not what I’m worried about right now. I would hope to. But as a team, as a player, as a person that’s trying to get better and master my craft, I don’t think I can answer that question right now,” Newton said.
“I want to and I wish I could have a genie right in front of you to shake it. That would make everybody’s lives easier, right? But that’s not how it works.
“We’ve got guys that come in and coaches that bust their tails to install or implement certain things and it’s not going to change. It’s every single day, each and every week, having a plan and sticking to that plan.”
That plan has involved exterminating even the smallest sign of complacency on the spot, beginning in the spring when Rivera ran the voluntary OTA (organized team activities) practices and mandatory minicamp like a high school coach overseeing two-a-days.
The Panthers made it through training camp in Spartanburg without any major injuries or dustups, other than the almost daily jawing between Newton and linebacker Thomas Davis.
The exhibition results have been a mixed bag, especially for Newton. After looking like a picture of precision during the first two preseason games, he was awful last week against New England with a couple of interceptions and several other poor throws.
No one sounded the alarms at 800 South Mint Street.
“These guys are hungry. You get this close – I don’t see any difference in the work ethic, their approach or anything,” Gettleman said. “Ron and I are very pleased. We’re very encouraged with where they are mentally.”
Remembering the ’85 Bears
Rivera has experienced firsthand the types of internal distractions that can accompany success.
He was a member of the Chicago Bears’ 1985 championship team that featured super-sized personalities such as quarterback Jim McMahon, as well as media and marketing creations such as William “The Refrigerator” Perry and the Super Bowl Shuffle.
Bears coach Mike Ditka has suggested players did too many commercials in subsequent seasons, a charge that players in turn lobbed back at Ditka and his endorsements.
Rivera said the issue wasn’t the players who were asked to do the commercial shoots or promotional posters, but those who were left out.
“The problem was there were too many hurt feelings, in my opinion. I don’t care how many commercials someone did or who was in what poster or who got what interview,” Rivera said. “I think there were some guys that were either jealous or hurt feelings about it more than anything else.”
It wasn’t as though the Bears fell apart in 1986. They went 14-2 during the regular season and might have made a deep postseason run had McMahon not hurt his shoulder when Green Bay defensive lineman Charles Martin body-slammed him to the turf.
Business outside football
It was a busy offseason for Rivera and several of his players. Newton spent much of his time in Los Angeles filming his new Nickelodeon children’s show, and talked about the challenge of finding suitable places to work out between shoots.
Tight end Greg Olsen thinks Panthers players generally restrict their off-the-field pursuits to the offseason.
“A lot of what guys do in February and March doesn’t really have a lot of impact on what happens now,” Olsen said. “I don’t imagine a lot of guys are doing too much this time of year. I think at this point we’re honed in on what we have to do. We’re honed in on practice and preparing ourselves for a long season.
“I don’t really think guys spend much time worrying about those other things.”
Rivera said his team isn’t as “flamboyantly out there” as the free-wheeling Bears.
“This is a group of guys I think understands and gets it and knows how to handle it.”
The last time this happened ...
The only other time the Panthers made the Super Bowl, they failed to maintain the momentum the following season.
Carolina fell an Adam Vinatieri field goal short of beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl in February 2004. Like this year’s team, those Panthers returned mostly intact and were expected to be strong again under John Fox.
The season started ominously, though, when receiver Steve Smith broke his leg during a Week 1 loss to Green Bay, the first of 14 players who would land on injured reserve. The Panthers lost seven of their first eight games, finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
Mike Rucker, a defensive end on those teams, said opponents were gunning for Carolina in 2004 after its success the previous year, and the Panthers didn’t match their intensity until late in the season.
“There’s just a human mindset to relax and say we’ll pick up, we’re good. Because on paper you look and they’re good. But things that happen like against the Patriots, that can happen,” said Rucker, referring to last week’s exhibition loss to New England.
Rucker, part of the Panthers’ preseason broadcast team, was encouraged after the game when he heard players talking about correcting their mistakes – exhibition or not.
“They’ve got a lot of Pro Bowlers. They’ve got a lot of talent on the field,” Rucker said. “But there’s this sense of not resting on what happened in the past. And I like that.”
Out of team’s control
No team can control injuries or off-the-field incidents that can derail a season. Gettleman, formerly the Giants’ pro personnel director, remembers the 2008 Giants rolling with a 10-1 record a year after their 2007 championship, then wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg in a Manhattan nightclub.
The Giants lost three of their final five games and fell to Philadelphia in the divisional round.
The Panthers’ leaders can control the atmosphere in the locker room, though, described by defensive end Jared Allen last season after he arrived in a trade as the best he’d encountered in 12 seasons.
Davis, the longest tenured Panthers player, likes the vibe heading into the Super Bowl rematch at Denver.
“I’m pretty sure everybody’s speaking the same language right now. But it’s all about having the team to do it and being able to put it all together as a football team,” Davis said. “It’s not just going to happen by talking about it or it’s not just going to happen because we made it last year.”
Panthers left tackle Michael Oher and tight end Ed Dickson won Super Bowl rings with Baltimore four seasons ago, then returned the following year and wondered where everyone went.
The Ravens opened the 2013 season missing eight starters, more than any previous Super Bowl winner. The list included defensive leaders Ray Lewis, who retired, and Ed Reed, who signed with Houston in free agency. Baltimore stumbled to an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs.
“When you win a Super Bowl, it looks good for everybody. People get paid, people get taken off the team. We lost the majority of the chemistry of our team,” Dickson said. “The core was still there. But some of the things we couldn’t help but miss. Some linebackers left, a couple guys retired. It was different. It was a different feel. We hit a patch of people being hurt and it just wasn’t the same.”
There’s been more roster stability with the Panthers, who lost four starters – all on defense – from the 2015 team that won its first 14 games and finished the regular season 15-1.
Allen and cornerback Charles Tillman retired, safety Roman Harper signed with the Saints and Norman landed in Washington with a five-year, $75 million contract after failing to come to terms with the Panthers.
A few other part-time players were not retained, but the core remains intact.
“We didn’t lose that much,” Dickson said. “But we can’t say every season’s the same. We can’t say, ‘OK, just because we won 15 games last year, we’re going to win 15 games this year.’ That’s not how it goes.”
A new chemistry
Oher said having the same players in the locker room doesn’t mean the chemistry will necessarily be the same.
“You can have the same guys back. But football is a totally different sport,” Oher said. “It’s not like basketball, baseball, things like that. Year in and year out, you’ve got to prove yourself and you’ve got to build new things. You can have the same guys, but you’ve got to build new things.”
That building began during the offseason when Rivera – on the advice of Madden – closed the books on 2015 and started anew.
Second-year linebacker Shaq Thompson said he turned the page on last season after receiving his NFC championship ring during a ceremony at Bank of America Stadium in June.
Kuechly has yet to wear his ring, which he keeps at home. It’s not the one he wants.
“You know how it tastes now and I think that’s something that you won’t forget. ... But you go out there to win. You don’t go out to come in second place,” Kuechly said.
“No one ever talks about the team that lost in the Super Bowl. You want to be the team that won.”