Will the Carolina Panthers be able to challenge the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC South championship this season?
Well, it seems that the NBC “Sunday Night Football” broadcasting team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth is split on the subject. Speaking on a media conference call Tuesday afternoon, Michaels was pretty quick to say the new-look Panthers could do it. Collinsworth, also asked to offer an opinion on Cam Newton and his surgically repaired shoulder, took an opposing view.
“I’ll say yes” the Panthers can catch Atlanta in the NFC South this season, he said. “Two years ago, they were great and almost ran the table. But again, how healthy is Cam? Is he 100 percent? Can Cam be Cam? (Christian) McCaffrey will be very exciting to watch. They’re a terrifically coached team as well. I have a great deal of respect for Ron Rivera and his staff, and I feel there’s very little doubt they should be right in the mix.”
Collinsworth noted that after a 15-1 season in 2015 that ended in a Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers backtracked to 6-10 in 2016.
“I thought that was a pretty big fall,” Collinsworth said. “Now, they’re bringing in some new-look offensive (linemen). I can’t really wait to see what this is going to look like with McCaffrey in there and what does it mean for Cam. Is it a little more of the quick passing game? Are we going to see the same number of runs?
“He’s been such a force down at the goal line over the years. Will he continue to be that, or is he going to be, now coming off the shoulder stuff, be a guy who will sit in the pocket? And we’ve seen other guys try and evolve and become that. And we have to see if this defense can be dominant again. There was that major changeover in the secondary a season ago and bringing back Julius Peppers will be kind of fun to watch.”
But ultimately, Collinsworth doesn’t share Michaels’ view of Carolina’s future.
“Do I think they’re going to catch Atlanta?” he said. “My gut is no. For all the talk of domination with what we saw about the New England Patriots in this off-season, it sure didn’t feel that way when it was 28-3 (Atlanta over New England in the Super Bowl last February before the Patriots rallied to win) and we’re all sitting around going, ‘Oh my goodness. What is this? Is Atlanta one of the truly super teams? Is this possibly a dynasty, watching them destroy the Patriots and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in this way? So it’s hard to not think the Atlanta Falcons are going to bounce right back with what they’ve got on that team. Of course we said that about Carolina the year before.”
▪ I asked Collinsworth for additional thoughts on Newton, and whether he felt Newton could successfully make the change in Rivera’s “evolved” offense to run less, throw short more.
“It’s a big transition,” Collinsworth said. “Instead of running, now he has to hit that throw consistently in the flat and hit that swing pass consistently to keep those drives alive. Clearly, that’s what they’re trying to get done, and they have to protect him. (New left tackle) Matt Kalil has a big job this year. They have to be better on the outside, and hopefully they’re healthy on the outside with some of those receivers. It’s not an automatic, ‘Yeah for sure (Newton can transition).’ ... Cam is such a force running the ball, and it’s almost hard to believe that when the game is on the line, that instinct is not going to take over.”