I annually predict the Carolina Panthers’ record, and last season I let you down when I failed to anticipate their Week 6 tie with Cincinnati.
Because of the tie, the Panthers went 7-8-1. I had them going 8-8.
It won’t happen again.
As Ron Rivera walked off the field after practice a few weeks ago he said that when he became Carolina’s head coach he wanted to do two things for quarterback Cam Newton. He wanted to offer him protection and playmakers.
What was true in 2011 remains true in 2015. The Panthers have to give Newton time to throw and Jonathan Stewart and the other backs room to move. Newton also needs playmakers. He needs receivers who can get open deep. He needs receivers who can turn a slant or a short pass into a long gain. He needs receivers he trusts in the end zone. He needs receivers who hang onto his passes.
The Panthers took a big hit when they lost their top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to a torn ACL in training camp. Devin Funchess, their second-round pick out of Michigan, is 6-foot-4, only an inch shorter than Benjamin. By the end of the season, the Panthers would like him to emerge as their best wide receiver.
Newton has tight end Greg Olsen, who consistently gets open and makes catches. Tight end Ed Dickson, who spent most of last season as a blocker after the injury to fullback Mike Tolbert, will be freer to run routes this season.
That’s not enough. Another receiver has to emerge. Corey Brown has had a terrible time in exhibitions, dropping more balls than he caught. The man can get open.
Ted Ginn Jr. could be outstanding. The fastest player on almost every field he steps, Ginn has caught 11 touchdown passes in eight NFL seasons. Five came with the Panthers in 2013. He fits. Receivers coach Ricky Proehl makes certain of it.
The defense again will be one of the league’s best.
The concern is offense. Despite the $100 million contract Newton signed, he’ll continue to run. Or maybe he’ll run because of it. He’s often a more successful quarterback when he moves, like a basketball player who shoots better when he moves without the ball.
The contract won’t change Newton’s game. It will change the way some of us perceive him.
His game will change because this is his fifth season. I suspect Newton will become more adept at throwing on the run, rather than keeping the ball, and that he will stop locking onto his receiver of choice.
The Panthers, too, will continue to run. They won their final four regular season games and beat Arizona in the playoffs in part because they ran successfully. During the streak, Stewart had games with 155, 123 and 122 rushing yards.
Under Rivera the Panthers have gone 1-3, 1-3, 1-3 and, last season, 2-2 in their first four games. The slow starts have to stop. They’ll likely be favored in their first four games. I see 3-1 or even 4-0.
Seeing the perfection I almost achieved last season with my 8-8 pick, Scott Fowler picks the Panthers this season to go a convenient 8-8. Based on what we saw from starters in exhibition games, 8-8 is generous.
I judge the Panthers by what I saw in camp, by the talent they’ve quietly gathered and by the manner in which they finished last season. Resilience matters.
I see the Panthers going 10-6, same as New Orleans, and I see them in the playoffs again.
Contact Tom Sorensen at 704-358-5119 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @tomsorensen.