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Was last year a fluke for Panthers? Training camp won't lie

Summer ended Thursday. Summer ends when the Carolina Panthers begin training camp.

Based on what I read and hear, fall will be more than a time of year for the Panthers. The defending NFC South champs are expected to slip back to their customary place near the bottom of the standings. Last season’s NFC South title apparently was a rental.

Some of the prognosticators are informed and some are not and some try to attract attention by being different. Easy way to be different: Pick the Panthers to win more than half their games.

The theory is NFC South neighbors Atlanta and Tampa Bay will improve mightily and New Orleans again will contend.

The Falcons should improve. They were 4-12 last season, when they were among the league leaders in injuries. They have a new strategy this season and will attempt to protect quarterback Matt Ryan.

The 4-12 Buccaneers also have a new strategy. They hired an adult to be their head coach.

New Orleans’ offense is a perpetual fastbreak, and there will come a time when it will cease to work. But why now? The 11-5 Saints scored 48 more points last season then the Panthers. They gave up 63 more. If they had Carolina’s defense, they would rule the world.

The Panthers went 5-1 against Atlanta, Tampa Bay and New Orleans, losing to the Saints in a blowout on the road.

The conference should improve. But the NFL doesn’t always do what it should. Ask the Washington Redskins.

The Panthers won the division last season because they won close games. The more they won the close ones, the more they expected to.

Carolina lost its opener by 5 points to Seattle and in Week 2 by a point to Buffalo.

After Sept. 15, the Panthers played five games determined by 4 points or less and won them all.

If the Panthers again play with similar poise, they’ll be fine.

The decision makers in the organization I talk to are not concerned about their wide receivers. Of course they’ll miss Steve Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. But tight end Greg Olsen is back and he’ll be joined by several capable veterans and rookies. The player who impresses me is quick and unheralded Taquan Underwood. Man can move.

In turn, these same people are concerned about the offensive line.

Look, we all know how important left tackle is. Left tackle is more than a position. It’s a title. Starting left tackle walks down the street and a trumpet blows and a carpet unfurls and somebody shouts: “Make way!”

Maybe the starting left tackle is Byron Bell. Maybe it’s Nate Chandler. The Panthers don’t know. They can’t know.

A team sometimes doesn’t. The Panthers decided one season that inexperienced Matt Moore would be their quarterback. I asked two of Moore’s employers how they knew Moore was good enough to start. They said they didn’t.

Think of your business, whatever it is. People get promoted. Do you know they’ll make it? Businesses guess. Football teams guess. Moore had moments, but he was not a starting NFL quarterback. Bell and Chandler might not be starting NFL left tackles.

Almost everybody is flawed in July. This is what training camp is for. Develop a starter or find one.

Carolina’s defense ought to again be superb. Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was outstanding and fellow rookie defensive tackle Kawaan Short improved enormously the last six weeks of the season. Why wouldn’t they continue to improve?

The formula will be the same. On defense attack, on offense move the ball in small steps and on Sunday win 20-16.

It’s too early to predict Carolina’s record. Predicting a record before camp is like telling somebody how good your summer was – in May.

We need to see how the free agents and rookies assimilate and which veterans improved and which failed to. Anybody know last July how good Lotulelei and Ginn would be?

Training camp, which had a soft opening in Charlotte on Thursday, begins in Spartanburg on Saturday and ends Aug. 12.

Camp tells no lies.

Was last season a beautiful aberration or the truth?

Let’s go find out.