Scott Fowler

Greatness, incognito? These Panthers have a real chance to sneak up on the NFL

Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers rolled into training camp Tuesday in Spartanburg appearing fit. “He looked good,” coach Ron Rivera said of the 37-year-old defensive end. “He really did.”
Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers rolled into training camp Tuesday in Spartanburg appearing fit. “He looked good,” coach Ron Rivera said of the 37-year-old defensive end. “He really did.”

The Carolina Panthers – a team that certainly could use some good news – got several small doses of it Tuesday as they reported to training camp.

The news wasn’t controversial. It wasn’t headline-making. It was just the sort of under-the-radar, team-building stuff that translates into wins in September.

Everyone who was supposed to show up did show up, including tight end Greg Olsen and linebacker Thomas Davis. Quarterback Cam Newton looked lean – for him – at 246 pounds after what coach Ron Rivera said was a “tremendous” offseason. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s weight wasn’t divulged, but Rivera said it was where it needs to be. Defensive end Julius Peppers looked way younger than his age.

In other words, life was back to relatively normal after a bizarre week in which team owner Jerry Richardson got fed up and fired general manager Dave Gettleman just before training camp. The Panthers’ digital and social-media folks had been having fun with a “Game of Thrones” pre-training camp theme well before that bloodletting, which did not go unnoticed.

Joked Panthers center Ryan Kalil of the “Game of Thrones” theme on Tuesday: “We obviously took that a little too literally – offing major characters and all.”

Gettleman was a major character for Carolina, certainly, but he has now been replaced by interim general manager Marty Hurney. The Panthers’ true theme this season seems to be that everything is old is new again. Hurney, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and the 37-year-old Peppers have all returned, as have the low expectations that have generally followed the Panthers throughout much of their existence.

USA Today has picked Carolina to finish 7-9 this season and last in the NFC South. Among preseason picks in 2017, that one is fairly standard for these Panthers.

“Weren’t we picked that in 2015 as well?” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday, his eyes dancing. The coach likes to be picked down low – it makes motivating players easier.

‘Shoulders aren’t being weighed down’

Despite the front-office shakeup, Rivera said the mood actually felt “a little bit lighter” now compared to this time a year ago.

“It’s a whole new approach,” Rivera said. “A different attitude. A different atmosphere. ... Shoulders aren’t being weighed down.”

Olsen stood outside the players’ dorm at Wofford almost exactly a year ago – coming off a Super Bowl season in which Carolina had won 17 games – and warned of impending doom if the team couldn’t avoid a Super Bowl hangover. By mid-October 2016, Olsen said, if the Panthers rested on their NFC championship a little they would “find ourselves 1-4 asking, ‘What’s going on?’”

That, in fact, was exactly what happened. The Panthers were 1-4 after five games in 2016 and asking themselves what was going on. They never really figured it out, ending up 6-10.

So this season, the nationwide pundits have forgotten about them again. Teams such as Tennessee or Tampa Bay are supposed to be the hot new version of those 2015, Super-Bowl bound Panthers.

But by my count, Carolina boasts a team that currently fields six of its top 10 players of all time. I am not sure about the Panthers’ depth, but I think Carolina’s first string can compete with anybody.

“We’ve got one mission,” Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess said. “That’s to get to the promised land at the end.”

‘It’s not the team’s fault’

Players like Funchess, Benjamin and Shaq Thompson all need to take another step forward this season. It’s time. Rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel will get all sorts of chances to contribute immediately. (Samuel, in a rather touching scene Tuesday, was dropped off by his mother at Wofford.)

Olsen made sure he didn’t cause any major headlines of his own Tuesday by simply showing up like he was supposed to. He is under contract, after all. He said the “slight chaos” of a week ago, with Gettleman suddenly sent on his way, made him think “it didn’t feel it was right to add fuel to that fire.”

Olsen still wants a new contract, mind you, as does Davis (who is closer to getting one). But the tight end also said he didn’t want to distract his teammates, who had nothing to do with his contract negotiations. Thus, no holdout.

Said Olsen: “It’s not the team’s fault, Cam’s fault or Luke (Kuechly)’s fault. ... This has nothing to do with them, so why penalize them?”

The Panthers still have much work to do in Spartanburg. Newton will be limited in practice and watched like a hawk every day. Shoulder soreness will be a concern after offseason surgery. McCaffrey must be force-fed because he will be essential. I still wonder about both Kuechly’s concussion history and about how well the secondary will hold up.

But these Panthers have a chance to do some great things – if they can just stay healthy, and manage to get out of their own way.