In 2004, the Carolina Panthers followed up a Super Bowl run with a losing record, finishing four games worse than the year before. After the one-year hangover from the big game, the Panthers bounced back in 2005. They improved their win-loss record by four games, matching the Super Bowl season, and made it to the NFC Championship Game.
The Panthers are hoping history repeats itself this year. After making it back to the Super Bowl with a dominant 15-1 record in 2015, the team plummeted to 6-10 and last place in the NFC South last season.
Carolina opens the season this Sunday at San Francisco. Will the team again be able to show that their post-Super Bowl flop was a fluke? Or will injuries and front office upheaval be too much to overcome?
Here are the questions facing the Panthers as the 2017 season opens. The answers will determine if the dropoff last season was an aberration or the start of a trend.
How is Cam Newton’s shoulder?
The Panthers’ star quarterback had the worst statistical season of his career. It ended with both insult and injury as Newton was first benched for a bizarre dress code violation, then suffered a partially torn rotator cuff.
“Let’s be honest. I’m not going to lie about that. The young man went through a tough time,” coach Ron Rivera said during the offseason.
Newton had surgery to repair the tear in March and missed all of the team’s offseason activities. He played in just one preseason game, throwing two passes, but he and Rivera have both proclaimed him 100 percent back.
“I think he’s ready,” Rivera said. “I do. You wish he had a few more snaps and played a little earlier, so we had more to gauge off of, but what we saw, we really liked. We’re meshing really well as an offense.”
Christian McCaffrey: Star or role player?
The Panthers chose Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. In the preseason, McCaffrey showed that the game-breaking speed that helped him rewrite the record books at Stanford is also more than enough to confound NFL defenders. The question is whether he can hold up to the pounding of an NFL season. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, McCaffrey is 30 pounds lighter than Jonathan Stewart, who has battled injuries throughout his career.
Using McCaffrey as a traditional back will probably result in him becoming a fixture on the injury report. However, if the Panthers’ offensive staff can find creative ways to use his talents while keeping him safe, much the same way they did Newton when he first arrived in the league, it could give Carolina two of the biggest offensive talents in the NFL.
“We’re excited about the running backs,” Rivera said. “I think we’ve got a really good tandem there.”
What about the rest of the offensive overhaul?
Carolina’s offensive line struggled last season, as the mobile Newton got sacked on 6 percent of all pass plays. That ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL. The Panthers brought in Matt Kalil, younger brother of Carolina’s longtime center Ryan, signing the Pro Bowl tackle from the Vikings.
Kalil should shore up the left tackle position, allowing former starter Amini Silatolu to provide experienced depth. The team also used a high draft pick on Taylor Moton, a promising lineman who could eventually take over the right tackle spot.
The Panthers also revamped the wide receiver position. Gone are veterans Ted Ginn and Philly Brown, and Carolina’s opening-week depth chart lists two tight ends instead of a third receiver.
Devin Funchess will need to have a breakout season opposite Kelvin Benjamin. Behind them are free-agent pickup Russell Shepard and rookie Curtis Samuel. A second-round draft pick, Samuel battled injury through much of preseason. Once he saw the field, he showed flashes of the elite speed that excited coaches.
Can the secondary defend the pass?
The Panthers couldn’t come to a contract agreement with cornerback Josh Norman last year, and the All Pro went from franchise player to free agent departure shortly before the 2016 draft. The Panthers appeared to feel his absence all year, as rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley had trials by fire. The Panthers have added veteran support to the secondary, signing former Panther Captain Munnerlyn to back up the second-year starters, as well as two-time Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams.
“We’ve got some young guys that need to step up,” Rivera said of his secondary, “especially at the corner position. But it was a good position for us. Training camp was very competitive. I really like what we got out of those guys.”