As the Carolina Panthers prepare to open training camp for the 2020 season, the same names are in the headlines yet again. The NFL offseason featured plenty of talk about Ron Rivera and Cam Newton.
Of course, Rivera is now making news up in our nation’s capital, where he is helping to advise ownership on a new name for the Washington-based team. Meanwhile, Newton is even farther north, attempting to make New England Patriot fans forget about Tom Brady … or at least add to the impressive collection of Lombardi Trophies that Brady won up there.
The Panthers promise to have a new look to the roster and new outlook this season. The last remaining core members of the 2015 Super Bowl team are gone. In addition to Rivera and Newton, the team said goodbye to tight end Greg Olsen, who left for Seattle, and linebacker Luke Kuechly, who chose to retire.
New coach Matt Rhule takes over, arriving from Baylor and eager to put his stamp on the team. He set about rebuilding the defense, using every single one of the Panthers’ draft picks on defensive players in an unprecedented approach to personnel.
Another import from the college ranks, former LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady (no relation to Tom), is designing the team’s post-Cam offense.
In hindsight, the wholesale roster turnover couldn’t have been worse timed. With a large group of newcomers and virtually no veteran leaders remaining — as well as a coaching staff inexperienced with the NFL and eager to begin rebuilding the team’s culture — the Panthers have had to hold most of their offseason meetings and workouts remotely due to the coronavirus. According to reports, Rhule has met less than two dozen of his players, the assistants even fewer.
The preseason also promises to have hurdles and setbacks as sports continue to look for ways to operate at some level of normalcy during these abnormal times. As Major League Baseball’s struggles with positive tests and canceled games demonstrate, an outbreak is just a mistake or fluke and some bad luck away.
Here’s a look at the questions swirling around the team as camp opens.
Can they pull it off?
Before getting too deep into the Panthers’ outlook, the key question to consider is whether this season will even get off the ground. After what appeared to be a successful start to the season, baseball ran into problems that threatened to end it four days in. Basketball and hockey still appear to be on schedule to restart. Of course, they haven’t played any games that mattered since mid-March. Football has challenges far tougher than those other sports, with extensive contact in close quarters as a key component of every play.
Even holding practices promises to be a logistical challenge, let alone games, and don’t even begin talking about how many fans to allow in.
Can Rhule make up for lost time?
It’s safe to say this isn’t the first impression Rhule hoped to make on the team. Regardless of how smoothly the Zoom meetings may have gone, it’s not the same as in-person, face-to-face interaction on the practice field and in the locker room, meeting rooms and offices. “College guys” always come with some level of skepticism at the pro level. Rhule and Brady are going to attempt to show they belong about four months later than most other coaches who have tried to make the jump.
Is Teddy Bridgewater up for the job?
The former Vikings starter and most recently a Saints backup is now the man tasked with replacing Newton.
He’s surrounded by plenty of playmakers. Running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the league’s most exciting young players, and Bridgewater will be able to target up-and-coming receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel. The team also added veteran Robby Anderson to the receiving corps.
Of course, a lack of playmakers was never Newton’s problem. It was a lack of protection. The line added Russell Okung but lost Trai Turner. Going from Newton to Bridgewater also costs the team a great deal of elusiveness at the position, which will make protection even more of a priority — and a challenge.
Is the defense fixed? Or at least better?
If improvement is measured in new faces, this might be the most improved defense in NFL history. The interior line should be better, with first-round pick Derrick Brown at one tackle spot and veteran Kawann Short, who missed 14 games to injury last year, returning. The team used its second-round pick on defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, who will need to fill Buffalo-bound Mario Addison’s shoes.
The team also added four defensive backs as it attempts to rebuild the secondary, which never really advanced past the work-in-progress stage in the four post-Super Bowl seasons.
Change always brings pessimism, especially when the change causes the departure of as many long-term franchise cornerstones as this offseason saw. It also brings uncertainty, however. If enough of the questions have positive answers, the ceiling could be high on this team. Or, things could be every bit as bad as fans thought while crying in their drinks during the offseason purge.