With the opening of training camp set for Friday, July 26, this year’s version of the Carolina Panthers has a lot of intrigue. This has been called a crucial season for Coach Ron Rivera (13-19 after two seasons). There are issues with leadership…issues with the running game…and issues with the offense to name three.
For me, the biggest issue is what the Panthers will do on offense now that Mike Shula is the new coordinator. Rivera realized when former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left for Cleveland, he had a tough decision to make. He interviewed two candidates with head-coaching experience – Pat Shurmur and Hue Jackson. In the end, he decided to stay in-house and promote Shula.
Last season, Shula worked well with quarterback Cam Newton (as the quarterbacks coach), but he has not called plays since he was with Tampa Bay. New quarterbacks coach, Ken Dorsey, tutored Newton at IMG during the 2011 lockout and, as an advance scout for the Panthers, met with him each Monday during the season to discuss the upcoming opponent.
The second issue I see as crucial is Cam Newton and his leadership abilities. Newton was the top overall draft selection in 2011, and while he has certainly been better than many critics felt he would be, he needs to mature. He did an adequate job with the read-option offense run last season, but Shula will be getting away from that. Too often last season, Newton’s body language was terrible. The conference is absolutely loaded with top-line quarterbacks, led by New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. If the Panthers are going to get over those two teams, Newton needs to not only be a better quarterback…make smart decisions…but show his teammates that one bad play is just not going to do anything to his confidence. Last year everyone saw him on the bench, sulking. Yes, I said it. I think he has all the ability in the world to be outstanding, but when he made a mistake (and he did…and will), deal with it and get your teammates back up.
The third issue is see is the health of two players who could be keys for the success of the Panthers. Linebacker Jon Beason has already been shut down. He missed all but five games since signing a big contract extension two years ago. The Panthers plan to be very careful with Beason in preseason in order to be ready for Week 1 and the Seattle Seahawks. Running back Jonathan Stewart played nine games last year and underwent offseason surgery on both ankles. The Panthers have already announced he will be very limited in the preseason.
I always enjoy going to camp to see the individual battles going on between players. Last year, it was the punter and placekicker battles that I enjoyed most. This year, there are several position battles to watch. More on that in my next report following Friday’s opening of camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.