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NFL Preview: Will the Real Panthers Please Stand Up?

 
TSP Andrew:  I know what you're thinking…this isn't Bobcats.  It's OK though.  Technically we're in the offseason now.  I might add that we're in an offseason where our Charlotte Bobcats have made some of the best moves in this team's history with the drafting of Cody Zeller, free agent signing of Al Jefferson, and re-signing Gerald Henderson…but I digress.  This article is about the Carolina Panthers.  We have been thinking about expanding things here, and let's call this a dry run.  We want to see how many hits other articles about North Carolina sports may get.  We even had a volunteer to help us out.  Michael McNulty, take it away…
 
Sure, Trade Street Post is typically a Bobcats blog (and concerned about things like how the young talent looks at the NBA's Summer League), but we figure it's fine to check out what the Panthers are up to over in the NFL.
 
In other words, what does this new year have in store?
 
At points last season, harsh words such as "careless" and "erratic" were being thrown around when talking about Cam Newton. That was a script no one was prepared for. 
  
After entering the league with with over 4,000 yards passing in 2011, Newton saw his passing yards and touchdown totals drop, while his fumbles doubled. To be fair, his season still showed flashes of brilliance, but an uneven sophomore year became a metaphor for the Panthers' team. Despite top defensive talent and plenty of fight, Carolina never seemed to get its footing in 2012 en route to a 7-9 record. 
  
Entering the new season, the Carolina Panthers are holding onto one of the few glimpses of hope from last year. A four-game winning streak, which included victories over Atlanta and New Orleans, closed out the season and proved that this team is still talented when it's playing to its full potential. That winning streak may have saved Ron Rivera's head coaching job as well. The long-time former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator will no doubt find himself on the hot seat this season if things go awry.  
  
When discussing the Rivera situation, Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman was blunt when talking to the Charlotte Observer this month, stating, "I'm giving him all my support and he knows it. We have a very good relationship…and…the bottom line is we have given him the tools."
  
Point taken. 
  
A quick look at the Panthers notices one glaring hole, however. The team didn't do much about an offensive line that had Newton running for his life, more often than not. In general, the offense will look familiar — with veteran WR Steve Smith leading the return of 11 starters on offense. Smith will get some help this season from the underrated Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr., but the question remains: Just how much more can be expected from the veteran Smith? At 34, one would think his best years are behind him. On the other hand, he can still be one of the most exciting receivers in the game at any given moment. He is slated to play more slot this season, which should create some interesting matchups. 
  
Of note is that Jonathan Stewart was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform List on July 24 after dealing with (what seems to be continuous) ankles problems. As of this writing, there is no word when he will return or if he will see any time in training camp, which means (like visions of yesteryear) the position is DeAngelo Williams' to lose for the moment. Once one of the most powerful duos in the league, the addition of Newton's legs have now made for a formidable trio. 
  
While the offense has remained relatively status quo, the Panthers did make some big changes on defense. Via the draft, Carolina selected former Utah defensive tackle Star Lotuelei with its first-round pick, and the rookie will be immediately put under the gun for a squad that has had some trouble at the position in recent years. A few other free agents, in particular veteran cornerbacks D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence, will be expected to help a relatively weak secondary. 
  
One last point that reads like a blanket hovering over the team: Where does Ron Rivera's position stand with the organization and what exactly does he need to do to make everyone a believer? A winning season and playoff run will go a long way in erasing that constant distraction for the team and maybe instill confidence in a franchise that is having a hard time living up to lofty expectations.
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