Carolina Panthers change their expectations as new season begins

Players’ new confidence signals a change of culture this season for Carolina

rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 9, 2012 

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Carolina Panthers (67) center Ryan Kalil smiles at a teammate during the afternoon practice on Friday, August 3, 2012 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The cover of Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sept. 5, 2005 NFL preview edition featured a photograph of then-Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme with a headline that read: “It’s Carolina.”

Beneath the headline, it read: “That’s Right! The Panthers Will Go All The Way.”

Not quite.

The Panthers lost two of their first three games that season, rebounded to go 11-5 in the regular season, won playoff games on the road against the New York Giants and Chicago Bears before, dinged by key injuries, they lost the NFC Championship game 34-14 at Seattle.

In July of this year, Panthers center Ryan Kalil placed an advertisement in The Charlotte Observer proclaiming the Panthers will win the Super Bowl this season.

The ad read, in part, “A moment is upon us, where dreams become beliefs and yearning becomes conviction.”

It was a bold move on a number of levels.

Consider that SI’s NFL preview edition this year forecasts the Panthers to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. ESPN.com puts the Panthers No. 22 in its weekly power rankings to start the season.

It’s not exactly writer Sylvia Plath, who wrote, “If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed,” but it’s not Kalil either.

For the Panthers, who open their second season in the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era Sunday at 4:25 p.m. against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Raymond James Stadium, many things have changed over the past 12 months.

Nothing may have changed more than the expectations.

“Expectations are good. It’s better than not having any expectations,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said.

“When you do what we do, you know expectations don’t mean anything. We’re in the production business. We have to produce. Expectations are just people thinking you’re going to be good. That’s great but it only lasts as long as the first game.”

The excitement starts at the top of the organization.

“I’m optimistic but I’m optimistic ever year,” team owner Jerry Richardson said. “I’m optimistic but we all know there’s so many things that can happen along the way.”

There are obvious reasons for the positive vibe surrounding the Panthers. Newton is a spectacular talent at quarterback, the most essential position in the game. He oversees an offense designed to gain yardage in chunks and score points in bunches.

Running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert may be the league’s best group, wide receiver Steve Smith is still dangerous downfield, Greg Olsen is a top-flight tight end and the line is rock solid.

Defensively, there are questions up front and in the secondary but the linebackers are dynamic. New kicker Justin Medlock has to prove he can be consistently reliable and the special teams can only be better than a year ago.

Put the pieces together, consider the state of the NFC South where New Orleans is dealing with an absentee coach, Atlanta has been unable to win in the playoffs and the Bucs are rebuilding and the Panthers see opportunity.

“Any time you put added pressure on yourself, it’s an opportunity to do something great. You don’t know how much you can attain until you put that kind of pressure on yourself,” said linebacker Jon Beason, who missed most of last season with a torn Achilles.

“First and foremost, we have to set that goal and it has to be the ultimate goal. If you aim for the moon and miss, you’re still among the stars.”

Former defensive end Mike Rucker played nine seasons with the Panthers. He was on the 1-15 team in 2001, the 2003 Super Bowl team and the 2005 team predicted by SI to win the Super Bowl.

After reaching the Super Bowl in 2003, the Panthers returned most of their key players and started the next season 1-7, a colossal flop.

“We went to the Super Bowl. We had a fairly young team. No major injuries. The expectation is you’re going to go back. That’s what New England does,” Rucker said.

“We didn’t deal with it as players very well. We thought we had to show up and pick up where we left off. It’s a gray area. I don’t think expectations weighed down on us. Individually, we just felt we could pick up where we left off. We fell out on our face.

“The next year we were back in the NFC Championship again. It comes down to the players at that point in time.”

The Panthers have had one winning season in the past six – a 12-4 run in 2008 that came apart with a 20-point home playoff loss to Arizona. They have been mired in mediocrity or worse, in the case of the 2-14 season at the end of the John Fox era in 2010.

By comparison, the New England Patriots have averaged nearly 13 wins per season since 2007. The Pittsburgh Steelers have averaged 11 wins per year since 2004.

“Changing the culture” is a common refrain when teams and franchises change coaches. In the Panthers’ case, bringing in Rivera, who played on the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears team and was part of the franchise through an exceptional run, has changed both the personality and style of the team.

With offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, the Panthers can be ultra-aggressive on offense, a dramatic change from the more conservative approach favored by Fox. While he can be nurturing, Rivera also pushes for results. He wasn’t satisfied with the Panthers’ 6-10 record last year though he was heartened by four victories in the season’s final six games.

“You look at Pittsburgh and the expectation for the team is excellence. It was that way when I played for the Bears. You want to develop that,” Rivera said.

“People call it a swagger. Whatever you want to call it, the truth of the matter is when you play a certain way and have a certain amount of success, the expectations are high and it does seem to permeate to the players ... The old Oakland Raiders and the commitment to excellence.

“Teams create an atmosphere, an aura around them. Sometimes just showing up is worth 10 points. We can learn a lot from teams like that.”

It comes in stages, Rivera said. He spent four years coaching linebackers and, later, as defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers. In three of the seasons, the Chargers reached the playoffs, winning two games in 2007, one in 2008 and none since.

“Having been a part of teams that have won a lot in the postseason, that’s huge,” Rivera said. “That’s what teams like Pittsburgh have. When you play teams that have that kind of legacy the last few years that means a lot more.

“You build on it. What they’ve done in New England is pretty solid. What they’ve done with the Giants the last couple of years is really solid. People look at that and say what is their formula for success? What have they been doing? I don’t want to say you emulate it but build your style in that direction.”

When Kalil was considering placing his ad in the newspaper, he talked to offensive tackle Jordan Gross about it. Kalil said what he decided to put in print is something every team sets as its goal each season.

The difference is Kalil went public.

“I love having (high expectations),” Gross said. “It means there’s a lot to be excited about.

“There have been years where we hoped we’d be good and thought maybe we could win some games. This year everybody knows we’re going to be good and knows we’re going to win games. That helps your confidence.

“This year feels different, honestly. Guys know we’re going to be good. It’s not a cockiness but a confidence. I’d rather have somebody on our team pick us to win the Super Bowl rather than somebody on the outside.”

Staff writer Joe Person contributed to this article.

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