SPARTANBURG — After slow starts doomed the Panthers postseason hopes the past two seasons, several veteran players said they plan to bring a sense of urgency to the three-week training camp at Wofford.
Under third-year coach Ron Rivera, the Panthers have been bad early in the season, and pretty good later on when the pressure was off.
Tight end Greg Olsen, who went to the playoffs with Chicago in 2010 during his final season with the Bears, said the Panthers have to start fast if they want to be playoff contenders.
We cant put ourselves in that hole and think a late six-game push is going to put us over the top when you start out 2-8. Thats just not the way it works, Olsen said Thursday after arriving at Wofford. We need those late-season pushes. But thats to put you into the playoffs, not to just salvage your season, which is kind of how its been the last few years for us.
The games at the end, even though its good to win, they kind of became meaningless, Olsen added. We need to make those games in November and December real. And the only way to do that is to get off to a good start and put ourselves in contention.
Although the Panthers have the leagues toughest schedule based on last years performances, the early portion of their schedule is not daunting. Carolinas first seven opponents combined for a .491 winning percentage (55-56-1) in 2012, and only two made the playoffs Seattle and Minnesota.
The Seahawks, who beat Carolina last year behind rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, come to Charlotte in Week 1. The Panthers travel to Buffalo in Week 2 to face a Bills team that hasnt been to the playoffs since 1999, the longest active postseason drought in the NFL.
The Panthers host the Giants in Week 3 for a second consecutive season. New York went 9-7 and missed the playoffs last year, but thumped the Panthers 36-7 at Bank of America Stadium. After a Week 4 bye, three of the Panthers next four opponents are teams coming off losing seasons although one of those teams, Tampa Bay, swept the season series against Carolina in 2012.
Rivera changed the Panthers training camp routine in an effort to minimize injuries and keep players fresh for the start of the season. There will be more morning practices in Spartanburg this year, with more breaks scheduled during those sessions.
Weve looked at ways to get our players off their feet, ways to practice when theres less heat and humidity, ways to maximize when were on the field, Rivera said.
The Panthers split their first two games last season before getting blown out by the Giants in a nationally televised game in Week 3. The Thursday night debacle was the first of five consecutive losses a stretch that resulted in general manager Marty Hurneys firing and all but ended the Panthers playoff chances by late October.
When the Panthers last made the playoffs in 2008, they started 2-0 and finished the regular season with a 12-4 record, which tied for the best mark in the NFC. Carolina won its first five games in 2003 en route to its only Super Bowl appearance.
Historically, the Panthers have the leagues worst Week 1 winning percentage (.333), with a 6-12 mark.
Linebacker Jon Beason said its difficult to dig out of an early-season ditch.
Im not a big stat guy, but statistics say if you lose the first two games the chances of you going to the playoffs are bleak, Beason said. Its hard to get there.
Since 1990, only 22 of 190 teams (12 percent) that started 0-2 made the playoffs. None of the six teams that started 0-2 in 2012 advanced to the postseason, and three of them fired their coaches.
Slow starts will get you fired, cut and (bring) change real quick for everyone, veteran wideout Steve Smith said.
Smith, 34, Carolinas longest-tenured player, put his own inimitable twist on the sense-of-urgency theme.
Im more at the point now where if I was a female and 35, Im looking to get pregnant and married tomorrow, Smith said. So sense of urgency is an understatement.
Smith was asked whether he thought everyone shared his same sense of urgency.
Theres 90 guys (on the roster). By Sept. 7, there will be 53, he said. I went to public school. But the last time I checked, somebody aint going to make it. So theyve got to decide real quick, by tomorrow morning, which guys will be part of the 53 and which guys will not be a part of it.