NFC South: Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen says strong safety Kam Chancellor is the key to Seattle's top-ranked defense that faces New England on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX.

Olsen shared his thoughts on Tuesday during an appearance on ESPN's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd” radio show broadcast live in Arizona.

"He's the cog," Olsen said of Chancellor. "He's the main part of them. With the flexibility he gives them to be the eighth linebacker type, the eighth guy in the box, the fourth linebacker in base, but then he also is a D-back ... that's the combination that makes that style of defense work.

"Six-two, 230, 4.4 guys. They're not exactly just popping them out every year. It's rare."

Olsen speaks from first-hand experience. In four games against Seattle since 2012, often covered by Chancellor, the 2014 Pro Bowl selection had a combined 12 catches for 167 yards and no touchdowns.

He had one catch for 16 yards in a 13-9 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 26 in Charlotte, and four catches for 58 yards in a 31-17 loss at Seattle in the NFC divisional playoff game.

Olsen doesn't envy what New England tight end Rob Gronkowski will face in Chancellor.

"It's a tough matchup," Olsen said. "The team that can just stay with their normal stuff and don't need to reinvent themselves on defense to stop the Gronkowskis of the world, they have an advantage."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis will turn 32 in March. He’s reached his goal of playing 10 years in the NFL, and his contract expires after the 2015 season. But he’s not thinking retirement anytime soon.

Davis
 The first player in NFL history known to have successfully returned from reconstructive ACL surgery on the same knee, Davis anticipates one more contract with the Panthers before retiring.

Davis said on Monday night that the injuries actually may have extended his career.

“That’s the way I’m looking at it,’’ he said. “I lost two and a half years to injuries, but I also feel I gained two and a half years. . . . This was my 10th year and I’m going on year 11, and I still feel I have a lot of football left in me.’’

Davis spoke about his future while touring his Youth Leadership Academy that helped make him a candidate for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. It will be announced on Saturday night in Arizona, the site of Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco wide receiver Anquan Boldin also are up for the award.

Davis said if he wins the award it’ll “definitely the highest honor I’ve ever received as a player.’’

Davis is set to count $10,066,668 against the 2015 salary cap before becoming an unrestricted free agent. The Panthers could opt to restructure and add a couple of more years to lessen the hit against the 2015 cap or simply do an extension.

Davis isn’t worried.

“We’ve got plenty of time for that,’’ he said. “At some point I’m pretty sure they’ll address it.’’

Davis, the 14th pick of the 2005 draft out of Georgia, has finished second on the team in tackles behind middle linebacker Luke Kuechly the past three seasons. He had 100 tackles this past season after recording a career-best 123 in 2013.

“I do understand that I’m getting up there in years,’’ Davis said. “I’ve played more years than I have left. At the end of the day I’m taking advantage of each situation I have. From year to year, however my career plays out moving forward, I’m just going to enjoy every minute.’’

And how long does he want that to be?

“Until they tell me they don’t want me no more,’’ Davis said. “Until my body really says I can’t take it anymore.’’
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen proved he deserved to be in the Pro Bowl after waiting eight years to get there.

Olsen caught a pair of touchdown passes and was the target for a potential game-winner on Sunday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

His first Pro Bowl catch was a 17-yard touchdown from Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck in the first quarter.

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesGreg Olsen did well in his first Pro Bowl appearance of his eight-year career, snagging two TD catches.
He added a 10-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter from New Orleans’ Drew Brees in which officials overturned their original ruling that both of his feet weren’t down in the end zone.

With less than a minute remaining, Olsen was the target of an Andy Dalton fourth-down pass near the end zone that fell short.

Olsen wasn’t on the winning team as teammate Luke Kuechly was in the 32-28 victory for Team Irvin over Team Carter. But he wasn’t complaining after catching three passes for 52 yards.

“Two touchdowns . . . the only thing that would’ve been better is win the game,” Olsen told the Charlotte Observer after the game. “But the whole week was just awesome, whether you win or lose. The whole week was amazing. It was an awesome opportunity to come out here.”

The game also was an example of why Olsen has had trouble getting noticed in the Pro Bowl voting. NFC South rival tight end Jimmy Graham of New Orleans also had two touchdown catches, including the game-winner with 3:10 remaining.

Graham is considered one of the top two tight ends in the NFL along with New England’s Rob Gronkowski. Prior to this season, Olsen also was overshadowed by NFC South tight end Tony Gonzalez, who retired after making his 14th Pro Bowl last season.

But Olsen showed there’s no doubt he has reached elite status by his performance in the game and with his season. He led the Panthers in receiving with a career-high 84 catches for 1,008 yards.

Kuechly also showed why he is one of the top linebackers in the league. In his second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance, he had seven tackles and called the defensive signals when he was on the field.

He also didn’t have any awkward moments against Olsen as he had in last year’s all-star game with teammate Mike Tolbert, who bowled past Kuechly’s side for the game-winning touchdown.

“He didn’t catch any on me, so we’re good,’’ Kuechly told the Observer, speaking of Olsen. “That’s all I was looking for. I was hoping they were going to throw one his way. I was going to try to get my hands on it. They didn’t do it. He caught two touchdowns, played well.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While most of the NFL world is focused on "Deflategate" and the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers are focused on building for 2015.

General manager Dave Gettleman and much of the college scouting department are in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl. Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera are in the process of evaluating the roster and where improvements can be made.

With that, let’s get to your questions for my Saturday mailbag:

@DNewtonESPN: Big money? Probably not. There really aren't a lot of great options on top tier left tackles in free agency, and there may be fewer when teams start to re-sign their own. I'd look for the Panthers to look more toward the second-tier guys and draft a potential future left tackle in the first couple of rounds. I'm still not ruling out re-signing Byron Bell to a low number and giving him a chance to compete for the job. No doubt he struggled this season, but to be fair it was his first season as a left tackle. There is room to grow and the coaching staff likes him. I'm not saying he is the answer, but better to have insurance in case you don't find the answer.

@DNewtonESPN: Content? No. As general manager Dave Gettleman said you never can be satisfied with the status quo. The Panthers are comfortable with Bene' Benwikere at cornerback and Tre Boston at free safety. They went 5-1 with them as the starters down the stretch. But I believe if they can find a taller and faster every-down cornerback that would allow them to move Benwikere back to the nickel spot full time they would make that move. It would only make the defense stronger. And as Gettleman admitted, Benwikere doesn't have the elite speed you look for as an every-down corner. But he does have good speed and great football instincts. I still believe cornerback is a viable option if a top one is available in the first round of the draft.

@DNewtonESPN: Yes. Mike Shula will remain the offensive coordinator. As I've said before, it would be tough to judge him during a year in which he had four new wide receivers, a rebuilt offensive line and a quarterback dealing with offseason surgery and in-season injuries. Sometimes continuity is more important than change.

@DNewtonESPN: Ron Rivera pretty much shot down the notion of a coaching change during his final news conference. Speaking specifically of the breakdowns on special teams he talked about injuries to five key special-team players this past season. He also spoke to the need for him and the staff to commit to finding players specifically for those units. The biggest need is a return specialist. The Panthers had one in Ted Ginn Jr., and then let him sign with Arizona last offseason.

@DNewtonESPN: As far as I know he's looking at talent more than age. Having said that, he's looking to upgrade the overall speed of the team and you seldom do that with older players such as Eddie Royal. The Panthers already have a player like Royal in Jerricho Cotchery. To find a real difference-maker at wide receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin the best avenue likely will be the draft. It's another deep class.

@DNewtonESPN: I couldn't pass on this one. First, I have no idea. He's a big guy with big hands, so I doubt the amount of pressure in the football is an issue. But I will attempt to find out the exact number.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano can’t comment on what a deflated football might mean to a quarterback, but he did share this experience from a Jan. 3 playoff victory over Arizona.

Gano wrote on Twitter that he asked the official if he could check the PSI (pounds per square inch) after the initial check because the ball felt flat. He said the official told him he could not.

“I guess you can’t blame the official for that," Gano wrote on Twitter. “Rules are rules. Maybe the league will make some changes this offseason. Sucks kicking a flat ball tho."

Gano went on to say the officials check the PSI indoors.

“This is frustrating bc the ball loses some pressure in the old weather," he wrote on Twitter.

The temperature at kickoff against Arizona was 51 degrees, the same as it was at kickoff when New England played Indianapolis in Sunday’s AFC Championship that has become known as “Deflate-Gate."

Gano reminded he can’t relate to what may or may not have happened with the New England footballs that the Colts believe to be underinflated, an issue the league is investigating.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wide receiver Brandon LaFell was right on all counts.

LaFell said during the offseason that the reason he signed with New England instead of returning for a fifth season with the Carolina Panthers was because he had a chance to play with a "Hall of Fame" quarterback in Tom Brady.

LaFell
No slight on Cam Newton, but Brady is headed for his sixth Super Bowl with his 20th playoff win after Sunday’s dismantling of Indianapolis in the AFC title game. Newton has a 1-2 postseason record and never has advanced past the divisional round.

LaFell said he went to New England because he "felt it was a better chance to come up here and get more balls."

LaFell set career highs this season in receptions (74), receiving yards (953), and touchdowns (7). His best season at Carolina in 2013 resulted in 49 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns.

LaFell said he went to New England because it was a better opportunity to win. "Nothing against those guys [at Carolina]. It’s a great organization and those guys are going to win, but it’s proven up here, man," he said.

Check.

The Patriots are going to the Super Bowl with a 14-4 record. The Panthers had to win their final four regular-season games and a first-round playoff game to finish 8-9-1.

LaFell also signed with New England because the Patriots offered a three-year deal worth $9 million. Not quite where the salary-cap strapped Panthers wanted to go last offseason during their "Dollar Store" shopping.

LaFell received a lot of grief for some of his comments when he left, like he was taking shots at his former team. In reality, he simply was stating the facts.

The season has proven him right on all counts.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Led by defensive end Charles Johnson at $20,020,000, the Carolina Panthers currently have 10 players who will count $3 million or more under the salary cap in 2015.

Three are on defense, led by Johnson. Six are on offense, led by quarterback Cam Newton at $14,666,666. One is on special teams, place-kicker Graham Gano at $3.1 million.

To put this in perspective, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have 14 players set to make $3 million or more. That number is sure to grow when quarterback Russell Wilson gets a new deal.

Seven of Carolina’s top 10 were drafted by the team, with Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly still on their rookie deals.

These rankings could change with free agent signings and the restructuring of contracts. But for now, here’s a complete breakdown of Carolina’s current top-10 players under the salary cap in 2015:


Comment: He had his six-year deal restructured in each of the past two offseasons to reduce the cap hit, and there’s no reason to think the Panthers won’t attempt another. Last year, $7.8 million of his base salary was converted to a signing bonus. With two more years left on his deal, he doesn’t have a lot of incentive to renegotiate, but he likely would to help the team.


Comment: This is the average of the top-10 quarterbacks the first pick of the 2011 draft was guaranteed when Carolina picked up his fifth-year option. The number could be reduced somewhat if a long-term deal is reached before the season, but for a two-time Pro Bowler with two straight playoff appearances, the figure is a bargain.


Comment: His deal was renegotiated in February, and it wouldn’t surprise if that happens again, although the number isn’t so daunting this year. He has one more year left after this season, so there’s potential to renegotiate and add another year or two.


Comment: Entering the final year of his deal, Davis also had his contract restructured last season to ease the cap hit. This might be a good time to renegotiate and lessen this year’s cap while adding another year or two for a player who wants to retire a Panther.


Comment: He also restructured in 2014, with a voidable year added in 2017. His value skyrocketed over the final six games as he was one of the league’s top rushers. If he continues to put up those numbers in 2015, the current number is reasonable.


Comment: He’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season, so there could be incentive to renegotiate and extend if the money is there. Few players were more valuable than Olsen, who led the team in receptions and made his first Pro Bowl.


Comment: With Stewart earning the right to be the starter in 2015, releasing Williams is a strong possibility. It would save the team $2 million under the cap. If not a release, look for a serious renegotiation to reduce this number.


Comment: His rookie deal is a bargain considering he led the NFL in tackles this season a year after winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Heading into his last season, the Panthers could use the fifth-year option and lock him up for 2016 as well. But the goal is to get a long-term deal done.


Comment: He’s heading into the last year of his deal. While the number appears high, consider the Panthers were 7-3 with him this season, 1-6-1 without him.


Comment: He didn’t have his best season after signing a four-year deal last offseason, but when you have a kicker you’re confident in, it’s hard to say he’s overpaid.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – And with the 25th pick of the 2015 NFL draft, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has the Carolina Panthers selecting in his first mock draft...

Stanford offensive tackle Andrus Peat.

It’s a logical choice. The Panthers need a left tackle. Byron Bell’s move from the right to the left side this season can’t be deemed a success. Pro Football Focus rated him 83rd among 84 tackles.

But the Panthers need a starter, not a player who might be a year or so away. The top tackles will be gone in the first 10 to 15 picks. Carolina needs to solidify that position in free agency. If that happens, I don’t see using a first-round pick on another lineman who might not be ready to start right away.

General manager Dave Gettleman said the draft is deep in wide receivers again. Selecting Florida State star Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick turned out well last year. Benjamin had 11 touchdown catches and more than 1,000 yards receiving.

If there’s a receiver with elite speed the Panthers can draft to start opposite Benjamin, that would be my pick. I also could see Carolina taking a cover corner with elite speed. Bené Benwikere doesn’t have elite speed and might be best used as the nickelback.

And if there’s a defensive end or tackle who Gettleman likes, he won’t hesitate to take one. Tackles Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards are free agents and closing in on the end of their careers.

Check out Kiper’s complete analysis of the Panthers’ 25th pick and the entire first round.
Ron Rivera, Dave GettlemanJeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCTIt was a kind of arranged marriage that brought together Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman, but it's worked well so far.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dave Gettleman knew nothing about Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera when they first met for what the then-new general manager called a “blind date” in January 2013. They had only two common friends from which to form impressions.

But something clicked.

And the date turned into a marriage, so to speak.

Instead of cleaning house in an attempt to put his stamp on the organization, as many new general managers do, Gettleman played the staff he was dealt.

There are no regrets.

“Ron and I are growing together,” Gettleman said during Tuesday’s season-ending news conference. “We’re tied together. I have complete confidence in him and his ability to coach, his ability to motivate these players.”

So what gave Gettleman that confidence two years ago? The same thing he saw this season when Carolina went from 3-8-1 to NFC South champions and a playoff victory against Arizona before losing to defending Super Bowl champion Seattle on Saturday.

“What’s Ron’s December record?” Gettleman said. “It’s meshuggener.”

[+] EnlargeBenwikere
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe Panthers made a tough decision to go with young players in the secondary such as Bene' Benwikere and it paid off with a 4-0 December and a playoff win.
Meshuggener is a Yiddish term to describe something as crazy or bizarre.

Rivera’s December record is a crazy 17-3, including a 4-0 record this season that turned into a 5-1 finish.

“Obviously, these guys play for Ron,” Gettleman said. “They play for the guy. They respect him. When I got in here in January of ’13, they’d won four of their last five. When I watched that film, I didn't see guys mailing it in.

"So when we were 3-8-1, I said to myself, 'These guys aren't going to mail it in.'"

Continuity is important to the success of most organizations. Gettleman’s decision to stick with Rivera and his staff after they’d gone 13-19 in their first two seasons might have been bigger than any he’s made.

In many ways, the job Rivera and his staff did this season was more impressive than in 2013, when Carolina went 12-4.

From quarterback Cam Newton’s offseason ankle surgery, preseason fractured ribs and December car crash to defensive star Greg Hardy going on the commissioner’s exempt list while awaiting the outcome of his domestic violence case to mass injuries to the line and running backs, Rivera and his staff held things together.

They took chances with a late-season infusion of youth and speed in the middle of a bizarre playoff chase as Atlanta and New Orleans also struggled to win.

They did it with the general manager and head coach on the same page.

Gettleman said it was “frightening” how much he and Rivera talked leading up to the turnaround.

“Ron did a hell of a job, and we talk all the time,” he said. “And we’re honest with each other. There’s a crazy concept. If I’m not happy with something he’s doing, I tell him. If he’s not happy with something I’ve done, he tells me.

“And we look at it, and we discuss it. It doesn’t happen very often, frankly. But we talk all the time, and there’s no agenda. There’s no secrets.”

Gettleman received heavy criticism during the 3-8-1 start. He was reminded by the lack of speed that he let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go.

He was reminded by the struggles of the offensive line that he took a chance on Byron Bell at left tackle instead of signing a known commodity in free agency.

He was reminded by the early struggles of the secondary that he let safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn go in free agency.

But to be fair, he warned this time a year ago there would be tough decisions because of a tight salary cap and 21 unrestricted free agents. He warned the team might have to take a step back to move forward.

Eight players who started in the 31-17 loss at Seattle were starters at the end of last season, and that speaks volumes.

“It was about economics,” Gettleman said of the changes. “I told you guys last year at the postseason presser that we were going to struggle and it was economic driven.”

The Panthers are in much better shape now, with only 11 unrestricted free agents and none vital to success. They have more freedom under the cap. As Gettleman said, they can upgrade from the “dollar store.”

That has Gettleman excited about the future, just as it does Rivera.

“I guess I’m like Ron; I’m an optimistic guy. You guys know that,” Gettleman said.

He knows because he stuck with Rivera after their blind date.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You recently may have seen the story about how Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was the only person who responded when a 12-year-old boy from Oklahoma reached out to executives of all 32 NFL teams in his search for a team to support.

[+] EnlargeJerry Richardson
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesOwner Jerry Richardson tells Cade Pope, 12, from Oklahoma that the Panthers would be honored to be his NFL team of choice.
If you knew Richardson, you wouldn't be surprised.

That Cade Pope took the time while sick during his Christmas break to handwrite each note had to make an impression. Richardson is known for responding with handwritten notes. He sent me one in May in response to an article.

Emails and type-written letters aren't personal. Richardson is all about being personal.

Pope's note was personal.

That Pope chose to send notes to the highest level also had to be noticed. Pope aimed high. Richardson is all about aiming high. He brought an NFL team to the Carolinas when nobody thought it was possible.

That Pope's note mentioned he lived in a state that didn't have an NFL team also had to strike a chord. Richardson brought a team to two states -- North Carolina and South Carolina -- that didn't have one. He named it the Carolina Panthers, not the North Carolina Panthers.

Born in Spring Hope, North Carolina, and a long-time resident of South Carolina after attending Wofford College and starting his business empire in Spartanburg, bringing an NFL team to the area was a long-time dream as Richardson said so when awarded the team in 1993.

Pope sent his letters to NFC teams on Dec. 26 and AFC teams on Jan. 5. Richardson's reply came last Thursday, a few days before Carolina's crazy season ended with a 31-17 loss at defending Super Bowl champion Seattle.

Accompanying the note was an autographed Panthers helmet.

The note said:

"We would be honored if our Carolina Panthers became your team. We would make you proud by the classy way we would represent you. You will love Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Cameron Newton, Greg Olsen and all of our players."



The "classy way we would represent you" defines Richardson's mission statement. Nothing pains him more than when a member of his organization is involved in an incident that negatively reflects his product.

The tears he shed in September when receiving the Echo Award Against Indifference spoke volumes.

"Standing before you tonight, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge an issue weighing heavily on our sport and our society," Richardson said as he struggled to breathe and maintain his composure. "When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference. I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple.

"To those who would suggest that we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity."

Richardson never mentioned by name defensive end Greg Hardy, who soon would be placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case was heard. But it was understood.

That case will be heard on Feb. 9. It's hard to imagine the Panthers will attempt to re-sign the 2013 Pro Bowl selection regardless of the outcome for the very word Richardson mentioned in his note to Cade.

That word in that letter is in Cade's room. Pope's mom, Heather, told ABC's Emily Shapiro it was the message and not the merchandise that impressed her and her son.

"It's not the items they sent us," Heather said. "It's what they tell us. Why he should be their fan."

If you know Richardson, you wouldn't be surprised.

Carolina Panthers season report card

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
11:00
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video » AFC: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South


Head coach Ron Rivera summed it up best when he said instruction manuals aren’t written on how to handle seasons like the Carolina Panthers had in 2014.

Quarterback Cam Newton missed the season opener with fractured ribs, then sat out at Week 15 victory after breaking two bones in his lower back during a car crash. Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy spent the final 14 games on the commissioner's exempt list, awaiting the resolution of his domestic violence case. The offensive line and running backs corps were decimated by injuries, leading to a 1-8-1 stretch.

But because the NFC South was so down, the Panthers made the playoffs with seven wins. They won a wild-card game before losing at Seattle in the divisional round.

MVP: Tight end Greg Olsen. Throughout a season of inconsistency for the team, Olsen exemplified consistency on the field while dealing with his 2-year-old son's heart condition. There were times when Olsen actually left the field during practice to be with his family in the hospital. Despite that, he had a team-best 84 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns to make his first Pro Bowl. He was among the league leaders at his position all season in catches and yards. His numbers would have been even more impressive had he not had to stay in to block when the line was being revamped due to injuries.

Best moment: For the team it would have to be the 41-10 victory at New Orleans. At a point when the rest of the NFL had given up on the Panthers, they put together their best game of the season. But to me the best moment was when backup quarterback Derek Anderson, forced to start a late-season game against Tampa Bay when Newton was injured in a car crash, did Newton's trademark first-down point as a tribute to his teammate after running for a touchdown. It showed the next-man-up mentality and tightness of the locker room that kept this team moving forward in hard times.

Worst moment: Newton's scary car crash was one. On the field, it had to be a 31-13 loss at Minnesota when the Panthers had two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in the first half. Other than the blocks, Carolina outplayed the Vikings in a game it needed to win coming off a late-season bye. The breakdowns epitomized the inconsistency of the special-teams unit and the team in general before its late-season run.

2015 outlook: As badly as things went at times, the future looks bright. Seven rookies started in the final two regular-season games and played well, which should lessen the urgency to sign big-name free agents to fill gaps. The defense that finally came together after a midseason loss at Green Bay returns almost all of its key pieces, most notably two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly. The offense also returns intact with the biggest question mark being whether to re-sign left tackle Byron Bell, which seems unlikely. The salary-cap situation isn't nearly so dire, either, giving the Panthers room to sign Newton long term and add much-needed pieces such as a left tackle and a speedy receiver.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton isn’t the best quarterback in the NFC. He’s not even the best quarterback in the NFC South.

But he’s the best quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.

Despite another lackluster performance by Newton in the playoffs, the Panthers can’t afford not to sign him long term. The alternative is too risky, as the Panthers could find themselves in a situation similar to Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, the New York Jets ... well, you get the picture.

Some might argue the Panthers are better off with backup Derek Anderson, who was 2-0 this season when Newton was injured.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenCould the Panthers do better than Cam Newton at quarterback? They certainly could do a lot worse, which is why he should get a long-term deal.
Anderson beat Tampa Bay twice. The Bucs, in case you hadn’t heard, have the first pick of the NFL draft after a two-win season. They have only 17 wins in the last four seasons.

Newton has 18 wins in the last two seasons. He would have had two more had he not been injured when Carolina played Tampa Bay.

And there’s a reason Anderson is the backup. Newton is better.

Newton is better than at least half the quarterbacks in the NFL. His passing accuracy and fundamentals could use some fine-tuning, but he does things with his legs that few outside of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick can.

Is he worth $100 million-plus over six years? That’s debatable. Running quarterbacks don’t tend to have long shelf lives – or at least healthy ones.

But Newton is more than a running quarterback. He has a rocket of an arm. He just has to morph into a player who uses it more efficiently. He eventually has to use his legs the way Steve Young and John Elway did – when they had to.

The risk isn’t signing Newton to a big deal. The risk is not signing him.

Newton is the biggest sports figure in Charlotte. He has his own line of clothes and cologne. He almost was the face of "Madden 15." He brings attention to the city and the Panthers that no other athlete can – even linebacker Luke Kuechly, still the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Newton gets more attention when he wears men’s capri pants to a postgame news conference than Anderson would if he threw four touchdown passes.

Newton is charismatic. He also has become a strong leader. Players are inspired by his toughness, his willingness to dive head first instead of taking the easy way out and sliding.

They fed off his toughness when he returned from a December automobile wreck in which Newton broke two small bones in his lower back.

Not to sign Newton long-term would be a huge mistake. You might luck into finding a player like Russell Wilson in the third round, but you don’t want to depend on luck moving forward.

General manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera said in Tuesday’s season wrap-up that Newton has to be more consistent, that he must be more fundamentally sound. They’re right.

But it’s better to fine-tune a proven product than start over with another one.

“I love who he is for us,’’ Rivera said. “I love what he does for us. He really can be a special, special, special player.

“Consistency. Consistency. That’s the biggest thing more than anything else. That’s the biggest word, as far as he’s concerned, in my eyes. Him wanting to do it, the desire that he has, I have no worry about that.’’

If it were all about desire and work ethic Newton already would be Tom Brady.

“He wants it more than anybody I’ve ever been around,’’ Rivera said.

Newton’s representatives probably will begin contract negotiations with an asking price that is way more than he is worth, based on his record and performance. But they know as well that the Panthers need Newton more than he needs them.

The time to get something done is now. Get that out of the way and then go get Newton the left tackle and speedy wide receiver that will help him become more consistent.

Put in more no-huddle plans. Newton and the rest of the offense seemed to thrive on that.

But the first step is to sign Newton to a new deal. The Panthers can’t afford not to.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After 30 minutes of listening to Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman dodge specifics on his offseason plans, I made one last attempt to get something specific on when quarterback Cam Newton might be signed to a long-term deal.

Since Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera independently mentioned Newton needed to be more consistent, it seemed logical to ask if they wanted one more season to evaluate if that consistency is there before making a commitment expected to be in the $100 million range.

Gettleman laughed.

“Nice try,’’ he finally said.

Season-ending news conferences rarely get definitive answers, particularly with the Panthers, who have what they call an “evaluation season.’’

You have to read between the lines and remember how the team reacted in similar past situations.

So here’s my attempt to read between the lines on what Gettleman and Rivera said – or didn’t say – on various subjects on Tuesday:

Newton
Newton
Cam Newton: He’s entering the option year on his rookie deal. Both Gettleman and Rivera agree the first pick of the 2011 draft is the team’s quarterback of the future. They like much of what he did this past season, particularly out of the no-huddle offense that worked well during a 5-1 finish. They also acknowledge he has to improve on fundamentals and mechanics, such as throwing off his back foot.

My take? It’s obvious the plan is to sign Newton long term, probably in the next few months, definitely before the 2015 season begins. They have the flexibility under the cap to do so now, and they need to get this deal out of the way to get a long-term deal with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly next year.

Hardy
Kraken
Greg Hardy: The defensive end remains on the commissioner’s exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. That case will be heard on Feb. 9. Will the Panthers pursue him in free agency if he’s found innocent? Or even guilty? Rivera reminded that everyone knows how he feels about Hardy. If you don’t know, he likes him. Gettleman simply said there’s nothing to discuss until after the case is resolved. Asked in general if the organization would shy away from a player with a history of domestic violence, Gettleman said, “It would be something you’d have to really think about.’’

My take? While there are those who would welcome Hardy back, the organization emotionally has moved on. Even if found innocent by a jury, the naysayers would remind Hardy was found guilty by a Mecklenburg County Judge, whose verdict was set aside when the appeal was requested. Hardy has great talent. He could help take this defense to another level. But the organization probably isn’t willing to risk the backlash should there be another incident down the road.

Ponder
Williams
DeAngelo Williams: Gettleman learned his lesson a year ago when he left Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver, hanging with his comments before having a sit-down meeting with him. After Smith was released, it got ugly in the media, at least on Smith’s side. Gettleman doesn’t want it to get ugly with his all-time leading rusher, who played in only six games this season and became secondary to the offense after Jonathan Stewart emerged as one of the league’s top rushers. “I need to talk to DeAngelo,’’ Gettleman said. “He had a tough season. The obvious, the loss of his mom was very, very difficult. ... It was tough for him, and before I say anything, just know he’s a pro’s pro.’’

My take? This didn’t sound like a goodbye the way Gettleman’s “he’s had a good career’’ comments about Smith did last year. Having said that, the Panthers can clear $2 million under the cap by cutting Williams. They like what they have with Stewart and backup Fozzy Whittaker. Adding a young back to groom behind them would be smart. Either the Panthers release Williams or convince him to come back for a huge discount.

Bell
Byron Bell: The left tackle struggled in his move from the right side. Set to become a free agent in March, little that was said by Gettleman or Rivera sounded like an endorsement for his return. “Byron showed flashes,’’ Gettleman said. “It’s about consistency. I give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, it was his first year playing there. But I think we’ve shown if a player shows up that we think is going to make us better, we’re going to go get him.’’

My take? Bell ranked 83rd out of 84 tackles rated by Pro Football Focus. Since the Panthers don’t have to shop this offseason at the “Dollar Store,’’ as Gettleman said, signing a left tackle in free agency seems like a no-brainer.

Staff: No changes have taken place, and Rivera didn’t indicate any were coming. The most obvious would be special teams coach Richard Rodgers, whose unit took a big step backwards this season and cost Carolina several opportunities to win. But as Rivera reminded, key players such as Mike Tolbert, Chase Blackburn, Richie Brockel, Benwikere and Whittaker were injured at various times. Rivera also talked a lot about committing certain positions to special teams with free agency and draft moves.

My take? Rivera is focused on a 5-1 finish and not what happened during a 3-8-1 start. The strong finish not only saved Rodgers’ job, but perhaps that of offensive coordinator Mike Shula. “If you only look at the first 12 games then a lot of us should be thrown out on our ear,’’ Rivera said.

Primary need: Speed. The team improved this past season when rookies Benwikere, Tre Boston (free safety) and Philly Brown (wide receiver) became regulars. “We need more speed, we know that,’’ Gettleman said. “We’re not silly. We’re not going to miss the obvious.’’

My take? Pretty obvious, find more speed. Gettleman mentioned the draft will be strong at wide receiver again. Finding a receiver with elite speed to put opposite Kelvin Benjamin, last year’s first-round pick, and one with return capabilities at No. 25 would be a nice fit.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has emerged as candidate for the head coaching position with the New York Jets.

McDermott will interview for the job on Wednesday, as first reported by ESPN’s Dan Graziano. Sources told ESPN.com that McDermott has no other interviews set up at this moment.

McDermott interviewed for the head coaching position with the Washington Redskins last season after the Panthers finished second in the NFL behind Seattle in total defense.

The Panthers finished 10th in the NFL in total defense this season. Since Week 12 they ranked first behind the Seahawks in rushing yards allowed, second in total yards surrendered, second in yards allowed per play and second in points allowed per drive.

The Jets are seeking a replacement for Rex Ryan, who was released after the season. They reportedly have interviewed seven candidates and are seeking a second interview with Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.

Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn reportedly remains the favorite. Quinn can’t be offered a job until after the defending Super Bowl champions, who defeated Carolina 31-17 on Saturday, have completed their season.
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SEATTLE -- Cam Newton didn't have to look far on Saturday night to see what a franchise quarterback looks like.

He was wearing No. 3 for the Seattle Seahawks.

Russell Wilson stepped up on the big stage once again, completing all eight of his third-down pass attempts -- three of them for touchdowns -- in a 31-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers that sent the defending Super Bowl champions back to the NFC Championship Game.

Newton, who celebrates big moments with his patented "Superman" move, looked human.

His first-quarter fumble led to Seattle's first touchdown. He took a third-quarter sack in Seattle territory that derailed a drive with Carolina trailing only 14-10.

Then came his biggest mistake, a fourth-quarter interception that safety Kam Chancellor returned 90 yards for a touchdown, registering what locals called a "Kam Quake" on the seismograph.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton, Cliff Avril
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton is 1-2 in the playoffs, with four interceptions and a passer rating of 79.5 in the two losses. His fourth-quarter interception on Saturday was returned 90 yards for a score.
On a night when Newton needed to create a "Cam Quake" for the Panthers to keep their improbable playoff run alive, he couldn't cause a rumble.

Newton wasn't the only Panther to make mistakes during the loss, but as he said afterward, "At the end of the day, I'm the quarterback and I have the last say."

The Panthers have shown the past two seasons they have a defense that can win games. That defense held its own in the first half Saturday, limiting Seattle -- which led the NFL in rushing this season -- to 21 yards on the ground.

What the Panthers haven't shown is they can be a Super Bowl contender with Newton. He is 1-2 in the playoffs, with four interceptions and a passer rating of 79.5 in the two losses.

To win playoff games, particularly when you're playing a top defense, you have to be special. Wilson was, with a passer rating of 149.2 against a Carolina defense that was allowing an average of just more than 11 points in its previous five games.

And he was beyond special on third down.

"That's a good way to win games," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said of Wilson's third-down numbers. "Third down, that's a money down."

Wilson, 26, will get his money. There were reports early in the day that the third-year player was in line to become the highest-paid quarterback in the league after the season.

If it happens, he's worth every penny.

Newton, 25, has yet to prove worthy of being more than a middle-of-the-road quarterback. Despite going 16-13-1 with trips to the playoffs the past two seasons, his performance on Saturday will once again raise questions about whether he deserves franchise-quarterback money -- likely more than $20 million per season.

The Panthers don't have to be in a hurry to re-sign him. Newton is tied up through the 2015 season, and the team can use the franchise tag in 2016 if necessary.

Carolina also can't afford not to re-sign Newton. As inconsistent as he has been at times, the organization is in much better shape at quarterback than half the teams in the league.

Just ask the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals.

Newton said the team will grow and mature from this game. He said he will grow and mature from it.

His teammates still believe in him.

"Cam is a heck of a player," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "He's going to win a lot of games in this league and he's going to win championships."

To do that Newton will have to find a way to excel against top defenses such as Seattle's in the playoffs. He'll have to find the way to make big plays with his arm when it counts, as Wilson did on this cool, misty night.

"Unfortunately, turnovers and missed opportunities," coach Ron Rivera said when asked about the difference between the two teams.

Newton had two interceptions. He should have had four, maybe five.

The fumble was a read-option on which he could hand off to Jonathan Stewart or pull the ball out and pass. Newton pulled the ball out when Seattle defenders got to Stewart too fast.

"I did a bad job of protecting the football," Newton said. "When you're playing a good defense, you've just got to take what they give you."

Newton didn't take. He gave.

"A lot of times I was overlooking the play that needed to be made, instead trying to make a bigger play," Newton said.

Wilson gave his team a chance to win by making plays when he had to. Understanding when the Panthers were blitzing, he threw first-half touchdowns against rookie safety Tre Boston and rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere when Carolina was in man coverage.

Wilson played smart. He made the big plays.

That's why he's 4-0 against the Panthers and Newton.

"I think he's special," Rivera said. "All the young man has done is win."

Rivera believes Newton is special as well. But is he special enough to warrant a huge contract? Special enough to take Carolina to the next level?

Neither Rivera nor Newton had to look far to see what it takes.

He was wearing No. 3 for Seattle.

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