Changes likely ahead for 2019 Pan­thers af­ter 2018 strug­gles

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JOUR­DAN RODRIGUE jro­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Like many in the NFL, Carolina Pan­thers head coach Ron Rivera did not get to fin­ish his play­ing ca­reer on his own terms.

He was, he says, a “cap ca­su­alty” as a nine-year vet­eran line­backer for the Chicago Bears. He, and a lot of his team­mates and close friends, all lost their jobs.

“In 1993, they passed a whole new (col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment),” he said. “There were a group of us who were caught up in the mid­dle of it. That was the first time there was a salary cap. ... It was the chang­ing point in the NFL at the time. For what they were pay­ing me, they could have signed three rook­ies, (which is) the na­ture of the game, now.”

So a player get­ting to end his ca­reer on his own terms, well, that’s some­thing that re­ally mat­ters to Rivera.

“It’s a big deal for me,” he said this week. “And one of the things I talk about with guys is not wast­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, more so than any­thing else. I think that it’s re­ally im­por­tant that guys un- der­stand that you only get so many chances at play­ing this game. And while you’re play­ing it, you gotta give it ev­ery­thing you have.”

The de­sire to give ev­ery­body a grace­ful exit could be at least a small part of the rea­son why Rivera, over the years, has been well-re­garded as a “player’s coach” and has, mostly suc­cess­fully, kept a locker room full of able­bod­ied, re­spected vet­eran play­ers.

And Rivera said he wishes he could keep all of them around.

But many of Carolina’s cur­rent vet­eran con­tracts are in their fi­nal year, and with the Pan­thers on the back end of 6-8 sea­son that’s in dan­ger of slid­ing even fur­ther, it’s clear there will be changes on the ros­ter — and all over the or­ga­ni­za­tion it­self. That means some play­ers’ time with the Pan-

thers might not end on their terms af­ter all.

Rivera’s fu­ture is not guar­an­teed, ei­ther — but it might be so­lid­i­fied if he can fol­low steps he’s taken be­fore.

When Rivera was go­ing through los­ing sea­sons in his first two years as head coach of the Pan­thers, he ac­tively cre­ated change.

He started mak­ing gut­sier calls, and the Pan­thers started win­ning. In 2014, he went younger and faster with his per­son­nel to shake things up. But through time, Rivera also had the pa­tience of thenowner Jerry Richard­son, who sold the team last year in the wake of a work­place mis­con­duct scan­dal.

It’s hard to imag­ine he’s get­ting any such guar­an­tee from new owner David Tep­per. Rivera has re­peated that the two will have that con­ver­sa­tion when the time is right.

So right now, he’s walk­ing a pre­car­i­ous line.

But he might find he can draw upon what he learned in the early years of his ten­ure to make changes and re­vive the Pan­thers.

Es­pe­cially if he, one day, wants to go out on his own terms — the way he couldn’t as a player.

And Tep­per might need some­one who is not only en­grained in the fran­chise, but who also has made those types of changes be­fore.

Change is needed with or with­out Rivera. In the NFL, it’s key to growth. But so is keep­ing im­por­tant pieces in place.

Here’s what, and who, I think you will — and won’t — see by train­ing camp next sum­mer:

COACH­ING STAFF

What you’ll see

I wouldn’t be sur­prised if Rivera kept his job and took over the de­fen­sive play-call­ing full time, with a co­or­di­na­tor as­sist­ing him. It’s some­thing that has seemed to re­ju­ve­nate him and cer­tainly lit a fire un­der his de­fense.

But I also think de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Eric Wash­ing­ton, de­moted last month as Rivera took over the play-call­ing, will con­tinue to coach the de­fen­sive line. He has a well­re­garded knack for de­vel­op­ing tal­ent, and the Pan­thers will al­most cer­tainly be bring­ing in young legs to re­vive the pass rush.

It’s also fair to won­der about for­mer Pan­thers de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Steve Wilks. There are “hot seat” ru­mors swirling around Wilks with the Car­di­nals at 3-11. He’s in his first year, so own­er­ship might be pa­tient. But if he’s fired, it’s rea­son­able to think Rivera could give him a call.

What you won’t see Many of­fen­sive skill po­si­tion changes. Even dur­ing this six-game slide, Carolina’s of­fense has thrived un­der co­or­di­na­tor Norv Turner and his son, quar­ter­backs coach Scott Turner. In five of Carolina’s past six games, they’ve av­er­aged 389.4 yards of to­tal of­fense — with a quar­ter­back play­ing through a sore shoul­der.

CAM NEW­TON

What you’ll see

Rest, rest and more rest for quar­ter­back Cam New­ton’s throw­ing arm. Carolina likely wants to do ev­ery­thing it can to avoid an An­drew Luck sit­u­a­tion, in which New­ton, like the Colts quar­ter­back, would have to sit out a year re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing his shoul­der.

In the mean­time, the Pan­thers must think about the fu­ture. I’d pre­dict they draft a quar­ter­back for the first time since se­lect­ing New­ton No. 1 over­all in 2011 — but not as a player who would im­me­di­ately take over for New­ton. In­stead, they’d want to see if New­ton can get back to his old form and that player could de­velop be­hind him.

The thing is, New­ton might need time to get back to nor­mal. And the Pan­thers don’t seem to know how much of it he’ll re­ally need.

With so much money needed to re­struc­ture other po­si­tions, draft­ing a rookie to de­velop and per­haps one day take over would be smart.

What you won’t see The end of New­ton. Talk­ing heads and Twit­ter­ers like to spec­u­late, but he’ll be back to fin­ish his ca­reer on his own terms.

As Pan­thers vet­eran cen­ter Ryan Kalil said af­ter the de­ci­sion was made to sit New­ton, “He’s a young guy with a lot of foot­ball left in him.”

OF­FENSE

What you’ll see

Run­ning back Chris

tian McCaf­frey has proven that much of this of­fense can run through him, and es­pe­cially so the past eight weeks. He set the fran­chise record for sin­gle­sea­son scrim­mage yards on Mon­day night and has 1,747 with two games left. He has rushed for seven touch­downs, caught six and even threw one against the Saints. Af­ter just hit­ting ex­pec­ta­tions in his rookie sea­son, McCaf­frey, in the hands of the right play-caller, has ex­ceeded them in his sec­ond year.

McCaf­frey is do­ing ev­ery­thing but fly the team plane to road games. Oh, and re­turn­ing punts. Be­cause that would just be much. Carolina must re-tool

its of­fen­sive line, and a big piece of that might be right tackle Daryl Wil­liams, who went on in­jured re­serve in Week 2. Talks had started be­tween Wil­liams’ camp and the Pan­thers be­fore the in­jury, but a league source said the ini­tial of­fer from Carolina was way off the ex­pected amount. That in­jury might change things, though, and Wil­liams has made it clear he loves be­ing in Char­lotte.

Else­where, Carolina should ride with backup Tay­lor Mo­ton at left tackle. That, of course, puts them in an im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion with starter Matt Kalil’s hefty con­tract, on which he has three re- main­ing years. I don’t know how gen­eral man­ager Marty Hur­ney could wig­gle out of that one, but Mo­ton stepped up big time for the Pan­thers this year when he played left tackle, then flipped to the right be­cause of in­juries. He’s a smart player and one of the key pieces for the fu­ture.

I don’t think we’ve

seen the last of vet­eran tight end Greg Olsen. He just had a sec­ond surgery on his foot af­ter rup­tur­ing his plan­tar fas­cia in early De­cem­ber. I think he’s go­ing to give it one more go, and that the Pan­thers will wel­come that — as long as there is room for growth for rookie tight end Ian Thomas.

What you won’t see

It might be close to

the end of re­ceiver Devin Funchess’ time in Carolina. Af­ter a five-drop game against Detroit in Week 11 and a back in­jury that side­lined him in Week 12, Funchess has been all but phased out of the Pan­thers’ of­fense as they’ve fa­vored a smaller, faster and more ver­sa­tile at­tack. The wide re­ceiver mar­ket is much more in­flated for so-called “No. 1 re­ceivers” than his cur­rent value in this role, and the Pan­thers’ of­fense works with­out a stereo­typ­i­cal No. 1.

Vet­eran cen­ter Ryan

Kalil is in his last sea­son. Will the Pan­thers turn to backup Tyler Larsen full time, sign a vet­eran cen­ter in free agency or draft a de­vel­op­ment guy? Oh, and who will that player even be snap­ping the ball to?

Carolina doesn’t seem

to be­lieve it needs a “power run­ner” to com­ple­ment McCaf­frey. Af­ter re­leas­ing sel­dom-used CJ An­der­son shortly af­ter the trade dead­line this year, they might stick with that for­mula and con­tinue to keep McCaf­frey’s rather large work­load right where it is.

DE­FENSE

What you’ll see

Rivera made it clear ●

this week that he wants the Pan­thers to re-sign safety Eric Reid, which is a rare re­mark for a head coach to make with the sea­son still on­go­ing.

But they might need to make a move where vet­eran safety Mike Adams is con­cerned, if their goal is to get younger in ev­ery tier of the de­fense. Reid could take over the role of “vet­eran leader” in the se­condary, and the Pan­thers could give rookie Rashaan Gaulden his long-awaited op­por­tu­nity op­po­site him — or look to the draft.

Carolina needs to

strike gold with early draft picks along the de­fen­sive line, par­tic­u­larly at edge rusher. They prob­a­bly need a start­ing-cal­iber player to re­place vet­eran Julius Pep­pers, a solid ro­ta­tional player in tan­dem with Mario Ad­di­son, and to con­tinue to bring in depth on the in­side as well as re­ju­ve­nate their long lost speed rush.

De­fen­sive line will prob­a­bly be one of the heav­i­est ar­eas of fo­cus in the draft for the Pan­thers this spring.

Not all of the Pan

thers’ tough per­son­nel de­ci­sions will be pub­lic, but in the case of vet­eran line­backer Thomas Davis, in his 14th sea­son, it prob­a­bly will be. Davis has long been a face of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and one of its all-time best, tough­est play­ers. He also wants to keep play­ing, and his team­mates think he can so so. But with two games left on Davis’ con­tract, Hur­ney must de­cide whether to com­mit fully to a younger wave of play­ers, or stay com­mit­ted to Davis.

What you won’t see

The Pan­thers will

over­haul their de­fen­sive line to the point of look­ing into trades for for­mer first-round pick Ver­non But­ler, a de­fen­sive tackle who was benched twice this sea­son. De­spite get­ting into the ro­ta­tion be­hind Kawann Short, But­ler has not per­formed at firstround pick stan­dards.

FA­CIL­I­TIES

What you’ll see

It’s been eas­ier than ever to see how laugh­ably be­hind the rest of the NFL the Pan­thers are in terms of prac­tice fa­cil­i­ties. Car- olina prac­tices out­doors with no cov­ers or bub­bles, and has had to ad­just the weekly prac­tice sched­ule at least five times since the sea­son be­gan, be­cause of bad weather.

I’d be sur­prised if Tep­per hasn’t looked into cost and fea­si­bil­ity of overnight con­struc­tion on a dome-like struc­ture to house the Pan­thers on bad weather days. And I’d be ab­so­lutely shocked if a “bub­ble” was not firmly in place by the time train­ing camp rolls around this sum­mer.

I’d also ex­pect heavy up­grades to be­gin on Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium soon. Pres­i­dent Tom Glick, just a few months into the job, has al­ready been in­stru­men­tal in up­grad­ing equip­ment in the sta­dium to im­prove sus­tain­abil­ity and save the or­ga­ni­za­tion money on en­ergy costs. More up­grades might in­clude bet­ter health code prac­tices — badly needed, ac­cord­ing to an Out­side the Lines study — and de­tails to im­prove the fan ex­pe­ri­ence.

But all of that is rel­a­tively short-term think­ing.

In­ter­twin­ing sports gam­bling with the fans’ game day ex­pe­ri­ence could gain steam in the com­ing year. So could in­tro­duc­ing new events and per­haps even other fran­chise op­por­tu­ni­ties. What you won’t see Carolina’s sta­dium in Char­lotte isn’t go­ing any­where, at least for a long, long time. So while you might see it change, you cer­tainly won’t see it move.

And de­spite re­cent re­ports to the con­trary, the con­struc­tion a multi-use in­door-out­door prac­tice fa­cil­ity is go­ing to take a while — es­pe­cially since the or­ga­ni­za­tion has not de­cided on a lo­ca­tion.

In the mean­time, keep an eye on the small in­fra­struc­ture and cul­ture changes that un­fold as Tep­per set­tles in.

Be­cause if the right de­ci­sions are made, both on and off the field, the fu­ture of the Carolina Pan­thers could be ex­cit­ing.

DAVID T. FOS­TER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Carolina Pan­thers de­fen­sive tackle Ver­non But­ler cel­e­brates a fum­ble re­cov­ery against the Bal­ti­more Ravens on Oct. 28. De­spite get­ting into the ro­ta­tion, But­ler has not per­formed at first-round pick stan­dards.

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