CHARLOTTE — When last we saw the Panthers, their season for the ages had just ended with a whimper in a 24–10 loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
But, oh, what a ride Carolina had on the way there. When Cam Newton wasn’t dabbing, he was spearheading the league’s highest scoring offense that deftly borrowed from past NFL champions and college football. They laughed a lot and took celebratory pictures on the sidelines during games on the way to a 14–0 start and 15–1 record.
While the offense put on a show in more ways than one, the previously unheralded defense (aside from linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis) seemed to be the feisty backbone of the team. When they weren’t fighting teammates, they were slugging it out with their opponents. That scrappy, us-against-everybody mentality seemed to propel the Panthers’ defense from the No. 21 scoring defense in 2014 (23.4 points per game) to No. 6 in ’15 (19.2), solidifying the Panthers as Super Bowl contenders.
In the middle of everything (especially the fights) was cornerback Josh Norman, whose road from an unheralded fifth-round draft pick to elite All-Pro cornerback illustrated the kind of lunch-pail mentality the Panthers’ defense possessed. He said anything, did anything, shut down all comers and then told them about it again afterwards. As the season progressed, you could see the entire Panthers’ defense take on the swag generated by his persona and his play.
“We all fed off [his swag],” starting free safety Tre Boston says, while walking off a steaming practice field this week. “We definitely took on that persona.”
But before the Panthers could settle into the mode of defending their NFC title, Norman was gone. After getting nowhere on a contract extension and facing the possibility of a holdout and/or Norman playing just one more season under the franchise tag, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman shocked the NFL by rescinding the tag and making Norman an unrestricted free agent on April 20. Two days later, Norman was being fitting for a Washington jersey after getting the megabucks contract he wanted from Carolina.
Now, as the Panthers begin the process of not only repeating last season’s success but exceeding it, they are dealing with a tough question to which they may not have an answer: do they have to rekindle the type of attitude they received from Norman, or do they have to forge ahead with entirely new approach and hope for the best?
“That's a good question and a fair question,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott says in the back of the defensive meeting room. “I believe that every team has its own identity. You have to start from square one again every year.
“Certainly we have a certain culture in the building and that will carry over from year to year, and that starts at the top with Mr. [Jerry] Richardson. What doesn’t necessarily carry over is the chemistry. And I believe every team has its own chemistry because of the personalities. Josh was here, now he’s gone. Insert some good young rookies that we drafted, and they’ll bring their own personalities. That’s what we’re working on now.”
Say one thing about the Panthers’ rookie cornerbacks, which were taken in succession with the team’s three middle picks in the draft (second, third and fifth rounds): they’re not shy with their play. During team drills in Wednesday’s practice, nickel cornerback Zack Sanchez (fifth round) bobbled what might have been a pick-six of Newton, and a few plays later, Daryl Worley (third round) intercepted Newton deep down the field. James Bradberry (second round) continues to line up with the first-team defense.
“We brought them here for a reason, and that’s why they’re out there working with the ones and twos,” coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s an opportunity for them to show us what they can do and what they’re capable of.”
So far so good, but Boston knows that the rookies will need to play to their personalities if the Panthers are to enjoy another feel-good season.
“We never try to replace anybody,” Boston said. “If they go, that’s them. If somebody comes in with the same attitude and it's the same person, we’ll let it be. But it’s a different team. We don’t like to look back on what we used to have because then you're looking differences instead of similar traits. Right now, we’re trying to get that, we’re trying to get guys to become more of their personalities. We want them to relax, we want it to flow. And then when that happens, we will see the guys that are at that pace, that want to talk, we’ll let them do that. Even myself, I’m going to get to a point where I’m going to be more relaxed. You’re doing to have a different swag.”
So far, Rivera is content with Life After Josh, but he knows there’s a long ways to go. And along the way, the Panthers will change their persona, just like they did last season.
“With a new season, you need new way of doing things,” Rivera says. “It’s kind of funny. Somebody said something about how Cam Newton’s not going to dab anymore. That’s because it's time to move on. When we first got together for OTAs, I told the guys, ‘The only way to get back and win it is we can’t start from where we finished, we have to start from the beginning.’ So we’re not starting where we finished the 2015 season. We’re starting here, at the bottom, just like we started the 2015 season.
“I think your team evolves as the season goes along, I really do. People say, ‘You have a theme and you hit that theme all season.’ I’ll be honest with you, I may start with one thing but as the season goes along, the season takes on its own personality, the team takes on its own personality, so I’ve evolved my theme.”
It’s going to be a new mix, theme and personality without Norman. The Panthers have to hope it measures up the same, no matter the form that it takes.