January 03, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers need to evolve as an offense and find new and different ways to use versatile quarterback Cam Newton following a disappointing 6-10 season.

Newton struggled in 2016, one year after being named the league's MVP. He threw just 19 touchdown passes - after tossing 35 in 2015 - and had 14 interceptions and a league-low 52.9 completion percentage. He wasn't as effective as a runner either, averaging a career-low 4 yards per carry while playing behind an injury-riddled offensive line.

''He still has a unique skillset,'' Rivera said. ''We just have to find the best way to utilize it now.''

Carolina dropped from No. 1 in scoring in the league in 2015 to 15th in 2016.

While the Panthers have relied heavily upon Newton as a rusher during his first six seasons, that could change.

He's carried the ball 689 times during the span - by far the most of any quarterback in the league - and has run for more TDs (48) than any QB in league history. Rivera sounded like the team will be veering away from the read option which the Panthers ran so effectively early in Newton's career in order to prevent further wear and tear on his body.

The 27-year-old Newton missed one game with a concussion in 2016 and struggled through a shoulder injury late in the season.

''He's not as young and nimble as he used to be,'' Rivera said. ''We have to be smart about that and think about other ways to use him. ... You can't sit there and expect us to run 20 zone reads and then expect him to carry the ball say 10 out of 20 times.''

Rivera made it clear that he believes offensive coordinator Mike Shula is the right man to help the offense evolve. And he also thinks Newton will be up for any change in philosophy, regardless of what it entails.

''Cam is always all in,'' Rivera said.

The Panthers finished last in the NFC South, one year after going 15-1 and reaching the Super Bowl. They're the 13th team to lose a Super Bowl and not make it back to the postseason the following season.

''The Carolina Panthers are not going away,'' general manager Dave Gettleman said. "We will get this corrected."

Five things to watch for from the Panthers in the offseason:

CAM'S SHOULDER: Newton will not need surgery in the offseason despite playing the final month of the season in obvious pain.

''Rest,'' Newton said on Sunday. ''Lots of rest.''

Rivera said he appreciates Newton giving it all he had for the team and playing through pain, adding ''I thought Cam Newton was about as courageous as it gets.''

HEAD GAMES: There is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the future of left tackle Michael Oher, who only played three games this season due to a concussion. Oher has two years remaining on a three-year, $21 million contract he signed last offseason, but if he decides to call it quits the Panthers will need to find a replacement to protect Newton's blindside.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, is in a similar situation having missed nine games over the past two seasons with concussions. However, Kuechly was cleared from the concussion protocol for the final three games - although he didn't play in them - and Gettleman said he has ''no concerns'' about Kuechly availability next season.

SHORT TIMER?: The Panthers will have to make a decision on whether to use the franchise tag on soon-to-be free agent defensive tackle Kawann Short. The franchise tag hasn't worked out well for the Panthers the past few seasons with Josh Norman and Greg Hardy, but Gettleman wouldn't rule out using it on Short.

Unlike Norman, Short said he would ''probably'' sign the franchise tag offer if the Panthers used it on him.

''We are two totally different people,'' Short said.

SECONDARY SETTLED: The Panthers had plenty of questions surrounding their cornerback position following the departure of Norman and veteran Charles Tillman last offseason. However, Gettleman was pleased with the development of rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, who have a chance to be the starting tandem for years to come.

''I'm proud of how they came to work, how they approached things, but also the growth that they made,'' safety Kurt Coleman said. ''They started to make a lot of plays. They weren't just out there, they made an impact.''

ASSISTANT COACH WATCH: The Panthers coaching staff remained intact last offseason, but it's unclear if Rivera will have the same group in 2017. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will interview with the Buffalo Bills for their head coaching vacancy.

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