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Panthers, Newton prepare to get off to fast start in 2013

If the past two seasons have taught Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera anything, it's the importance of starting fast.

The Panthers stumbled out of the blocks the last two seasons, going 1-5 in 2011 and 1-6 last year. The slow starts cost general manager Marty Hurney his job.

By midseason the Panthers have been out of the playoff hunt, so it hardly matters that they've gone 9-3 in post-Thanksgiving Day games during that span or that they won four straight to close last season.

Rivera told Cam Newton and the rest of his players that they need to arrive at training camp with a sense of purpose, focused on being ready to go out and win the season opener at home against the Seattle Seahawks. On Sept. 8.

"I'm going to talk about starting strong," Rivera said. "Because if you don't start fast, you have to make it up anyway."

Five things to watch for:

1. CAN CAM IMPROVE? Newton has put up all sorts of impressive statistics his first two seasons in the league, but there are two numbers that don't work in young quarterback's favor: 13-19. That's his record as a starting NFL quarterback. The bottom line is Newton needs to find a way to help the Panthers win meaningful games. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he plans to simplify the play calling along with eliminating some of the verbiage from predecessor Rob Chudzinski's playbook. The good news for Newton is he'll still have his favorite weapon, the seemingly ageless Steve Smith, who had 73 catches for 1,174 yards last season. Smith turned 34 in May.

2. BACK TO THE RUNNING GAME: The Panthers restructured the contracts of running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart this offseason, a sign both plan to be in the mix this season along with fullback Mike Tolbert. Shula said he plans to use his backs more after Newton led the team in rushing a year ago. That doesn't bother Newton one bit. "For us, the running game is key," Newton said during minicamp. "In years past, success for the Carolina Panthers has meant getting our running backs involved in the game early and letting those guys do what they do. I feel like we have an unbelievable group.

3. MAN IN THE MIDDLE: The Panthers have one of the game's top young linebackers in Luke Kuechly, who led the NFL in tackles last season en route to AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The 2012 first-round draft pick out of Boston College showed an incredible ability to sniff out the ball and was rarely was fooled. If the Panthers can keep outside linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis healthy — and that's a big if — they could have one of the best linebacker corps in the league. Beason has only played in five of the team's last 32 games due to injury. Davis capped a remarkable season by returning from three torn ACLs in as many years to play 15 games last season and record 105 tackles.

4. STAR IS BORN: The Panthers spent their first- and second-round draft picks on what general manager Dave Gettleman calls "hog mollies," adding defensive tackles Star Lotulelei from Utah and Kawann Short from Purdue. The move was done in part to allow Kuechly to run and make more plays and to help free up double teams on Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who combined for 23½ sacks last season giving the Panthers the most unheralded sack tandems in the league. The Panthers are hoping that a strong front seven takes pressure off a suspect secondary that lost Chris Gamble to a salary cap move.

5. LOOKING FOR GINN GAME ON RETURNS: The Panthers haven't gotten much out of their return game in recent years, but they added free agent Ted Ginn Jr. in hopes of giving them a boost. But Ginn will have a battle on his hands as several others are looking to compete in that area, including Kealoha Pilares and Armanti Edwards.

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Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org