CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers have been a dynamite team in post-Thanksgiving Day games the last two years with a combined 9-3 record.
Problem is those games haven't mattered much.
By starting each of the last two seasons 2-8, the Panthers have rendered the season's stretch run meaningless when it can to the postseason.
Tight end Greg Olsen said if the Panthers hope to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, they'll need to start faster this season.
"We can't put ourselves in that hole and think a late six-game push is going to put us over the top when you start the season 2-8," Olsen said. "We need those late-season pushes, but that is to put you into the playoffs not to just salvage a season. And that's kind of how it's been the last couple of years — the games at the end of the season, even though they're good to win, they kind of became meaningless.
"We need to make those games in November and December real and the only way to do that is to put ourselves in playoff contention early."
Here are five things to watch as the Panthers try to end their playoff drought:
CAM NEWTON'S MATURATION: Newton has scored a combined 62 touchdowns and thrown for more yards (7,920) than any quarterback in NFL history his first two seasons in the league. But Newton is 13-19 as a starter since taking over a team that was 2-14 in 2011 and said he needs to be smarter and "value every possession." ''These past two years there were too many series where we put ourselves in bad third down situations," Newton said. "So it's about maximizing every down and perfecting each and every drive."
RUNNING BACK PRODUCTION: Mike Shula takes over for Rob Chudzinski as the offensive coordinator and while the plays won't change all that much, the philosophy will be tweaked. Shula wants the Panthers to return to a "more traditional" running offense. Newton led the team in rushing last season, but Shula would like to cut down on his quarterback's carries. That doesn't mean the Panthers plan to abandon the zone read option altogether, but they certainly won't use it as much as they did under Chudzinski. "We (as running backs) have always been involved in the running game, but I think we got away from it a few years ago," said running back DeAngelo Williams said. "We got a new offensive coordinator so we're starting off with a clean slate. We'll see how it goes."
THE FRONT SEVEN: If outside linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis can stay healthy and budding NFL star Luke Kuechly continues to progress, the Panthers have a formidable starting linebacker unit to go along with defensives ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who combined for 23.5 sacks last year. The Panthers added Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short and re-signed Dwan Edwards — who had six sacks last season — to shore up their defensive tackle position, so the front seven looks to be pretty strong. "Every defense has an identity, and coming out of the shoot the front seven is certainly what we think on paper will be our strength," said Panthers defensive coordinator McDermott. The concern is the secondary where the Panthers don't have a true shutdown corner. Drayton Florence and the undersized Captain Munnerlyn are expected to start at corner and Mike Mitchell appears to have won the starting strong safety spot and will play alongside free safety Charles Godfrey.
RON RIVERA'S FUTURE: Rivera is 13-19 in two seasons and was allowed to keep his job after a meeting with owner Jerry Richardson in January. Rivera insists he's not worried about his job, but another slow start could spell the end of Rivera's tenure in Carolina. This is clearly a make or break year for Rivera.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Panthers haven't had a big play returner since Steve Smith returned kicks a decade ago, but Rivera believes the team has solved that problem with the acquisition of Ginn. On his first opportunity of the preseason, Ginn returned a punt for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens. Ginn was let go by Miami and struggled to find a home in San Francisco, but seems eager to rejuvenate his NFL career with the Panthers.
Online: AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Steve Reed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SteveReedAP