Carolina Panthers opener starts with high expectations vs. ‘boys

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 26: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers runs for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the second half at AT&T Stadium on November 26, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 26: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers runs for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the second half at AT&T Stadium on November 26, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Expectations are high for the Carolina Panthers.

Is there anything sweeter than the anticipation of fans for season openers?  Maybe the usual suspects, like the kiss of a loved one after a lengthy absence, a baby’s smile for Mom’s voice, or an unexpected victory over an arch-rival that totally messes up their season. For Carolina Panthers fans, Sunday is the day last season’s 11-5 record and first round loss—and third of the year—to New Orleans gets packed away and a much-improved offense gets to put 2018 on a righteous track.

That most pigskin ‘experts’ favor Carolina is fine, and hopefully several hours of enthusiasm for pre-game activities outside BOA stadium before the 4:25 pm start won’t be depleted by what figures to be more of the high heat-humidity that is Charlotte in early September. For the players, r unning drills and such in the cauldron that was Spartanburg in August becomes a much smaller memory when someone with a star on their helmet is beating on you *for real*, and missing a block or tackle can become a slow-rising Cam Newton or points on the scoreboard.

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In Game One, the onus will be on Newton to make touch passes and hit open receivers vs. throw high and wide, as well as pump it downfield to that corps of fast receivers working against a Dallas secondary that was barely adequate (30th) last year.

Having faith in Norv Turner’s offensive system, with a plethora of new weapons for Newton —Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright, DJ Moore and CJ Anderson for starters— there’s a promise of soooo many things good from CMC (Christian McCaffrey) and expectations of a defense that will play with a nasty chip on its shoulder all year goes far beyond fans just working on their worry beads. This isn’t Cleveland, where one wicked hit on Baker Mayfield might signal the ghost of 0-16 to settle over another season, its about sending the ‘boys back to their billion dollar palace drained of emotion and wondering whether that secondary is going to do any better the rest of the year.

Can Cam put up a 24/37, 422 yard/2 TD with a 77-yard pass play and 110.4 rating (vs. Cardinals, a 28-21 loss) he began his career with? If he does, that might keep the fannies in the seats till the end, but would also blow expectations to another whole level.  (Three-ninety-nine and a 65-yarder will be fine though.) Will a healthy Greg Olsen at tight end put up another 1,000 yard receiving year? The smart money says yes, and if he conveys his ninja-like ability to disappear and then reappear with a catch for first downs to newcomer Ian Thomas, Newton will have the best move-the-sticks combo on third down he’s had since his own rookie year with Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.

On defense the Carolina Panthers appear set, even with the absence of Thomas Davis for first four games of season. The almost un-blockable Luuuuke! Kuechly is still the standard linebackers should be measured against, Shaq Thompson is ready to display what Carolina Panthers fans have been waiting for while he got less snaps playing behind Davis, and Kawann Short and Dontari Poe have been boulders against the run. That nasty chip on shoulder comes from being dissed by a writer for, and Cowboys stud running back Ezekiel Elliott is definitely a player they’ll want to stop early as proof of what rest of league has to look forward to.

The defense only picked off ten last year- Kuechly had three, and the only defensive score overall- and new coordinator Eric Washington has made scoring off turnovers a priority. Thompson was a beast throughout training camp on INTs, and rookie Rashaan Gaulden (safety/nickel back) has a real ability both on coverage and laying a whack on receivers to make a difference. That venerable safety (sorry, at 37 that’s a fairly accurate assessment) Mike Adams will provide leadership on the back end is counted on, as is James Bradberry continuing to be the best cover man they have. When (not if) Donte Jackson tips away the first of what could’ve been a touchdown pass, there will be a collective ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we needed!’ from everyone wearing blue in the stands or at home.

All three coordinators are newcomers, although Washington has just been promoted after seven years as defensive line coach and Turner is a pretty well-known quality. Chase Blackburn is handling special teams, which is more than Graham Gano pumping another kickoff into the end zone- a league best 70/83 times last year- or Mike Palardy thumping a punt. Damiere Byrd, who had a 30-yard punt return in pre-season and a 103-yard return for TD against Dolphins before being injured last year, might be a revelation in that role in 2018.

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Speedster Curtis Samuel is out with illness for Cowboy game, but he’s been deadly in preseason. Both he and Wright are slot receivers who will keep secondaries on edge, and McCaffrey and DJ Moore are already recognized as difficult to get on the ground. How soon Devin Funchess and Torrey Smith notch their first touchdowns will be a valid harbinger of offensive success. Recognizing CJ Anderson’s contributions might take a couple games, but he could become the 2018 version of Stephen Davis, who had 1,444 yards and 8 TDs in the Panthers 2003 Super Bowl season.