The Carolina Panthers would like to forget that 2016 ever happened.
Following up on a dominant 15-1 season during which they appeared unstoppable, the Denver Broncos did just with a stunning 24-10 Super Bowl win that negated everything for the Panthers.
The loss had a hangover effect as Carolina limped to a 6-10 record and missed the playoffs.
Quarterback Cam Newton’s 2015 NFL MVP season in which he strutted, pranced and did the dab dance after his total 45 regular season touchdowns were cruelly snuffed out by a relentless Broncos defense.
Not only was Newton ground into the turf at Levi’s Stadium, but the swarming Broncos also broke him psychologically as his post game sulking during the press conference showed.
Newton still didn’t have his head on straight in a rematch against the Broncos in the 2016 opener during which the beating resumed, leading to his father complaining about how many hard hits that he took.
Supercam’s season was a disaster, he only threw for 19 touchdowns along with 14 picks and seemed hesitant to take chances on the ground. Some of his woes were attributed to injury but you have to wonder how much of it was mental.
Newton had offseason shoulder surgery and is throwing again. He’s still THE man at quarterback and will have every chance to regain his MVP form.
One big addition is going to be of immense help to Newton. The Panthers snapped up former Stanford star Christian McCaffrey with a high first round draft pick.
McCaffrey is a multi-dimensional threat who can run, catch and return kicks and he terrorized PAC-12 defenses during his college career. The Panthers’ running game hasn’t been efficient behind aging Jonathan Stewart and McCaffrey should breathe new life into the ground attack as he is a threat to score every time that he touches the ball.
In addition to McCaffrey, Newton has decent targets in the passing game. Wide Receiver Kelvin Benjamin should be fully recovered from the knee injury that caused him to miss the entire Super Bowl season and tight end Greg Olson is as dangerous as ever.
Besides Newton, the team’s 2016 woes were compounded by a suddenly porous defense that was largely the result of allowing star cornerback Josh Norman to walk via free agency.
Without Norman, the secondary was continually shredded in a division with prolific passers Matt Ryan and Drew Brees.
The Panthers ended up giving up the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL last year and twenty-first overall in defense, a serious drop-off from the previous season.
Dealing with Norman’s loss was bad enough and you have to think that the front office would like a mulligan on that one although they’d never admit it.
But injuries also played a party, especially to key players.
All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly missed significant time due to a concussion and the defensive line failed to live up to expectations. In a head-scratching move this offseason, the Panthers practically gave away Kony Ealy to the Patriots.
Ealy was a one-man wrecking crew in the Super Bowl and giving up on him due to a dropoff in performance seems to be a self-inflicted wound. This will hurt even more if he becomes the dominant force that he can be under Bill Belichick’s coaching.
Carolina brought back 37-year-old Julius Peppers to pick up the slack but Peppers is hardly the player that he was during his early years with the team that drafted him. Not a good tradeoff, especially if Ealy becomes a star.
Head coach Ron Rivera will try to put the pieces back together again and if he is able to get Newton back on track, there’s no reason why the Panthers can’t contend for the division title this year but until the defense can stop the pass, a return to the Super Bowl is unlikely.