I love this time of year in the NFL, just after the draft. It's filled with hope, promise and the dawn of a new day as teams prepare for the coming season.
I don't think they have a chance.
They don't have a chance for anything.
I think the Panthers enter the 2013 season as the worst team in the NFC South. They finished last season at 7-9, tied in the division standings with the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But both of those clubs made improvements. While I liked the Panthers' haul in the 2013 NFL Draft, where did Carolina get noticeably better? Honestly, the Panthers could be one of the four worst teams in the NFC. Consequently, I expect this season to be Rivera's last at the helm in Carolina.
I don't believe Newton has what it takes to eradicate and/or mask areas of deficiency. I don't believe he is an elite, upper-echelon quarterback. The Panthers have finished under .500 in both of Newton's seasons as the quarterback. Cam can be dazzling and, at times, absolutely breathtaking. He also can be inconsistent when it comes to protecting the ball and downright maddening in terms of how he handles the "fifth quarter" responsibilities that come with being an NFL quarterback. Remember the press conference during which he asked for the suggestion box? Franchise quarterbacks and team leaders don't do that. Newton rightly drew ire for performing his Superman routine when Carolina was losing big. Newton seemed aloof on the bench during losses, especially a 29-point, nationally televised defeat to the New York Giants on NFL Network. His teammates have yet to vote him captain. That tells me something. Newton still needs to grow up. That's a problem.
When I look at the young group of quarterbacks, I don't put Newton in the category of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. He hasn't earned it. Luck and RG3 carried bad teams and were the epitome of clutch; the vets followed their lead. You don't see that happening with Newton in Carolina. Luck and RG3 would've put the flawed Panthers in the playoffs last year, just like they did with, respectively, the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins. The Panthers are 13-19 with Newton. Quarterbacks are judged by wins and losses. Going into Year 3, you can call Cam Newton electric, but you can't call him a winner.
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I loved Carolina's appointment of Dave Gettleman as the new general manager. Former GM Marty Hurney helped doom the Panthers with a series of questionable drafts/free-agent contracts. Gettleman is the right guy for this difficult cleanup job, but I would've let him choose his own head coach. I don't believe Rivera will ever develop into a great head man. Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski took the Cleveland Browns' head-coaching gig, and then quarterbacks coach Mike Shula replaced him. This appointment was odd, considering that Newton really hasn't progressed. This staff needed surgery; instead, Carolina applied a Band-Aid.
I would've shown Rivera the door and had Gettleman handpick a head coach -- as well as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach -- to foster Newton's development. Carolina needs an offensive guru who demands perfection and accountability from Newton. I would've handed the keys over to Mike McCoy, Jay Gruden or Ken Whisenhunt.
In defense of both Newton and Rivera, though, let's remember that this team just isn't very good.
What's the identity? Where are the Panthers strong? They lack depth at receiver. It's not a great offensive line. On the defensive side of the ball ... I loved the selection of Star Lotulelei in the draft. Luke Kuechly is a stud; I voted for the star linebacker as Defensive Rookie of the Year. But this defense still has more holes than Swiss cheese.
Here's the other ultra-important issue: Carolina clearly has the worst roster in the division.
The Bucs traded for Darrelle Revis and signed Dashon Goldson, instantly turning an area of weakness (the defensive backfield) into an area of strength. Offensive guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks are returning from injury. The Bucs are better than the Panthers in every area besides quarterback. Meanwhile, New Orleans welcomes back Sean Payton as head coach. He changes everything for the Saints, from attitude to play selection to overall execution. And despite the Atlanta Falcons' loss in Carolina last December, I think it's safe to say Atlanta is a wee bit more talented.
Cam Newton isn't focused enough -- or good enough -- to overcome the obstacles he'll face in this competitive division.
I love Carolina Panthers fans. They've been a downtrodden and beaten-down bunch the past few years. They deserve better.
I don't think Newton and Rivera are the guys to deliver a winning product. History and a glimpse into the crystal ball say so.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.