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State of the Franchise: Ron Rivera-led Panthers at a crossroads

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Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Panthers organization, Panthers fans around the world and those who would have just given up that seat to Cam Newton because that's the kind of deference and respect that he deserves:

This is a critical time for the Panthers. After some unprecedented prosperity in recent seasons, you have reached a crossroads. The team is now three years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. Consistency continues to remain an issue.

How the Panthers got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season:

The highs:

-- A 6-2 start made the playoffs look inevitable. Cam Newton played like one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and the team looked the best it had since 2015. But then all of the unpleasantness happened.

-- Graham Gano kicked a 63-yard field goal to beat the Giants in Week 5. Seriously, what's it like to have a reliable kicker you can count on in situations like this? Must be super nice.

The lows:

-- The Panthers won just one of their final eight games. The win came Week 17 against the Saints (who had already locked up home-field advantage). Included in that losing streak was a prime-time drubbing at Pittsburgh.

-- Cam battled shoulder injuries for most of the season and missed the final two games of the year. And seriously, don't take my word for it. You can watch the entire thing unfold on the award-winning "All or Nothing" series, which will be streaming on Amazon Prime Video:

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Ron Rivera. Riverboat Ron! You know, sometimes I wonder if that nickname is more myth than reality. Rivera had a fourth-and-short on the opening series at Atlanta in Week 2. But instead of going for it with one of the greatest QBs in NFL history, he allowed Gano to kick a 54-yarder. And maybe it's because I'm a Bears fan and I don't know what it's like to have trust in a kicker who can boot 50-yarders, but that disappointed me. That notwithstanding, Rivera has been the most successful coach in club history, having led the team to three consecutive NFC South titles from 2013 through '15, a run that included that famed 15-1 season that ended in an NFC title.

But consistency has been a bit of an issue, as Rivera has yet to have back-to-back winning seasons. Which might make you say to yourself, "Rank, you really must be eating paint chips because you just said he won three straight NFC South titles a few years ago." Which I did just write, but remember the Panthers won the 2014 NFC South title with a 7-8-1 record. And with Carolina fresh off a promising-turned-disastrous campaign, the Panthers' head coach is under pressure to show second-year owner David Tepper that he's still the right man to steer the ship. But here's the good news: Rivera has been down this road before and his teams have always responded. This could be the last stand for Rivera in Carolina, so he's going (forgive the expression) "all in" by taking over defensive play-calling duties, a move he first made during the middle of last season.

Quarterback: Cam Newton. You might have noticed I referred to Cam (we are first-name cool) as one of the best quarterbacks to walk the planet, and I fully believe that. He's one of the most disrespected great quarterbacks ever. He is typically an afterthought when it comes to ranking signal-callers, but to me, he's one of the best that I've ever seen play the game. And here to illustrate that is this Sporting News ranking of today's quarterbacks: Cam is No. 19. That's right, behind such luminaries as Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins. Both are fine quarterbacks, I suppose. I mean, if I were playing a pickup game of football in Newport Beach, I would certainly want to be on their teams. But they are not better than Cam. Our own Gregg Rosenthal was better, having Cam all the way up at No. 15. And here is a list from Chris Simms, who has him ahead of Tom Brady. And, no wait, that's too far, Chris. Chris! I like the spirit, but let's be realistic at the same time.

Listening to Simms talk about Newton, though, I really do agree with a lot of what he's saying. Cam is certainly not going to be a guy who lights up the stat sheet, passing for 5K yards and 51 touchdowns (which can be frustrating to fantasy dorks like myself at times). But he is a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators. You can't get comfortable against him, and he's a better passer than he's given credit for. Cam can stretch the defense by throwing darts, but he can also tuck it and run to do his damage. And he's one of those players who's just absurdly physically imposing, something that's often taken for granted. He's the best.

So, if he's good this year, the Panthers should be good.

Projected 2019 MVP: Christian McCaffrey, running back. Obviously so much of this season depends on Cam and how he returns from injury, but McCaffrey has been the truth since he came out of Stanford in 2017. He nearly became just the third guy in NFL history to notch 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. (Only Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk have accomplished the feat.)

Not to mention the dude has arms like John Cena now:

2019 breakout star: D.J. Moore, wide receiver. I thought he was the best receiver in last year's draft, and we really only got a taste of what he can do on the field. Moore averaged 7.9 yards after the catch last year, the third-most over the last 10 NFL seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. The highest average was Percy Harvin's 8.7 yards after the catch in 2012. Moore draws a lot of favorable comparisons to Harvin because of his game-breaking ability. Moore also led NFL receivers in forced missed tackles and total yards after contact.

But don't be sleeping on: Curtis Samuel, wide receiver. I'm also eagerly awaiting a breakout by gadget guy Samuel, who also has the ability to break big plays. I'm telling you, the Panthers' offense could be a nightmare for defensive coordinators this season. When you have McCaffrey, Moore and Samuel, there is a lot for offensive coordinator Norv Turner to work with.

And I'll be honest with you, I wasn't sure Turner was going to be good with Cam last year. But he kind of proved me wrong. The offense looked great while Cam was still healthy. Turner said this year's team could be explosive. I'm here for it.

New face to know: Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle. The Panthers are currently in the middle of a youth movement, with young talent brimming at nearly every position. But sometimes you need that veteran presence to help pull things together. They signed Bruce Irvin early in free agency as sort of that veteran presence. Clearly not the player he was earlier in his career, Irvin was still worth the risk, especially because the Panthers didn't really know what else could be out there. It's like when you crack your TaylorMade driver and you need to get a new one, so you find a serviceable one at the local golf shop. You think, Yeah, this should do, but then all of a sudden, your buddy gets a new driver and lets you have his old one he wasn't using anymore. It's kind of like that with McCoy. The Bucs signed Ndamukong Suh and allowed McCoy to walk. And just like that, the Panthers had a veteran to anchor the defense that they weren't counting on.

BTW, I really did crack my driver and need a new one. So if there is anybody who has any recs, I would appreciate it.

2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. It's been a long tenure for Rivera. I give credit to Tepper for staying the course after he took over the team in 2018, and even showing some restraint after the season got away from the Panthers last year. But you can't imagine Rivera is going to be given much room for error.

Will the Panthers be able to ...

Avoid giving up chunk plays? There was a stretch last year when teams were beating the Panthers deep. It was called the 2018 season. I kid. But I think back to Week 10. The Panthers went up against the host Steelers, 7-0, on McCaffrey's touchdown reception and you're like, "Oh damn, the Panthers can play." Then JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a 75-yard touchdown pass on the next play from scrimmage. The Steelers won 52-21. The Lions' Kenny Golladay burned Carolina the following week with some big receptions. It was Seattle's David Moore the following week with a 54-yard reception and a 35-yard touchdown catch. Then Chris Godwin. And you get the picture.

Get to the quarterback? A way to stop those big plays is to get to the quarterback. Put some pressure on him. Rookie DE Brian Burns was such an obvious fit for the team, and he's going to be counted on to contribute right away. When you mix him in with Irvin and McCoy, this should be less of an issue for the team.

Continue to protect Cam? That's going to be one of the keys moving forward. The Panthers ranked 18th, according to PFF, in terms of pass-blocking efficiency last season. The line allowed 10 sacks, 13 hits and a league-leading 70 hurries in 2018. There have been some changes, though. Ryan Kalil retired. The team brought in Matt Paradis to anchor the offensive line, re-signed Daryl Williams and drafted Greg Little in the second round.

Three key dates

-- Week 1 vs. the Rams. Get to start the season against the reigning NFC champions. If you want to show that Cam is going to be ready to play, here you go.

-- Week 2 vs. the Buccaneers. Gerald McCoy REVENGE GAME. But seriously, while it'd be great to make a statement against the Rams, I would argue that this one is the most important game to get.

-- Week 12 at the Saints. I don't get the NFL schedule sometimes. The Panthers finish the season series with Tampa Bay in Week 6, and don't even play the Falcons or the Saints until Week 11. But this clash in New Orleans could be pivotal for the coming season and the future of some of these coaches.

One storyline people are overlooking: Donte Jackson is a pretty good corner. I remember a few years ago when the Panthers withdrew their franchise tag on Josh Norman, and it was bedlam in the NFL newsroom. But since that time, the Panthers have longed for that shutdown corner, and Jackson looks like that guy now. Jackson had three interceptions during the first three weeks of the season last year, including two against the Bengals in Week 3. He ended up leading the team with four interceptions. One area he could improve on is his tackling, though, since Jackson led all corners with 15 missed tackles last season.

One storyline people are overthinking: Cam Newton's new throwing motion. Cam had shoulder surgery in January and debuted a new throwing motion in camp this offseason. And of course, it was one of the most discussed topics of the Panthers' offseason. The idea is to take some strain off his shoulder and make him more efficient. And it's one of those things where he will end up reverting back to his old motion (as David Carr mentioned on "NFL Total Access"). But that's what happens. It's like when you take golf lessons, you practice all of that stuff out on the range, but once you're ready to actually hit the links, you are going to rely on your muscle memory to take over. And that is what is going to happen with Cam. Once he starts playing games, he's going to be the player he's always been. And that's one of the best players in the NFL.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Panthers MUST ...

-- Play with some consistency.

-- Have Cam play a full season.

-- Get back to the playoffs.

The final item is the most pressing. If the Panthers aren't still playing in January, I don't see Rivera surviving in Carolina.

In closing

If you're a believer in trends, then you have to be optimistic about the Panthers' chances this season. If Rivera is hot one year and cold the next, then you should be enthused that he's due for a hot season. And really, this team isn't far off from the club that started 6-2 last year, which should give you hope.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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