A year after the level and severity of hits taken by quarterback Cam Newton became the season's underlying story in Carolina, the team is trying to change that narrative for 2017.
"We struggled last year with [protecting the quarterback and putting playmakers around him]," Rivera said. "The first one being able to protect him. Our left tackle Michael Oher gets hurt and we got to reshuffle our offensive line and move guys around. That wasn't the best thing for us. We went out and made some moves in free agency to help sure-up the offensive line. Then we go out and feel like we have to continue to put playmakers around him. We went out and found a very versatile, explosive running back who had a tremendous college career, and hopefully that translates to the NFL, in Christian McCaffrey. We went out and got Curtis Samuel out of Ohio State, a very explosive vertical attack.
"That's something we want to continue to do. And yes, there are some things we want to do in terms of getting the ball out of Cam's hands and putting it the in hands of the playmakers. And those two young guys, they're not going to be just the primary targets. We've got a tremendous slew of targets on our team, starting with Jonathan Stewart, and being able to run the ball. One thing we found in 2013, 2014 and 2015, we went around and looked at what we did running the football, and how much that translated to victories for us.
"Then we look at what our tight end can do," Rivera continued. "Greg Olsen, getting vertical and making plays for us. Finding the seams in the defenses. Then Kelvin Benjamin, with his size, and Devin Funchess. We've got what we feel like has the potential to be an explosive offense. And yes, a lot of the idea is to take the pressure off our quarterback, and take some of the hits off of him as well."
The Panthers' staff as a whole deserves credit for consistently trying to evolve its offense around Newton. Their 15-1 run back in 2015 was the perfect storm of good fortunes, though it featured an entirely unsustainable offensive model. Newton's mountainous facade crumbled a bit in 2016 due in part to the gloomy defensive strategy that developed among opposing teams during Carolina's Super Bowl run -- take Newton down early and often. While that is always the strategy for defensive coordinators, Newton's penchant for shifting into a power runner during various zone-read or option-type plays made this a far more likely scenario.
McCaffrey was consistently linked to Carolina this offseason due in large part to his receiving skills and football IQ, both of which could allow him to improvise along with Newton the way Olsen has done successfully throughout his career. The more options Newton has, the quicker he gets rid of the ball. The faster he gets rid of the ball, the fewer hits he takes (in theory). The fewer hits he takes, the longer Carolina has Newton on the field.
For Rivera, lengthening the career of the NFL's best athlete is always a top priority.