Panthers open preseason with new focus on winning

Entering his third NFL season when open the preseason against the Chicago Bears on Friday night, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has plenty to prove.

Even though he set a handful of records his first couple years, the main stat that defines Newton is the Panthers 13-19 record since 2011.

When Dave Gettleman was asked this week if Newton was the quarterback the team should build around, the first-year general manager paused, and then answered, “Yes, he is. But now it’s time to win.”

Gettleman at once praises Newton and believes his accomplishments are often overlooked, but is specific about the bottom-line issue.

“Cam has had the best two years of any rookie quarterback in NFL history,” Gettleman said, sort of extending the meaning of a rookie year. “And everybody talks about the other young (quarterbacks). What he’s done has been completely lost in the sauce because of the elephant in the room — the 13-19 record.”

But for Newton to be successful, the parts around him have to provide a significant amount of help. To many, some of his growth was stunted by former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who ran too much of the Panthers offense through his young quarterback.

Besides needing new offensive coordinator Mike Shula to realize Carolina has a talented stable of running backs that can handle much of the offensive load, Newton would benefit immensely by the emergence of at least one more weapon in the passing game.

Wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen are very good 1/1A options, but the Panthers offense would be much more formidable if a guy like fourth-year wideout Brandon LaFell could improve significantly on his 44-catch, 667-yard, four-touchdown 2012 season.

With LaFell locked into the No. 2 spot, free agent signees Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn were expected to battle for the No. 3 role. But after very solid OTAs and minicamp, the previously disappointing Armanti Edwards has continued to impress during camp.

During a recent practice in which Smith sat out, Edwards was used as the second receiver during team drills. And the former college quarterback, who many thought would be cut over the past couple seasons, continues to make some eye-catching receptions.

“I’m really excited to see him when we get to actually playing the football games in the preseason,” Rivera said. “And I hope it does translate because he’s earned it.”

While the Panthers desperately need at least one guy from the LaFell, Hixon, Ginn and Edwards group to emerge this season, the fact remains no wideout is as essential as Smith.

The 34-year old is entering his 13th NFL season, but he surprisingly hasn’t lost the bulk of his speed or explosiveness.

So what’s been his secret to sticking around so long? He credits good genes and a diet of organic foods.

“What I’m doing at 34, there are GM’s hoping and praying they can draft a guy that can do what I’m doing,” Smith said.

As the clock winds down toward Carolina’s new season, there’s plenty of folks praying Smith can keep doing what he’s been doing. And perhaps there’s no one hoping as much as Carolina’s young quarterback and new GM.

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