SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Ron Rivera is fond of an old saying: “Don’t draw me a map unless you’ve been there." He and his football team have been where the Falcons are today. Carolina ran through the 2015 regular season like football’s next global power, rode an MVP quarterback all the way to a Super Bowl, then got slapped out of dreamland.
We’re still waiting for their recovery.
If the Falcons need an example of what can go wrong one season after seemingly everything goes right, it exists just up I-85.
“I did exactly what Dan did,” Rivera said Friday, referencing Falcons coach Dan Quinn. “I talked to a bunch of people about how to get past that, how to avoid it, how to not let this happen. But at the end of the day, it’s still in your mind. Until you exorcise that ghost, you’ll have to deal with it."
Rivera is still upset the Panthers had to open last season at Denver, as the NFL matched the two Super Bowl contenders for the first time in history. Truth is, he needs to let it go. The Panthers lost five of their first six on the way to finishing 6-10 in 2016, but if their season fell apart based on one loss, that's on them, not the schedule-maker.
But there are parallels with the Falcons. Carolina's offseason was filled with narratives about the "rematch" with Denver. The Falcons have been reminded of their collapse against New England with seemingly every interview and story. It's impossible for them to escape.
Could Rivera be trying to play mind games with the Falcons? Sure. But when he says, “It’s only human nature,” that the sting of a Super Bowl loss lingers, he speaks from experience.
“You’re going to be reminded about it,” he said. "We had to do something that wasn’t done in 48 years. They (were subjected to) the largest comeback ever. They gave up 31 straight points and lost in overtime. I’ve read what they’re trying to do and what the coach is trying to do (to avoid the topic). But you never know until you start playing.”
The Falcons can make a strong case that what happened to Carolina will not happen to them. They didn’t lose a premier player to free agency off the Super Bowl like the Panthers (cornerback Josh Norman). They didn’t make other roster changes that exposed holes in their defense. And their MVP quarterback, Matt Ryan, generally is viewed as more stable, and consistent, than Cam Newton, who is coming off the worst season of his career.
But can you really know how a season will play out?
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who left Carolina for Minnesota in 2014 and was brought back this season for needed leadership, said of the Panthers: “I thought they were set up to contend for a while.”
That’s not how the Panthers look now. They believe the nostalgic returns of Munnerlyn (29) and Julius Peppers (37), the addition of safety Mike Adams (36) and the presence of linebacker Thomas Davis (34) gives the defense a nice group of leaders. But that's a dangerous game to play against younger, faster offenses.
No matter how much the Panthers want to downplay it, the stunning firing of general manager Dave Gettleman less than two weeks before training camp suggests a lack of stability in the front office, starting at the top with 81-year-old owner Jerry Richardson. (Munnerlyn: “I was stunned. To have him get fired a couple of weeks before training camp, it was like, ‘Whoa. What’s going on?’”)
Gettleman wasn’t popular with some veterans, but popularity shouldn't be a GM’s priority. The man built a Super Bowl team in three years. It's been speculated he crossed Richardson for being heavy-handed with Davis, who’s close to the owner and probably could win an election for Charlotte mayor.
Richardson then re-hired Marty Hurney, a general manager he fired in 2012. Nothing against Hurney (a former sportswriter who was doing sports talk radio in Charlotte when he was contacted last month). He also built a team that went to the Super Bowl and said the time away gave him a new perspective. But this all seems kind of strange.
But the biggest questions center on Newton. He wasn’t made available for this column. He did one pre-training group interview, which is the only time he has spoken to the media since last season ended.
The Panthers said they’re doing this because he is still rehabilitating from shoulder surgery. It's more likely the team is merely protecting him, knowing questions will not come from a positive angle, and Newton is not often at his best in media situations.
He’s coming off a bad season. His leadership skills have again been questioned. He waited until late March to have shoulder surgery for a partially torn rotator cuff, which has led to reduced throwing in training camp. (Rivera left open the possibility of Newton not playing in the preseason but Hurney said, "Oh, I would think so," when asked if he would play.")
Rivera and Hurney say Newton’s shoulder is not a major concern. They also believe Newton matured this offseason. The jury is out on the shoulder and the head.
“It’s a different type of focus,” Rivera said. “He’s gathering more information on things. He wants to prove something, and because of that he’s done some things that are completely different.”
"Everybody grows," Hurney said, adding, "The difference between being 15-1 one year and 6-10 the next is never about one person."
Newton seemed loose in his one news conference. He referenced his slimmed-down physique, saying he can't just "eat a bag of gummies and go out and play four quarters," anymore. He took last season, “extremely personal. I knew something had to change."
The Panthers want their oft-injured quarterback to get the ball out of his hand more and drafted running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Curtis Samuel. They assumption is Newton will be asked to run less.
His response: "That’s my edge. You going to expect the lion not to roar?"
The Panthers lost their roar and their swagger last season. Rivera can't put all that on a Super Bowl hangover, but it's clear that contributed to their spiral. The Falcons will try to avoid that place on the map.
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