Postcard from camp: Panthers
Ryan Kalil's Super Bowl guarantee has been met with support from the Panthers
Cam Newton will be smarter this season about when to run, based on the defense
Rookie LB Luke Kuechly has stunned the team with how quickly he's adapted
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about Panthers camp in Spartanburg, S.C., which he visited on July 30. Read all of our postcards here.
At Wofford College in the genteel city of Spartanburg, S.C., the only training camp home the Panthers have ever had in the franchise's 18 seasons. Team owner Jerry Richardson played at Wofford back in the day and has the school's Physical Activities Building named after him, which is the least the school could do since he probably paid to have it built. The night I was at practice, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was on hand to read a proclamation honoring Richardson for bringing the NFL to the Carolinas. She kept mentioning with pride 20 years of Panthers football, even though we're not even at 19 yet. But you know what they say: Never let the facts get in the way of a good proclamation.
1. I'm not sure Ryan Kalil taking out a full-page newspaper ad to promise a Super Bowl championship to Carolina fans would go over well in every NFL organization. (Can you imagine the fallout in New England, where they actually own a Lombardi or three? "You did what?,'' a certain hoodie-wearing coach might ask his veteran offensive center). But this isn't Foxboro, and Kalil's bold form of personal expression has been viewed as anything but a negative. His teammates embraced his message, as did his head coach, Ron Rivera, and even normally cautious Panthers general manager Marty Hurney told me he liked Kalil's tone and willingness to express confidence in his team.
The part I love is that Kalil didn't even bother to tell anyone or clear it with anyone in Carolina's front office or coaching staff. He just did it, and lived with the consequences. He said he didn't want to dilute or paraphrase his message in any way, so he figured a full-page ad was the best way to have complete control over his words. Of course, as an old print journalism guy, I'm for anything that helps the struggling newspaper industry stay afloat.
"I wanted to kind of give the fans a reason to get behind us,'' Kalil told me. "It was a letter intended for the fans, by a fan of the game. I think a lot of people forget that, as players we were and are fans of this game. I knew I'd get some heat for it and rightfully so. It's a bold prediction to make. But I wanted to let the fans know we were getting serious about being good again, and let them know their unwavering support will pay off because better years are to come.''
2. I heard something really smart from Panthers quarterbacks coach Mike Shula, who probably doesn't get enough credit for Cam Newton's rookie success in 2011. I asked Shula if the Panthers would prefer Newton didn't run the ball another 126 times this season (about eight times per game), in order to save his body, or if you can't limit that part of his game because it's so pivotal to how he challenges a defense? Shula said he talked with ex-Falcons head coach Dan Reeves about it, because Reeves faced the same issue once Atlanta drafted Michael Vick in 2001.
"With Vick, he said if teams were playing him in a lot of zone, with everybody facing (the quarterback), they didn't want him running much and exposing him to a lot of hits that way,'' Shula said. "I'm not saying that's what we're going to do with Cam, because he's a lot bigger than Michael. But it made a lot of sense to us, and it made a lot of sense to Cam, too. He understands, if he's scrambling, and he's got man coverage, he's not going to get three or four guys hitting him. In zone that can be the case, and he'll get down quicker. But when it's man, he knows if he can make that one guy miss, make a move, he'll get a lot more yards.''
3. We're not supposed to root for players in my line of work. But an exception is allowed from time to time, and I'm using one to pull a little for Carolina outside linebacker Thomas Davis this season. You know the gist of his story. He has fought his way back from a third torn ACL in the past three years, the first known NFL player to have come back three times from that demoralizing injury. I can't imagine what it feels like trying to push that same rock back up the hill over and over, but Davis, 29, is progressing well enough and figures to be the team's fourth linebacker, playing in combination on the strong side with starter James Anderson. Davis, the Panthers' first-round pick in 2005, deserves a season of health, good fortune and anything but more days spent rehabilitating his battle-scarred knees.
Luke Kuechly, outside linebacker. The term "pro-ready'' gets thrown around entirely too much in the pre-draft scouting process, but in Kuechly's case, the label is the only one that fits. The Panthers' first round pick, taken ninth overall, has looked like he belongs in the starting lineup from day one of camp. Shifting to the weak side in order to make room for returning middle linebacker Jon Beason, who lost almost all of last year to an Achilles tendon tear, Kuechly has been wowing everyone with his instinctive style of play. His play recognition skills are excellent, and the game is definitely not moving too fast for him so far, in that typical rookie way. If Kuechly isn't seriously in the running for the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award by October, it'll be an upset.
"He's got a natural feel for the game and great instincts,'' Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "You watch tape or watch him live and you'll say, 'That's not the kind of play you would expect a rookie to make.' He's a very good football player and he's going to help us.''
Mike Tolbert, running back. Even with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart already spearheading the Carolina running game, just watch how the Panthers find ways to use the versatile ex-Charger. Both Rivera and Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski worked on Norv Turner's staff in San Diego and they know what Tolbert can do: 735 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in 2010, with 54 receptions and eight rushing touchdowns last year.
Add in his special teams contributions -- he had a team-best 12 tackles in San Diego last season -- and Tolbert is one of the more valuable members of the Carolina roster. At 5-foot-9, 243 pounds, Tolbert is a handful to bring down, and his north-south running style is already a popular sight at Panthers camp. He signed with Carolina in free agency because he wanted to be closer to his native Georgia, and his ability to block, run, catch and do just about anything asked of him on special teams renders him one of the best low-profile acquisitions of the NFL offseason.
Just where the young and hungry Panthers stack up in the NFC South this season should be determined early, with Carolina facing all three of its division foes in the first four weeks of the season. The Panthers help open the Greg Schiano era in Tampa Bay in Week 1, then draw the suspension-weakened Saints for their Week 2 home opener, before a Week 4 trip to Atlanta rounds out their challenging September (a Week 3 Thursday night primetime home game against the Super Bowl champion Giants is no picnic either).
Carolina won four of its final six games last season, and the Panthers need to build on that momentum with a hope-infusing fast getaway. It helps that the Panthers get to stay home for four of their first six games, playing half of their Bank of America Stadium schedule before the start of the World Series. But equally important to a good start is a strong finish. Carolina showed a propensity to lose sizable second-half leads in 2011, and closing the deal late in games is the obvious path to playoff contention this year.