CHARLOTTE – Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he’s looking for bigger and better things from his team this year despite a tumultuous offseason.
“Status quo isn’t good enough,” Rivera said following rookie minicamp practice Friday.
The Panthers went 12-4 last season to win the NFC South before losing 23-10 at home to San Francisco in the divisional playoffs. Improving on that could be difficult considering their alltime leading wide receiver Steve Smith was released, left tackle Jordan Gross retired, quarterback Cam Newton underwent ankle surgery and “franchise” defensive end Greg Hardy was arrested for assault on a female and communicating threats.
“It (has) been an interesting offseason,” Rivera said. “When we first got into the season a very wise sage, (Panthers communications director) Charlie Dayton, told me (that success) is going to bring a whole new set of problems.
“So we will just deal with them and move forward.”
Hardy is first and foremost on Carolina’s mind. The Panthers made him their franchise player in March, a significant one-year, $13.116 million investment that prevented them from re-signing several of their other free agents. Hardy didn’t take long to sign the offer sheet.
It might be a good thing he did.
The contract is guaranteed, although his arrest certainly muddies the team’s decision on whether or not to give him a hefty long-term contract extension as they were hoping to do this offseason.
Rivera declined to answer a number of questions about Hardy, who was released from jail Wednesday on $17,000 bond.
He wouldn’t say if Hardy had been asked to stay away from the facility.
“The biggest thing we need to do more than anything else is focus in on what we’re doing on the football field and let other things play out,” Rivera said. “The most important thing is the guys who are here and working hard.
“It’s about who is here and doing the things we need to get done.”
Only rookies and tryout players participated in the minicamp practice, which runs through today.
Rivera said Carolina feels good about its wide receiver position despite parting ways with the Smith and the allowing its other top three wideouts – Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon – to leave via free agency.
He’s also optimistic last year’s right tackle Byron Bell or converted defensive tackle Nate Chandler will be able to protect Newton’s blindside that Gross manned for years.
The Panthers will rely heavily on Kelvin Benjamin, the team’s first-round draft pick from Florida State.
Rivera said Benjamin made a good first impression Friday.
“He’s everything we thought he would be,” Rivera said. “We’re not in pads but watching his route running, watching him catch the ball, and some of the adjustments he makes are really good to see.”
Benjamin said he’s familiar with most of the routes the Panthers had him run Friday. He’s also excited about working with Newton, who is out of his boot and has begun rehabilitating his surgically repaired left ankle.
Rivera said he believes this year’s team can be as talented as last year’s club, which surprised many by winning the division after a 1-3 start.
“Everything we do is to get better,” Rivera said. “We’ve had to evaluate our team, look at team and make some very tough decisions going into free agency and tough decisions going into the draft and we are going to have to cope with them.
“It’s our job to coach these guys up and get them in position to perform at the highest level possible for us to win football games.”