CHARLOTTE – One day after being bounced from the NFL playoffs, the Carolina Panthers turned their attention to doing something no other team in franchise history has done: reach the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
The Panthers have been to the playoffs five times in 18 seasons, but never in consecutive years.
All-Pro fullback Mike Tolbert said the Panthers are out to change that.
“I think we’re on the verge of something special, so I’m excited about the future,” Tolbert said.
The Panthers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 going 12-4, winning the NFC South and capturing the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. It all came to an abrupt end Sunday with a 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but coach Ron Rivera still called it a successful season.
“We learned a lot about who we are as a football team, a lot about our football players,” said Rivera, who was 13-19 in his first two seasons as Panthers coach. “... I’m pretty fired up about that. I think going forward it means a lot of good things.”
But Rivera cautioned that “if we don’t learn from the games we played this year then we wasted this season. We are not going to do that.”
Like every other NFL team, the Panthers have holes to fill and free agents to re-sign.
The most pressing need is getting defensive end Greg Hardy under contract. The 25-year-old Hardy is due to become an unrestricted free agent and is expected to command a huge payday after collecting 15 sacks this season and 26 over the past two years.
“He’s an explosive guy, a playmaker who causes problems up front,” Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “He rushes the passer and if you have a disruptive passer who can bump inside and rush like Greg does, that is really helpful.”
Hardy is one of eight starters set to hit the free agent market.
Other key players with expiring contracts include longtime left tackle Jordan Gross, wide receiver Brandon LaFell, safety Mike Mitchell, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and kicker Graham Gano.
Carolina also must decide if now is the right time to extend quarterback Cam Newton’s contract. Newton is technically under contract through 2015 providing the team picks up his fifth year option on his rookie deal, but they’re now allowed to extend his contract.
Carolina’s could use some help blocking up front for Newton and more weapons in the passing game after finishing 29th in the league in that category.
Adding help in the secondary is also an area they’ll need to address.
So while the loss to the 49ers still lingered in the air Monday inside a somber locker room, there was overriding sense of optimism that better things are just around the corner.
Gross, who has been with the Panthers since there only Super Bowl season in 2003, believes the core of the team is firmly in place – built around a franchise quarterback in Newton and a strong, young defense led by Kuechly. Carolina’s defense finished second in the league this season in points allowed and yards allowed.
“This team is definitely set up for long-term success,” Gross said. “I think that this is just the beginning, I really do. It’s great to know that the team is in a healthy position now. ... This team has as good of a chance as anybody of being successful for a long time.”
As he cleaned out his locker, Kuechly said he hates to see the season end because the team had developed such good cohesiveness.
The Panthers were 3 1-2 games behind the Saints in the NFC South five games into the season before storming back to win eight straight games and 11 of their last 12 to take home the division title.
“We accomplished a lot and did some things we wanted to do this year,” Kuechly said. “We got the division, we made the playoffs. Now we just have to build to next season.
“I think we’re trending up. We have a good mix of guys feeding off each other. We have a good set of building blocks.”