SPARTANBURG, S.C. –Tight Greg Olsen said the Carolina Panthers need to have a sense of urgency this summer at training camp after the team’s sluggish starts the past two seasons.
Five-time Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith couldn’t agree more.
“A sense of urgency is an understatement,” said Smith, the team’s senior statesman entering his 13th season.
The Panthers started 1-6 last season and 1-5 in 2011.
And while the Panthers finished strong both seasons they weren’t able to dig themselves out of that early hole and reach the playoffs.
Coach Ron Rivera enters his third season squarely on the hot seat, barely keeping his job after going 13-19 the past two seasons.
He can’t afford another slow start.
“Slow starts will get you fired, cut and bring change real quick for everyone,” Smith said.
The Panthers team that arrived at Wofford College on Thursday for training camp bears a strong resemblance to the group that finished last season with four straight wins. The only regular starters who’ve moved on are cornerback Chris Gamble and linebacker James Anderson.
While players’ opinions varied on the importance of last year’s strong finish, they all agree on the need to be ready when September rolls around.
“We can’t put ourselves in that hole and think a late six-game push is going to put us over the top when you start the season 2-8,” Olsen said. “We need those late-season pushes, but that is to put you into the playoffs not to just salvage a season. And that’s kind of how it’s been the last couple of years — the games at the end of the season, even though they’re good to win, they kind of became meaningless.
“We need to make those games in November and December real and the only way to do that is to put ourselves in playoff contention.”
Olsen believes the key to starting fast is identifying the team’s strengths heading into the season.
Rivera said earlier this offseason there will be more of an emphasis on getting running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart more involved in the offense.
Although Williams and Stewart have both proven capable of spearheading a top-notch rushing attack in the past, it was quarterback Cam Newton who led the team in rushing last season with 741 yards.
Stewart, who is recovering from surgery on both ankles this offseason, said he will not be ready for Friday night’s first practice.
He said there is a still a substantial level of pain in right ankle and isn’t sure when he’ll be ready to get on the field.
“They found a lot of loose bodies hanging out in my ankles and they cleaned that up,” Stewart said. “Right now I’m just left with the damage that the loose bodies have caused. So that’s what I’m working through.”
Linebacker Jon Beason is trying to bounce back from microfracture surgery on his right knee and said he’ll miss the start of camp too.
Beason has missed 27 of the last 31 games with injuries.
He said there’s a chance he won’t practice much at all this summer so he can rest for the regular season.
“I’m not great right now and I can admit that,” Beason said. “But we still have time. I’m optimistic about that. I’ve done everything I can do at this point. It’s a waiting game.”
Carolina hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2008.
Offensive tackle and co-captain Jordan Gross said he likes the idea that the Panthers are flying under the radar this season and that pundits aren’t placing much faith in them.
“We’re in a nice spot with this team,” Gross said. “There are some people who think we can be good but nobody is picking us to be first in the division. That’s a good spot to be in because there is less pressure on us and just lets us do our thing down here at camp and get ready.”