Carolina Panthers: Greg Hardy

Next on my list of top moments that defined the Carolina Panthers in 2014 is one that cost the team $13.1 million in salary cap space and became a huge distraction.
  • No. 2: Hardy goes on exempt list
  • Date and place: Sept. 17, Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
  • The moment: Defensive end Greg Hardy left the stadium around 2:30 p.m. on the Wednesday before Carolina played Pittsburgh after agreeing to go on the NFL commissioner’s exempt list until his domestic violence case was resolved. He didn’t return to play another game.
  • Hardy
    Hardy
    Why it was so significant: First, it meant Carolina would be without its 2013 sack leader, a player whose versatility to play end, tackle and drop into coverage was key to a No. 2 ranking in defense last year. That the moment came three games into the season made it more significant because the Panthers spent the entire offseason and training camp building their scheme believing Hardy would be a part of it. It took three players to ultimately replace all Hardy did, and even then the defense struggled in pressuring the quarterback and giving up big plays for more than half the season. As coach Ron Rivera eventually noted, the defense didn’t start playing to its capabilities until that unit fully moved on from believing Hardy would return. This was a distraction that didn’t go away until after a 38-19 loss at Green Bay on Oct. 19. As general manager Dave Gettleman said at the time of the decisions, “We are in the midst of a very trying and difficult situation. ... There’s no rule book for this. Our overriding goal has always been to do the right thing."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Welcome to the first installation of the Carolina Panthers Saturday mailbag for the 2015 offseason.

I apologize up front for not getting to all the questions. There were more I had space to answer, so don't let that discourage you from submitting for future mailbags.

Having said that, let's get to the ones that made it:
@DNewtonESPN: Not sure a home run, but at least a bases-loaded triple when you look at the entire class. Let's go one by one. I'd say first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin was at least an inside the park homer with 11 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards receiving. Were it not for the drops he would have been a grand slam. Second-rounder Kony Ealy, a defensive end from Missouri, steadily improved throughout the season and showed he has potential for the future. Third-rounder Trai Turner, after overcoming injuries, proved he could be an anchor at guard for years to come. Fourth-rounder Tre Boston, a free safety from North Carolina, and fifth-rounder Bene' Benwikere, a cornerback from San Jose State played big roles in Carolina's late-season surge. Injuries, particularly to Boston (sports hernia), kept them from contributing all season. The only miss was sixth-round draft pick Tyler Gaffney, who suffered a season-ending injury in training camp and then was claimed off waivers by New England. He never got a chance to prove himself. Still, four out of six starters at the end of the season is exceptional. Arguably the best class in team history.
@DNewtonESPN: I'd say 10 percent. Ron Rivera likes what Greg Hardy brings to the team in terms of production and the way he prepares week in and week out. But this won't be the coach's decision. It will have to have the stamp of owner Jerry Richardson, and I just don't see him giving it.
@DNewtonESPN: Assume you are talking Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, and not including Fozzy Whittaker in the conversation. It's hard to imagine Carolina bringing Williams back. He'll be 32 this season and Stewart has proven he can bear the load of 20 carries a game. He was one of the league's top rushers at the end of the season. The Panthers also need to start prepping young running backs for the future, and there wouldn't be enough carries for that if all three stayed on the roster. Plus, cutting Williams would free up still much-needed room on the salary cap.
@DNewtonESPN: I don't really see Carolina going after the ones you mentioned. While general manager Dave Gettleman is looking beyond the “Dollar Store,'' he'll still be looking for good value. If the Panthers spend big money in free agency on one position it will be a left tackle or a defensive lineman. Gettleman loves his “hog mollies.''
@DNewtonESPN: First, let me ask how the restoration of the Big Peach water tower is going? As for big-name free agents, as I mentioned above, not too big. Gettleman said they wouldn't be shopping at Tiffany's, remember.
@DNewtonESPN: I love mailbag humor. I'd suggest putting landmines behind him so he'll stop throwing off his back foot and step into his throws more. Seriously, he was throwing as well as I've ever seen him during training camp before the fractured ribs. The time spent not being allowed to run because of the ankle surgery forced him to focus more on fundamentals. I suspect he'll get back to that during the offseason.
@DNewtonESPN: As I wrote on Thursday, Duron Carter had a good visit that included dinner with Rivera and Gettleman, and a workout with receivers coach Ricky Proehl. He went from Carolina to Cleveland. I'm hearing the Panthers stepped up with a potential offer, but Minnesota remains the favorite for the son of former Vikings star Cris Carter. Still, the opportunity to play with Cam Newton and opposite Benjamin has to be enticing. A decision is expected next week.

Carolina Panthers season report card

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
11:00
AM ET
video » AFC: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South


Head coach Ron Rivera summed it up best when he said instruction manuals aren’t written on how to handle seasons like the Carolina Panthers had in 2014.

Quarterback Cam Newton missed the season opener with fractured ribs, then sat out at Week 15 victory after breaking two bones in his lower back during a car crash. Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy spent the final 14 games on the commissioner's exempt list, awaiting the resolution of his domestic violence case. The offensive line and running backs corps were decimated by injuries, leading to a 1-8-1 stretch.

But because the NFC South was so down, the Panthers made the playoffs with seven wins. They won a wild-card game before losing at Seattle in the divisional round.

MVP: Tight end Greg Olsen. Throughout a season of inconsistency for the team, Olsen exemplified consistency on the field while dealing with his 2-year-old son's heart condition. There were times when Olsen actually left the field during practice to be with his family in the hospital. Despite that, he had a team-best 84 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns to make his first Pro Bowl. He was among the league leaders at his position all season in catches and yards. His numbers would have been even more impressive had he not had to stay in to block when the line was being revamped due to injuries.

Best moment: For the team it would have to be the 41-10 victory at New Orleans. At a point when the rest of the NFL had given up on the Panthers, they put together their best game of the season. But to me the best moment was when backup quarterback Derek Anderson, forced to start a late-season game against Tampa Bay when Newton was injured in a car crash, did Newton's trademark first-down point as a tribute to his teammate after running for a touchdown. It showed the next-man-up mentality and tightness of the locker room that kept this team moving forward in hard times.

Worst moment: Newton's scary car crash was one. On the field, it had to be a 31-13 loss at Minnesota when the Panthers had two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in the first half. Other than the blocks, Carolina outplayed the Vikings in a game it needed to win coming off a late-season bye. The breakdowns epitomized the inconsistency of the special-teams unit and the team in general before its late-season run.

2015 outlook: As badly as things went at times, the future looks bright. Seven rookies started in the final two regular-season games and played well, which should lessen the urgency to sign big-name free agents to fill gaps. The defense that finally came together after a midseason loss at Green Bay returns almost all of its key pieces, most notably two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly. The offense also returns intact with the biggest question mark being whether to re-sign left tackle Byron Bell, which seems unlikely. The salary-cap situation isn't nearly so dire, either, giving the Panthers room to sign Newton long term and add much-needed pieces such as a left tackle and a speedy receiver.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Questions I would like answered when Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman meet with the media on Tuesday at 11 a.m. ET for their season-ending review:
  • Will the Panthers sign quarterback Cam Newton to a long-term deal before the 2015 season or wait to see how next season goes? It only makes sense to go ahead and lock Newton up if a deal can be reached. Knowing Gettleman, he’ll give his patented "I don’t talk about contracts" reply? But if the organization is committed to Newton long-term as I believe it is this would be a good time to make that clear.
  • Will the Panthers be interested in re-signing defensive end Greg Hardy if he is found innocent of domestic violence charges following his Feb. 9 court date? Or even if he’s found guilty? Cornerback Josh Norman and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said they would welcome Hardy back either way. Norman said Hardy would play for free, which would only seem fair since he received $13.1 million and two playoff checks for playing only one game this season. But it’s hard to believe the organization, after all the grief and controversy Hardy’s case has caused since May and knowing how owner Jerry Richardson hates grief and controversy, would welcome the 2013 Pro Bowl selection back regardless of the outcome in court.
  • Will running back DeAngelo Williams be back? The team’s all-time leading rusher will be 32 next season, and Jonathan Stewart proved over the last six games he deserves to be the starter going into next season. Williams has one year left on his contract with a 2015 salary-cap figure of $6.3 million, but cutting him would save the team $2 million under the cap. With Fozzy Whittaker serviceable as a backup, it may be time to move on.
  • Will Byron Bell be the left tackle entering next season? Bell becomes an unrestricted free agent in March. His struggles have been well publicized. Pro Football Focus rated him No. 83 out of 84 tackles. That position appears to be the most glaring need for change.
  • Will special-teams coach Richard Rodgers keep his job? Rodgers’ unit was the most inconsistent all season. Two blocked punts returned for touchdowns -- in one half -- in a loss at Minnesota is a fireable offense alone. But overall this unit made mistakes week in and week out that were costly. In Rodgers’ defense, Gettleman let return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. go in free agency and several other key players were injured during the season. But the overall product simply wasn’t good.
  • Who will the Panthers take with the 25th pick of the NFL draft? OK, that might be a stretch.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Next up for the Carolina Panthers: free agency and the NFL draft.

The Panthers (8-9-1) will draft 25th after seeing their season end with a 31-17 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Saturday night at CenturyLink Field.

Carolina has 11 players set to become unrestricted free agents on March 10. They are: QB Joe Webb, TE Ed Dickson, LT Byron Bell, OL Fernando Velasco, OL Garry Williams, OL Kevin Matthews, DE Greg Hardy, DT Colin Cole, DT Dwan Edwards, LB Chase Blackburn, CB James Dockery.

The biggest decision, assuming the Panthers don’t plan to pursue Hardy after the completion of his domestic violence trial that sources told ESPN.com has been scheduled for Feb. 9, is whether to re-sign Bell.

Bell said after the game he wanted to return and he believes he deserves a second chance. He also understands that’s in the hands of management.

The game also was a microcosm of Bell’s up-and-down season. The botched first-quarter handoff between quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart that resulted in a fumble and ultimately Seattle’s first touchdown came because of heavy pressure from Bell’s side.

Newton was sacked for an 8-yard loss to start a drive with about 10 minutes left to play when Bruce Irvin beat Bell.

Odds are a top-notch left tackle won’t be found in the draft at No. 25. Those usually go in the top 10.

That means the Panthers can opt to seek a left tackle in free agency or re-sign Bell, or gamble on a rookie.

Other needs Carolina might address with the No. 25 pick:
  • A speed receiver: 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin had over 1,000 yards receiving this season. He had two touchdown catches against Seattle’s tough secondary, and almost had a third. But he doesn’t have elite speed. Undrafted rookie Philly Brown has the speed, but he’s not an elite receiver. Finding an explosive player to blow the top off of coverage should be a priority.
  • A return specialist: If Carolina can get a dynamic receiver who also could return kicks, that would be a bonus. Brenton Bersin isn’t that guy. The team’s inability to get anything on punt returns consistently left the Panthers in a hole at times this season. That was glaring on Saturday night.
  • A cover corner: Bene’ Benwikere had a solid rookie season, even though he got beat for a deep touchdown against Seattle. But he may be even a better nickelback, so a tall corner who can complement Josh Norman on the other side would be a nice fit.
  • Defensive linemen: As general manager Dave Gettleman said, you never can have too many “Hog Mollies.’’ Defensive tackles Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards are nearing the back end of their careers, but each may have a few good seasons left. Each also is a free agent. Both want to return as well, but even so the Panthers need to prepare for the future.
Welcome to a special Saturday NFC wild card, Game Day mailbag.

The Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) face the Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at 4:35 p.m. today. You are probably gearing up for tailgating or watching the game on television. While you’re waiting for the kickoff, I’m here to answer a few questions. Let’s get to it:

@DNewtonESPN: Probably. I won't say yes, because nothing ever is 100 percent. But as I said earlier in the season, it's tough to judge quarterback Cam Newton on this season because of all the injuries and offseason changes. For the same reasons, it's been hard to judge offensive coordinator Mike Shula. But I do know this. Newton likes Shula and this offense, especially since they have gone to the no-huddle with more regularity. It's an offense that complements the defense with ball control. To make a change now possibly could lead to a step back to start next season. Would I be saying this had the Panthers gone 0-4 in December instead of 4-0? Probably not. And there still are issues that need to be corrected in the red zone. But the strong finish has quieted most of the critics. Funny how winning cures all, right?

@DNewtonESPN: My biggest surprise is the way the whole Greg Hardy situation was handled by the team and the league. In my opinion, had the Panthers suspended Hardy for the first four games after his initial guilty verdict in July, it wouldn't have escalated to where it is now. I know there were legal implications, since under North Carolina law that verdict was set aside as though it never happened, with the appeal coming sometime in 2015. But you still could have sat him for violating the code of conduct and avoided a lot of backlash. That also could be characterized as a disappointment. But if you want something else, I'll go with the play of the initial starting secondary. The experiment of moving Charles Godfrey from safety to cornerback never worked. Free safety Thomas DeCoud was too slow. That only one starter remains from Week 1 says it all.

@DNewtonESPN: There have been a lot of big moves, but I'll go with the revamping of the secondary. It began with adding cornerback Josh Norman to the starting lineup. He brought an attitude and ability to cover top receivers one-on-one that had not been there. Then there was the addition of rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere and rookie free safety Tre Boston. The secondary was deficient in speed, and that never was more evident than against Green Bay. Since Benwikere and Boston moved into the lineup, the Panthers are 4-0. Enough said.

@DNewtonESPN: I'll have a full list of Carolina's free agents posted on Monday, but there aren't many on there that I would call key. Hardy would have been in that category, but his legal situation has taken care of that. After him, the two biggest names are left tackle Byron Bell and backup tight end Ed Dickson. Bell has played much better down the stretch, but the Panthers still have to decide if he's the player they want to move forward with. Re-signing Dickson, in my opinion, is bigger because he's coming into his own in this offense.

@DNewtonESPN: The Panthers probably have played their way out of a top left tackle. If they make a change there, it will probably be through free agency, and then draft a prospect to develop in the second or third round. A speed wide receiver or cornerback might be there from picks 21-32, and those players often make the best return specialists. The Panthers still lack a dynamic player there. But where the Panthers will draft now, you can almost guarantee the team will take the best-player-available approach..

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott told reporters to be patient when his unit was ranked 28th in the NFL. He reminded them it's a 16-game season and not to judge the product too early.

He was right.

The Panthers (7-8-1) enter Saturday’s NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals (11-5) ranked 10th in the NFL in total defense, the third-straight year McDermott’s unit has achieved a top-10 ranking.

[+] EnlargeSean McDermott
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator Sean McDermott shuffled the secondary at midseason and the changes paid dividends, particularly in December.
The recipe, while it took a while to get here, is the same as last season: stop the run, pressure the quarterback with four down linemen and force turnovers.

During their four-game winning streak, opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 22.2. Only the defenses of the Texans (15.2) and defending Super Bowl champion Seattle (15.6) have been better.

That is the recipe for success in the playoffs. Since 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information, all but two of the Super Bowl champions were ranked in the top 10 in opponent quarterback rating. Five were ranked in the top five.

Defense is big reason the Panthers are favored against a team with four more wins. Defense is a reason they have a chance to advance.

The turnaround began nine games ago. But it didn’t fully take until four games ago when Carolina added more speed in the secondary with a pair of rookies -- Bene' Benwikere replaced Melvin White at corner and Tre Boston replaced Thomas DeCoud at free safety.

And don’t forget Josh Norman emerging as a cornerback with shutdown capability.

Since then all the pieces have fallen into place in terms of getting pressure with the front four and forcing turnovers.

The Panthers have 14 of their 40 sacks and nine of their 26 forced turnovers since the overhaul of the secondary.

“I will just say this, the pass rush and the play of the secondary go hand in hand,’’ defensive tackle Colin Cole said when asked why the front four seems to be so much more effective lately.

A year ago,, the pressure applied by the front four was credited with the strong play of a relatively new secondary. This year the revamping of the secondary has played a big role in the front four finally getting back on track.

“A lot of it has to do with the personnel and the personnel getting comfortable,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “When I was in San Diego, in the middle of the season we went from, I think, 26th to 14. We’ve gone from 28 to 10. It speaks very well to the coaching job that’s been done, but also to the development of our players.’’

ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory following the 2002 season, said McDermott deserves more credit than he’s received.

“They might play the game on defense with as much effort as I’ve seen all year,’’ he said. “Dallas and Carolina have two of the great effort defenses in the tournament.’’

It begins with linebacker Luke Kuechly in the middle. Arizona coach Bruce Arians called him the “best middle linebacker in football.’’

“But I think as a group they understand their defense extremely well,’’ Arians added.

The loss of defensive end Greg Hardy before the third game hurt. Last year’s sack leader was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list until the conclusion of his domestic violence case is resolved, which won’t be until sometime in 2015.

Carolina spent the first seven games giving up big plays, uncharacteristically losing gap control. Rivera and McDermott both said at the time players were trying to do too much to replace Hardy and the mistakes were fixable.

McDermott had to use blitzes to apply pressure, which made the Panthers even more vulnerable.

Now that the group has added speed and begun playing with stronger fundamentals, the numbers support the effort.

The Panthers have used four or fewer pass-rushers 31 percent of the time in the last four games. That number was 20 percent in the first 12 games.

Opposing quarterbacks had an average quarterback rating of 80.1 against Carolina in the first 12 games compared to 22.2 the last four. Their completion percentage has dropped from 68.8 percent to 58.1. Their ratio of touchdowns-to-interceptions has gone from 12-7 to 1-5.

The Panthers have sacked or put opposing quarterbacks under duress on 32.5 percent of their dropbacks in the last four games. That ranks second in the NFL.

In their first 12 games, that number was 22.5 percent to rank 28th in the NFL.

As a result the Panthers have allowed only 43 points (10.75 ppg.) during this four-game stretch. Only Seattle with 33 has allowed fewer. Carolina ranked 29th in points allowed (27.8) over the first 12 games.

“Right now we’re doing a much better job of executing the game plan,’’ outside linebacker Thomas Davis said.

And the man putting together the plan is the same person that said not to judge his defense prematurely.

Another good call.

The celebration was dying in the visitor's locker room at the Georgia Dome on Sunday night and Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson was standing quietly in front of his locker.

Quiet is what Johnson is known for.

But about forty-five minutes earlier the eighth-year player out of Georgia was standing in front of his teammates, addressing them in a way that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott never had seen.

Johnson made it clear he wasn't satisfied with getting to the playoffs for the second straight year and fourth time in his career. He made it known in an uncharacteristically boisterous tone that he hadn't won a postseason game and he wanted to badly.

Johnson
"I don't know if three or four years ago, when I first got here, if that would have taken place with Charles," McDermott said on Monday as he recalled the scene following the 34-3 victory over Atlanta. "To have players is one thing. To have leaders is another.

"And Charles' leadership has been on display the last several weeks on the field, leading by example, and also some of things I've heard him say. And yesterday was the latest example of that."

Carolina coach Ron Rivera agreed. When asked why the defense has gone from the 28th-ranked unit in the NFL to the 10th over the past few months he began with Johnson.

"We've always considered him a leader, but man, the last four weeks he's been phenomenal," Rivera said.

Statistically, this hasn't been Johnson's best season in terms of sacks and quarterback pressures that have been his forte. He has 8.5 sacks, his lowest total since 2009.

But 4.5 of those have come in the past six games when Johnson's play on the field picked up. Exactly what changed, Rivera can't say for sure, although the improvement of players around Johnson has helped.

Second-round pick Kony Ealy, for example, has a sack in each of the last three games. His maturity and improvement has allowed McDermott to utilize him at tackle and end the way he did with Greg Hardy the past few seasons.

But ultimately, it came down to Johnson stepping up.

"He's a very unique individual," Rivera said of the team's second all-time leading sack leader (62.5). "He cares a lot, but he's really guarded and lately he's been very emotional and very outspoken, which in my opinion is very uncharacteristic of him. But I'm glad he's doing it.

[+] EnlargeCharles Johnson
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCarolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson lands a hit on Falcons QB Matt Ryan during their Week 17 game at the Georgia Dome.
"You talk about guys that can back it up by what they do, that's impressive to me. He's been that way for us, especially the last four weeks."

Rivera has admitted on several occasions the defense didn't begin playing to its potential until after a 38-17 loss at Green Bay. That's when he said players moved on from the possibility of Hardy returning from the commissioner's exempt list.

Johnson was one of those that benefited most from Hardy, who is awaiting a 2015 trial on his domestic violence case. With the 2013 sack leader on the opposite side, it was tough for defenses to match up.

Not having him has been an adjustment.

"I do think there was a part of us that said, 'Guys, we've got to get past it. We've got to move on,' " Rivera said. "And it's hard because he was such an integral part of what we had planned for going into this year and what he was for us last year.

"But I think it's also been part of what's helped with Charles now, is knowing that, 'Hey, I'm the guy.' More so than, 'Hey, I'm sharing this with the other guy.' I'm excited about who he is."

Johnson is driven, perhaps more than any point of his NFL career that began in 2007 when the Panthers selected him in the third round.

You can hear the passion in his voice as he talked about what the Panthers (7-8-1) have to improve on to get him that elusive playoff win.

"If guys come together like they did today, we can do anything," Johnson said.

Johnson always has set the bar high for his teammates with his work ethic. He's always one of the first to arrive at the stadium and one of the last to leave. He's always working out on Tuesdays, typically a day off for players.

Now he's setting the bar high with his words as well.

"I just went through and talked about it to his teammates about guys playing and guys playing well and doing their job," Rivera said. "He has stepped up and raised his game to a whole new level."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It’s back to the business of deciding the NFC South between the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons.

Whoever wins on Sunday will be the division champion and host a playoff game. The loser starts preparing for free agency and the draft.

In other words, there are plenty of questions and I'm here to answer them for you:

@DNewtonESPN: If they get past Atlanta, which remains a big if, anything can happen. The Panthers are playing about as well as any team in the league defensively now, having moved to 10th in the most recent rankings. The offense is starting to click, although red zone struggles remain an issue. Because they'll be hosting a first-round playoff game if they win, and the likely opponent is an Arizona team down to its third quarterback, that game is very winnable. I still don't believe the Panthers are good enough to beat Seattle on the road, although they played the Seahawks close here. Green Bay might be the second toughest opponent in the NFC. The other teams all have flaws and are beatable. But if you're asking if I believe this team could get to the Super Bowl, probably not.

@DNewtonESPN: I won't say all, but I'll say Jonathan Stewart should get in the range of 20 carries and DeAngelo Williams should get 6-10 carries when both are healthy. Stewart is hot with more rushing yards (437) in the last four games than any back in the NFL. I'm a big believer in riding the hot hand.

@DNewtonESPN: I still say take an offensive tackle in the first round if you can find one good enough to start. But as Ron Rivera mentioned when I wrote about the youth movement earlier this week, the success of the young players in general could give the Panthers the option of taking a "luxury" pick in the draft. They still need another dynamic wide receiver and another top cover corner would be nice. But don't get too wrapped up in the recent success of the line. The inside guys are strong. I'm still not sold on the tackles, although Mike Remmers has earned the right to battle for a starting job on the right side next season and Byron Bell has played better lately. But remember, the defenses the past few weeks haven't been all that good.

@DNewtonESPN: Long term is kind of relative in the NFL. It's more about what have you done for me lately. As much as the players like Ron Rivera and as much class as he brings to the organization, if they don't make the playoffs it will be three times in four seasons. I don't care how good the coach is, if that is the trend he won't survive too many more seasons doing that. Having said that, the pieces are in place for long-term success with Luke Kuechly as the anchor on defense and Cam Newton at quarterback. As inconsistent as Newton is as times, he's still a top 15 quarterback. Those don't grow on trees. Rivera is a great motivator and great teacher of life lessons. As I said, the players really like Rivera and owning the locker room is important for success.

@DNewtonESPN: I'm sure they already have talked, but it's probably not necessary. These teams have met once already this season and everything the Panthers really need to know is on film. What's Mike Shula supposed to say? "Hey, cover Julio Jones. He's pretty good.''

@DNewtonESPN: The Panthers don't have a lot of key players that will be unrestricted free agents. Defensive end Greg Hardy would have been the biggest were it not for his legal issues. I'd say backup tight end Ed Dickson, and perhaps either Dwan Edwards and/or Colin Cole would be the highest priority. Some might argue left tackle Byron Bell, but as I said earlier I'm still skeptical there.

@DNewtonESPN: Graham Gano isn't worried. He put the miss against Atlanta behind him two seconds later. Ron Rivera isn't worried. He understands kickers are going to miss. Perhaps Gano spoiled everyone with his long-range perfection last season. He's still a solid kicker and one many teams in the league would love to have.

@DNewtonESPN: We've already seen the "Riverboat" mentality return to a degree with the aggressive play calling in late-game situations. Ron Rivera said "lesson learned" after Sunday's game, which I took to mean he learned from the first Atlanta loss when the Panthers became conservative in the final minutes of a 19-17 loss.

@DNewtonESPN: I wouldn't say underwhelming for Star Lotulelei's season. He was injured at one point and he has played well down the stretch even if the numbers aren't there. He also didn't have Greg Hardy in there causing havoc and drawing attention from the tackles, so that had to have an impact. He's still solid and very valuable to what Carolina does.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Frank Alexander knows he made the same mistake -- twice. He knows he let a lot of people down, including himself and his family. He knows he likely won't get a third chance if he makes the same mistake again.

[+] EnlargeFrank Alexander
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesDefensive end Frank Alexander, who was suspended for 14 games, has been reinstated and can play in the Panthers' final regular-season games.
But the Carolina Panthers defensive end who was suspended for the first 14 games -- the first four for one violation and the next 10 for another -- for violating the NFL substance abuse policy insists he's a changed man.

Now he hopes the Panthers give him a chance to prove it in the final two regular-season games against Cleveland and Atlanta.

"Man, it's been a learning process and an eye-opening process," Alexander said on Monday after being reinstated. "It's just been some long 14 weeks. I stayed prayed up. I got back in the church. Every Sunday I was in church. That was a big help.

"I just tried to stay focused, keep my eyes on the prize. I knew this day eventually would come.”

Alexander turns 25 on Wednesday, which will be his first official practice with the team since training camp. He's pumped, even though he knows people outside the organization are skeptical he'll mess up again.

"We all make mistakes, man," Alexander said. "So you can't sit up here and say I didn't get the message. I had a lot going on, a lot of personal issues. My mother was going through breast cancer. My father was dealing with the heart attacks. He had to get open heart surgery.

"I just had a lot of stuff on my plate. I can't sit here and say I didn't learn. I learned, but when you're going through some stuff, you never know [what you'll do]. The only thing now is I can just look for better ways to try to deal with those types of things."

The good news is Alexander's mother is cancer-free as of October and his father is doing well.

"So everything right now is falling in place," he said.

It could all fall into place for the Panthers (5-8-1), too. They've won two consecutive games to remain alive in the NFC South playoff picture with New Orleans (5-8 heading into a Monday night game at Chicago) and Atlanta (5-9).

The defense has been playing well for almost two months, and Alexander could make it better. He's the closest thing the Panthers have talent-wise and versatility-wise to 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy, who is on the NFL's commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved some time in 2015.

He can play end and tackle, and drop back into coverage. He did those things well enough in training camp that coach Ron Rivera made him his camp MVP.

Alexander's teammates like him, as well.

"I've been waiting on Frank to come back since Week 2," end Mario Addison said. "Frank has a lot of energy. I like playing with him. He gets everybody going. Frank, he's versatile, man."

Alexander kept in shape physically and mentally during the suspension for a substance he chooses not to reveal. He constantly was at Bank of America Stadium working out and going to meetings.

He'll find out on Wednesday if he's in football shape. Then it's up to the Panthers to decide if they want to activate him or not.

Regardless, Alexander is thankful the team stuck with him.

"They could have easily said, 'OK, we're done with Frank,' " Alexander said. "Without them and the support of my family, the people who was there with me, I couldn't have done it.

"I just felt I let a lot of them down and I want to get on the right track."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The NFL’s decision to uphold the suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson with no chance to be reinstated before April 15 sent another message that Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy won’t be reinstated anytime soon.

Peterson, who pleaded no contest in a child abuse case, had been on the commissioner's exempt list -- as Hardy is now as he awaits trial in a domestic violence case -- before being suspended. Hardy’s trial date still has not been set; it will be held sometime early in 2015.

Hardy
Hardy
Hardy is nearing the end of a one-year, $13.1 million contract, upon which the Pro Bowl defensive end will become a free agent.

Here are some options the Panthers have moving forward:

Release Hardy: This would show that the Panthers -- who have three regular-season games to play and remain in contention in the NFC South -- have truly moved on.

On the field, the Carolina defense finally has acclimated to Hardy’s absence and is starting to play well enough to win games. The Panthers are starting to stop the run, essential in their overall effectiveness of their scheme. Their last six opponents are averaging around 82 yards rushing a game, about what the average was last season when Carolina ranked second in the NFL in defense.

Young players such as ends Wes Horton, Mario Addison and Kony Ealy are starting to adjust to their expanded roles. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is starting to adjust to calling plays that don't depend on Hardy's huge presence as a pass-rusher or run-stopper.

Publicly acknowledge they won’t pursue Hardy in free agency: Asked recently whether the team would be interested in bringing Hardy back after his case is resolved, head coach Ron Rivera recently replied, "We'll see."

It’s difficult to believe, however, that Carolina would invest significant future resources on re-signing a player who would face suspension by the NFL -- and possibly jail time -- if convicted. Hardy’s trial also could potentially be pushed back again and again.

Ask the NFL to take Hardy off the exempt list and suspend him without pay, as Peterson was: That likely would lead to an appeal, but Friday’s ruling would give Carolina hope the suspension would be upheld. If Hardy were suspended before Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay, Carolina possibly could at least recoup three games of $770,000 a game – or $2,310,000.

Do nothing: The Panthers already are paying Hardy, and his contract expires when the season ends, so they could just let this play out.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott could be building another argument that he's head coach material.

McDermott got an inquiry from the Washington Redskins to interview for their head coaching vacancy toward the end of last season. His defense was ranked second in the NFL and the Panthers were on their way to the playoffs with a 12-4 record.

The Panthers aren't doing so well record wise at 4-8-1 heading into Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and overall the defense is ranked 19th.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers' defense is ranked 19th but has gone on a tear as of late, stopping Drew Brees in the process.
But with the way the Panthers have played the last six games, McDermott still could be viable in the offseason job market if his unit finishes with a flurry.

He's never been more proud than after Sunday's 41-10 victory over the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. Holding Drew Brees and the league's No. 2-ranked offense to 110 total yards and three points through three quarters was impressive.

Brees didn't throw a touchdown pass until late in the fourth quarter, and that was against a backup cornerback.

If this indeed was a chess match as McDermott likened it to, it would have been checkmate before the final 15 minutes.

"Being able to hold that operation, what we were able to, you don't come across that all that often," McDermott said. "The week before they took [Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick] LeBeau's defense and threw for five touchdowns.

"I like the foundation. I like where we're going. I'm proud of that."

One could argue McDermott and his assistants have done a better job this season than last.

They spent the first half of the season adjusting to a new secondary and the loss of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who was placed on the commissioner's exempt list pending resolution of his domestic violence case.

Since the team drew closure on Hardy not returning after a 38-17 loss at Green Bay in Week 7, Carolina's numbers statistically stack up to last season's in terms of rushing and passing yards allowed.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers rank seventh in the NFL over the last six games in rushing yards allowed with 82.4 after ranking 28th in the first seven.

They rank ninth in total yards allowed with 321.2 during that span after ranking 21st in the first seven. They rank tied for 13th in touchdowns allowed with 12 after ranking 31st in the first seven.

During the turnaround the Panthers have completely rebuilt the secondary again with only strong safety Roman Harper among the starters from Week 1.

"Having the closure that he wasn't coming back helped to a degree," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Just understanding how to play with one another."

The results haven't shown in the win column because the offense and special teams struggled until Sunday. Giving up two blocked punts for touchdowns in the first half against Minnesota never gave Carolina a chance.

Everything came together against New Orleans. The offense and quarterback Cam Newton got most of the headlines, but the defense played perhaps its best game in two years.

McDermott obviously was proud.

"It's just like a matchup with a wide receiver to a defensive back," cornerback Josh Norman said. "I don't want to watch a wideout run past me to put six on my head. I want to intercept him and go to the house with it.

"Why wouldn't coach [take pleasure in that]? You shut an offense down like that, that goes a long way toward preparation and the guys we have on the field here."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A players-only meeting after a 38-17 loss at Green Bay has led to more consistent play and effort from the Carolina Panthers defense.

Let’s look at the numbers as the Panthers (3-8-1) prepare for Sunday’s game at New Orleans:
  • Carolina allowed an average of 158.2 yards rushing in the five games before the meeting. It has allowed 87.8 yards in the five games since.
  • Carolina allowed an average of 269.2 yards passing in the five games before the meeting. It has allowed 214.5 yards in the five games since.
  • Carolina allowed eight touchdowns rushing in the five games before the meeting. It has allowed five in the last five.
  • Carolina allowed 12 passing touchdowns in the five games before the meeting. It has allowed seven in the last five.

The recent numbers are more in line with what the Panthers did last season when they were ranked second in the NFL in total defense. They allowed an average of 86.9 yards a game rushing and 214.3 passing in 2013.

The defense is playing well enough to win. The offense and special teams are not, leaving Carolina with a six-game losing streak.

“I definitely feel, and I can speak defensively, our effort has gotten better since we talked about it,’’ outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. “Guys are going out and we’re competing hard. We’re making plays and giving ourselves a chance to win games.’’

Pressure on the quarterback continues to be lacking. Carolina had a league-best 60 sacks last season. It has only 26 this season. The loss of defensive end Greg Hardy, who led the team with 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures, played a role in that.

Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list prior to the third game.

The sack numbers are up only slightly since the team meeting. The Panthers have 11 in the past five games compared to eight in the previous five.

“We’re close,’’ Rivera said when asked if the Panthers are getting back to the kind of defense they played last season. “Obviously, things you want to get corrected and stay corrected.

“[But] it’s been good and they are playing better.’’

Davis said the meeting was held at the suggestion of the coaching staff. As a team captain, he simply echoed their thoughts.

“There were some things that stood out,’’ he said. “We addressed it. We got better at it.’’

 

 
MINNEAPOLIS -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been on the commissioner’s exempt list since mid-September, has returned to Twitter as @OverlordKraken.

Hardy’s previous Twitter account, @ItsGHardy, was deleted shortly after the 2013 Pro Bowl selection was arrested in May for assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder.

A close associate of Hardy’s verified on Saturday that @OverlordKraken is indeed Hardy. No specific reason was given for the return.

Hardy was found guilty of domestic violence by a Mecklenburg County judge on July 15. He appealed and requested a jury trial, which recently was postponed until sometime early in 2015.

When placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List prior to the third game, the league said Hardy would remain sidelined with pay until his case was resolved.

Hardy began referring to himself as the mythical sea creature "The Kraken" several years ago. During a Sunday night telecast last season he introduced himself as "The Kraken" from "Hogwarts."

This was Hardy’s first tweet under his new name:

.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Is Cam Newton hurt or not? Does he deserve a long-term contract? Why would he want to play for a team that can’t protect him or give him adequate weapons?

Cam, Cam, Cam.

Monday night’s 45-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles turned a lot of your questions toward the Carolina Panthers quarterback heading into Sunday’s game against Atlanta.

Let’s not delay this. Let’s get to my Saturday mailbag:

@DNewtonESPN: Weapons aren't the big issue here. It's the lack of protection that Newton should be concerned about. General manager Dave Gettleman thought he had the talent in-house to build an offensive line, even with the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross and left guard Travelle Wharton. It's becoming apparent he didn't, although injuries have played a role there. Once Newton is given proper protection - as well as a solid running game - then you can fairly judge. As for why Newton would want to sign a long-term deal with the Panthers? First, he likes the city. He's from Atlanta, and outside of the Falcons giving up on Matt Ryan, he's not going there. So this keeps him close to his family. He likes that. He also has a staff that believes in him and is willing to build the offense around him. Whether that remains offensive coordinator Mike Shula after this season might be the next question? But Newton has made it clear his intention is to be at Carolina long-term.

@DNewtonESPN: First, the Panthers never tried to make Newton into New England quarterback Tom Brady. Except when Newton was rehabbing the left ankle, the read-option has been a part of this offense. Newton actually looked pretty good as a pocket passer when he wasn't allowed to run. I've never seen him throw better. Here's the deal: Newton, as has been well documented, has taken twice as many hits as any other quarterback since 2011. He can't do that forever and be effective. He was effective last season because he had a defense that didn't allow many points and an offensive line that allowed him to methodically move the team and control the clock. That hasn't been the case this season. If that isn't fixed, he won't be successful under the current offensive scheme. One option might be to bring in a coordinator that runs a system similar to what Philadelphia does with the no-huddle, uptempo attack that Newton was successful with in college. It would allow him to use his mobility, but not depend on it. It's hard to imagine coach Ron Rivera going along with that, unless forced to. Bottom line, this somewhat disaster of a season shouldn't be pinned on Newton.

@DNewtonESPN: If you're asking if Gettleman should have spent money on a quality offensive tackle or two, the number of sacks Newton has taken (30) and inconsistency of the running game would suggest yes. If you're asking if he should have found a way to keep safety Mike Mitchell and perhaps cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, yes, but not at the money they were given by Pittsburgh and Minnesota. If you're asking if he messed up by letting his top four receivers go, not so much. The biggest loss there was Ted Ginn Jr., and mainly because of what he offered as a return specialist. The good news is Gettleman is getting the salary cap under control to the point where he can go after a few free agent linemen during the offseason. The bad news is this team has paid the price.

@DNewtonESPN: As Mel Kiper would say, it's never too early to look ahead to the NFL draft. I'm sure Gettleman would say the best player available, but from what I've seen so far this season, the offensive line has to be addressed. In particular a tackle, which also should be addressed in free agency. Having said that, what happens with the domestic violence trial of defensive end Greg Hardy is a factor. I can't see any way the Panthers offer him a long-term contract if he's found guilty. If Carolina winds up in the top half of the draft and a top defensive end is available, there's no way you can pass that up.

@DNewtonESPN: As I said above, Hardy's future with Carolina depends completely on the outcome of his domestic violence case. If judged innocent, it will come down to money. I can't see the team throwing the bank at him with everything that has happened. Coach Ron Rivera has said Frank Alexander will be welcomed back once he completes his second suspension of the season. Is he the caliber to step in and play to Hardy's level? He hasn't shown that yet. With Charles Johnson on the other side showing signs of slowing down, the Panthers can't afford to pass up a top end - whether it's in free agency or the draft. As we've seen this season, the defense struggles without a good pass rush from the front four.

@DNewtonESPN: No, because there are moments when the offensive line performs that the offense looks good. The 80-yard drive that cut the lead to 10-7 on Monday night is a prime example. The Panthers were getting four or five yards off runs on first down, keeping the defense on its heels enough that it opened up other things. That's the identity this unit had last season. That is what they have gotten only in spurts this season. Consistency is the problem, and Mike Shula knows that. Whether they can get that consistency with this line is the question. They haven't through 10 games, so it doesn't appear it will happen.

@DNewtonESPN: There is a master plan, and Gettleman does feel he's getting the salary cap under control. But because he hasn't spoken to the media about what has happened this season, I don't want to put words in his mouth and say he believes everything is under control. Obviously, the record isn't in terms of winning. 

SPONSORED HEADLINES