NFL Nation: Colin Cole
Most significant signing: This has to be left tackle Michael Oher, who was released by Tennessee before the beginning of free agency. Oher has struggled the past few seasons between the Titans and Baltimore Ravens. The Panthers believe reuniting him with offensive line coach John Matsko, who was his position coach in Baltimore when Oher had his most productive years at left tackle, will resurrect his career. Adding Oher early enabled the Panthers to go into free agency without having to reach for a left tackle in a market with few choices. Having him on the roster also gives Carolina the freedom to take a tackle in the first or second round of the draft without the sense of urgency to plug that player in immediately as a starter.
Most significant loss: You’d have to say defensive end Greg Hardy, although the Panthers never seriously considered re-signing their 2013 sack leader who remains on the commissioner’s exempt list. There’s no doubt Hardy would have made the defense better, but the Panthers weren’t willing to risk big money on a player who cost them $13.1 million last season to play only one game while his domestic violence case was in limbo. Otherwise, the Panthers didn’t lose anybody of significance.
Biggest surprise: No big surprise. The Panthers weren’t expected to shop for big-name free agents. The plan all along was to re-sign a few key players such as tight end Ed Dickson and defensive tackles Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole, then fill key positions. That they got a three-year extension with Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen done early and haven’t renegotiated the contract of defensive end Charles Johnson, set to count $20 million against the cap in 2015, might be the biggest surprise.
What’s next? Filling in gaps. General manager Dave Gettleman has been most active in free agency the past two years in the second phase. He began that phase Monday by signing former Chiefs safety Kurt Coleman, who also could be a key special-teams contributor, to a two-year deal. The Panthers also might add a veteran cornerback. Former Bears corner Charles Tillman could fit that mold. Ron Rivera loved him when he coached in Chicago, and the Panthers still would like to move Bene Benwikere back to nickel corner. He was forced to move to the every-down corner as a rookie last season.
Cole has a way of putting things into perspective like few others.
So it came as no surprise on Tuesday the perspective he put on the Panthers signing him to a one-year extension at an age -- he'll be 35 in June -- when most NFL defensive tackles are contemplating retirement or already enjoying it.
"It's just like a tire not being driven for however long," said Cole, who was out of football for almost 2½ years after being released by Seattle in 2011. "That tire still has tread on it."
More on that later.
Cole also put in perspective where the Panthers, in his opinion, appear to be with defensive end Greg Hardy, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent not expected to be re-signed when free agency begins on March 10.
While Cole is among many Carolina players who would welcome back Hardy, who has remained on the commissioner's exempt list since his domestic violence charges were dropped on Feb. 9, he understands why management might think otherwise.
It goes beyond the perception of Hardy in terms of his May 13 arrest for the charges of assaulting and threatening to kill ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder. It goes beyond a Mecklenburg County judge dropping the charges on Feb. 9 because Holder refused to cooperate with the district attorney's office after reaching a financial settlement with Hardy.
It has to do with what it could cost to re-sign Hardy and how the team played last season with the 2013 Pro Bowl selection participating in only one game.
After a slow start, the Panthers finished in the top 10 in total defense for the third straight season.
"That plays a big factor," Cole said. "That plays a big factor in everybody's career. In order to stay relevant in this business, you have to be able to last physically [and be on the field]. And then when you have a situation where you're out a couple of months or a year and the team is forced to find the next guy, if somebody comes in and does their job well, especially when it comes to doing it for less pay, you can move on without him."
Cole may be old in the NFL in terms of his age, but he's all the wiser for it.
After signing a five-year, $21 million deal in 2009 with Seattle, Cole was released prior to the 2011 season. He was unable to be ready for the opener because of an ankle injury, and the team already had moved on to Brandon Mebane at nose tackle. The team also had signed free-agent tackle Alan Branch.
So Cole not only sat out the 2011 season but the entire 2012 season before the Panthers called in 2013. He thinks the time away from the game actually extended his career.
"I figure I've got three or four more years," Cole said. "I don't see myself done after this year."
Cole is what general manager Dave Gettleman calls a space-eater. He eats up blocks so linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis can make tackles.
He's also a leader. Although not outspoken, he helps teammates keep things in proper perspective.
That he could be had for a low price -- $1.05 million with a salary-cap number of only $665,000 -- also is a plus.
"What I was told was everybody loved having me around, that they feel I'm a core player, a key contributor," Cole said. "They said they wanted to bring me back because I add great depth and experience."
And he puts things into perspective like few others in the Carolina locker room.
The Panthers used the tag that guaranteed Hardy $13.1 million because it was cheaper for the then-salary-cap strapped team than signing the 2013 Pro Bowl selection long term.
It became a wasted investment as Hardy played only one game while waiting for his domestic violence case to be resolved.
Hardy remains Carolina’s most high-profile free agent again this season, but he is not in the team’s future plans.
It makes sense.
The Panthers wanted to keep Hardy last year to keep intact the front seven that finished second in the NFL in total defense. The front seven of a unit that finished 10th in the league this year without Hardy is intact.
The biggest decision is whether to re-sign aging defensive tackles Colin Cole, 34, and/or Dwan Edwards, 33.
Hardy is scheduled to become a free agent on March 10. He remains on the NFL’s exempt list, where he has been since mid-September, while the league conducts its own investigation into whether he violated the personal conduct policy.
A league source told ESPN.com on Friday that Hardy is seeking immediate reinstatement, but since Hardy hasn’t been suspended the league insists there’s nothing to be reinstated from.
The league hasn’t set a timetable on when its investigation will end. As reported by ESPN.com on Feb. 19, evidence the NFL sought from Hardy’s July 15 trial could not be obtained because it already had been returned to the district attorney’s office and Hardy’s lawyers.
The district attorney’s office told ESPN.com it does not return evidence. There’s no reason for Hardy’s attorney to share evidence from a trial in which a Mecklenburg County judge found his client guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder in July.
That verdict was set aside when Hardy asked for a jury trial. The charges were dropped on February 9 because Holder would not cooperate with the office of the district attorney, who said the accuser reached a financial settlement with Hardy.
Hardy still faces possible suspension by the league.
Any team that pursues Hardy in free agency will have to deal with that.
Monday was just a reminder of what the Panthers dealt with in 2014.
Position of need: As general manager Dave Gettleman is quick to remind he'll never pass on a quality big man on the defensive or offensive line. He stunned many by selecting a defensive tackle in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft. With veteran defensive tackles Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and with no one player proven ready to replace Greg Hardy at defensive end, there may be better options on the defensive front than at offensive tackle at No. 25.
Three players the Panthers could target in the draft:
Eddie Goldman (DT), Florida State: Imagine adding this 6-foot-3, 315-pound specimen to a four-man rotation that includes 2013 first-round pick Star Lotulelei and 2013 second-round pick Kawann Short. Goldman has violent hands, and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott loves defensive linemen with violent hands. If he slips to No. 25 don't look for him to slip further.
Jordan Phillips (DT), Oklahoma: At 6-5, 334 he's definitely a space-eater that ties up blocks and allows the linebackers to make plays like Colin Cole has done for Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. He has the potential to be a dominant run stopper and Gettleman won't pass on a dominant run stopper. Of the three I mention here, he might be the most likely to be available.
Arik Armstead (DE), Oregon: Some have the 6-8, 290-pound Armstead playing end in a 3-4 scheme, but he also fits the mold of a player that could play end and tackle in Carolina's 4-3 scheme. He's big and powerful, and has great quickness of the edge. He could be totally disruptive to a passing game. He's projected by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper to be a top 10 pick, but others have him falling.
In preparation for the noise they’ll face in Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, the Panthers closed all the entrances to the field and placed large speakers behind both goal posts and on the sidelines to contain the sound.
Only a handful of Carolina players have played at Seattle, the loudest venue in the NFL, so the coaching staff wanted to simulate as close as possible what they’ll face.
“The noise, it’s very hard to duplicate," said Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole, who spent the 2009-2011 seasons with Seattle. “It’s not something that is duplicable unless we have a dome and you’re pumping noise in throughout the entire dome.
“The crowd noise we have is an opportunity to give guys a taste of what’s going to come. But I’ve been there when they’ve been on 10 and you can’t hear the person next to you talk."
Could Cole hear the person next to him on Tuesday?
“Yeah," he said. “It was good. It wasn’t quite there."
It was louder than it would have been had the Panthers pumped noise onto the practice fields in the open. But there’s really nothing any coach can do to completely prepare for the atmosphere that has helped the Seahawks go 24-2 at home since 2012.
“It is the hardest place to play in the NFL right now for a reason," Panthers strong safety Roman Harper said. “The crowd is very smart. They know when to cheer, when not to cheer. It’s usually rainy; it’s not always pretty out there."
Harper played at Seattle when it was its loudest in a 2010 NFC wild-card game when he was with the New Orleans Saints. The crowd noise registered on the seismograph when Marshawn Lynch had his 67-yard touchdown run that exemplified "Beast Mode."
Tight end Greg Olsen played there when he was with the Chicago Bears.
“It’s hard to really describe it to people," he said. “Playoff game coming off the Super Bowl, I can only imagine it’s probably even more so than when I was there a couple of years ago.
“But it’s great. It’s what you would expect. It’s the atmosphere you would want for a playoff game, and I think for guys that are experiencing it for the first time, it’ll be an experience that they’ll remember for a long time."
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said he never experienced a louder stadium than when the Panthers played at Seattle in the NFC championship game following the 2005 season.
“Without a doubt, it was then and it still is the loudest stadium that we’ve played in," he said. “That still to me shouldn’t have an effect on this game. We’ve played in loud stadiums before, and it is all about going out and executing.
“We understand it is going to be loud and that it will be new to our offense that their fans are going to be loud. We practice with crowd noise, and we’ve just got to be able to handle that situation and I’m confident that we will.”
Fullback Mike Tolbert summed up as well as anybody how the Panthers feel about the noise.
“It is [loud]," he said. “But at the same time, the crowd is not playing the game."
The man who has drilled into his players not to look past the next game, looked at the next five. He took a macro look at the season instead of the micro look that has defined him.
He did so because he felt it was important that his players understood that despite a 3-7-1 record, despite having lost five straight games and winning only once in the past nine, they still have a chance at the playoffs.
That was Rivera’s message on Monday as Carolina enters a bye week before resuming its season on November 30 at Minnesota.
"I broke my own rule and looked ahead," Rivera said. "I told the guys, 'We’ve got five games left to play. If we take care of business in all five games and one or two things happen, then we win the division.'
"That’s how simple it is."
It’s not that simple. Rivera admitted the Panthers have to win all five games against Minnesota, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta to have a chance.
They also need Atlanta and New Orleans to lose at least one more game and not get past eight wins.
An 8-7-1 Carolina team then would win the division title by percentage points because of its tie against Cincinnati.
It’s also not that simple, because that would mean a team that hasn’t won since Oct. 5 against Chicago has to win five straight.
But Rivera doesn’t think it’s such a long shot.
"I don’t believe it’s a faint hope," he said. "I believe it’s a strong hope."
Do the Panthers deserve to be in the race with three wins 11 games into the season? Cornerback Josh Norman might have summed that up best after Sunday’s 19-17 loss to Atlanta when he said, "Does anybody in the NFC South deserve to be in it?"
Based on records, probably not.
But somebody is going to be the division champion, so the Panthers figure it might as well be them. Even Norman admits that.
"Yes," Norman said. "If the Panthers win it they deserve it ... hands down."
According to Elias, this is the third time since the NFL went to at least four divisions in 1967 that a team two games under .500 is at least in a share for first place this late in the season. The last time was in 2010 when Seattle and St. Louis were in that position.
Seattle won the division with a 7-9 record, and then won a playoff game at home.
Rivera was part of a San Diego team in 2008 that won its final four games to finish 8-8 and win the division. That team also won a playoff game.
"That’s why it’s a division," Rivera said. "It’s a division race. We’re in the middle of a division race."
As bad as this season has gotten, as ridiculous as it sounds to be talking about the possibilities of making the playoffs, that is what Carolina is clinging to as it enters its bye week.
On paper, the Panthers have the easiest route. Their opponents have a combined record of 20-30 (.400) record. The Saints’ opponents are 25-35-1 (.410). Atlanta’s opponents are a combined 35-25-1 (.574).
So when Rivera got out of his comfort one and looked ahead on the schedule, his players didn’t think it was that unusual.
"That’s the human nature of the beast," Norman said.
Defensive tackle Colin Cole said Rivera’s speech was motivational, especially for younger players used to the college system in which one or two losses takes you out of the running for a national championship.
"If we take care of our business and one other thing happens, we win the division," Rivera said. "That’s how crazy it is."
Since we’re looking ahead, here’s a look at what Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans face:
PANTHERS (3-7-1, 1-2 in division)
Remaining schedule: Nov. 23 – Bye; Nov. 30 – at Minnesota (4-6); Dec. 7 – at New Orleans (4-6); Dec. 14 – Tampa Bay (2-8); Dec. 21 – Cleveland (6-4); Dec. 28 – at Atlanta (4-6).
Opponent’s record: 20-30 (.400)
FALCONS (4-6, 4-0 in division)
Remaining schedule: Nov. 23 – Cleveland (6-4); Nov. 30 – Arizona (9-1); Dec. 8 – at Green Bay (7-3); Dec. 14 – Pittsburgh (6-4); Dec. 21 – at New Orleans (4-6); Dec. 28 – Carolina (3-7-1).
Opponent’s record: 35-25-1 (.574)
SAINTS (4-6, 2-1 in division) Remaining schedule: Nov. 24 – Baltimore (6-4); Nov. 30 – at Pittsburgh (6-4); Dec. 7 – Carolina (3-7-1); Dec. 14 – at Chicago (4-6); Dec. 21 – Atlanta (4-6); Dec. 28 – at Tampa Bay (2-8).
Opponent’s record: 25-35-1 (.410)
It would be distracting. It likely would prevent you from doing your job at maximum efficiency.
Throw in the pain of being slammed to the ground, and that’s what a quarterback goes through when he’s constantly being pressured. He begins looking for the rush before getting to his second and third reads. He leaves the pocket even before the pocket crumbles.
"I’ve seen it," Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole said. "I’ve seen it plenty of times. ... The biggest thing you have when you get to a guy that many times, he starts to take his eyes from downfield to look at the rush."
Cole saw it in last season’s finale against Atlanta, Sunday’s opponent at Bank of America Stadium, when the Panthers sacked quarterback Matt Ryan nine times. He expects Carolina quarterback Cam Newton experienced that to some degree in Sunday’s 45-21 loss at Philadelphia when he was sacked nine times.
"I can’t really speak on Cam’s situation, but I know in general when you’re able to get after the quarterback like we were against [Atlanta] last year, more times than not they’re going to be concerned with getting hit more than they are delivering that shot," Cole said.
"That’s what we’re hoping to bring to the field on Sunday, get him to stop looking down field for his big-time targets and look at us a little bit more and get after it."
Newton was criticized for not looking like himself against Philadelphia. There was speculation his surgically repaired left ankle -- as well as his right ankle -- were bothering him, even though Newton said that wasn’t an issue.
Cole wouldn’t expect his or any other quarterback to look like himself with the kind of pressure Newton was under Monday -- and has been all season.
Newton has been sacked 30 times, second in the NFL to San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. Neither is having a particularly good season statistically. Newton ranks 26th in passer rating at 80.1. Kaepernick is 15th at 92.7.
To put that in perspective, Denver’s Peyton Manning ranks second in passer rating at 112.0. He has been sacked nine times.
Pressure doesn’t always correlate to statistics. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 25 times, and he ranks third at 107.3.
But the average number of sacks for the top 10 quarterbacks in passer rating is 15.8, almost half of what Newton has. The average number of sacks for quarterbacks 11-20 is 20.3.
Ryan, No. 11 in passer rating, has been sacked 18 times.
"It’s tough," Ryan said as he recalled last season's game against Carolina. "Certainly the best way to stop a passing game is to get the quarterback on the ground.
"You’ve got to try as hard as you can to not let it affect the next play, and that is the mindset that I’ve tried to take into games that shake out like [last year’s against Carolina]."
Ryan’s numbers were surprisingly good for all the hits he took against the Panthers at the Georgia Dome. He completed 28 of 40 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted only once.
"If you’re hitting a guy, and you have guys around him, bumping on him, it’s going to make him uncomfortable," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "It’s human nature. One thing [Ryan] does well is he stands in there and throws the ball."
Newton tends to take off quicker because he’s used to using his legs as a weapon. That often results in him holding onto the ball too long, which results in sacks he could avoid.
"What happens is sometimes they try to make plays, try to go beyond what they need to," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of quarterbacks in general. "It’s hard. It’s difficult, especially when you’re behind and put yourself in that position."
Kuechly has seen quarterbacks flustered. He’s seen fear in their eyes. He hasn’t seen fear in Newton’s eyes.
"You watch, he gets hit a million times and then he gets right back up and he’s right back out there," he said. "That’s Cam. That’s what he takes pride in, and that’s why I like playing with him. He’s tough. Mentally, he’s very strong as far as that goes."
But at some point the hits have to impact Newton or any quarterback doing his job efficiently.
- Quarterback Cam Newton on being sacked a career-high nine times and hit countless others: “It’s all in the game. We’re not playing ballet. We’re not running track or anything. This is a physical sport you signed up for."
- Head coach Ron Rivera on whether he ever considered replacing Newton after three first-half interceptions: “No. He’s going to continue to work and develop. He’s got to continue to work and get his rhythm. That’s what we’re going to continue to do. ... I’m not looking for short-term fixes. I’m looking for the long time, for the long haul. If he’s going to be our quarterback he’s got to work himself through these things, and that’s what I’m looking for."
- Defensive tackle Colin Cole on the mood of the team after losing its fourth straight: “Right now we’re reaching for something, for somebody to take a leadership role and somebody to follow. Ultimately, this is a team sport. Just like those [military] vets we salute, we have to follow somebody."
- Left tackle Byron Bell said giving up nine sacks isn’t the standard even though giving up multiple sacks has become the standard for this offensive line. “Just because we gave up nine sacks this week doesn’t mean we’re going to give up nine next week."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole took a moment on Sunday to reflect on his 2010 season with the Seattle Seahawks.
It had nothing to do with the defending Super Bowl champions coming to Charlotte this week.
It had everything to do with perspective.
The 2010 Seahawks went 7-9 during the regular season, which was good enough to win the NFC West in a tiebreaker over the St. Louis Rams. They went on to beat an 11-5 New Orleans team 41-36 in the first round of the playoffs.
Cole brought that season up to remind that as bad as the Panthers (3-3-1) looked in a 38-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, they remain in first place in the NFC South.
On a day when nothing went right for Carolina, the New Orleans Saints blew a fourth-quarter lead in a 24-23 loss at Detroit and Atlanta was pounded 29-7 by the Baltimore Ravens.
That left the Saints at 2-4 and the Falcons at 2-5.
The only NFC South team that didn't lose was 1-5 Tampa Bay, and the Buccaneers were on a bye.
"It's very positive that every team lost," Cole said.
That's about the only positive thing that came out of Carolina's loss, leaving the Panthers 1-2-1 in their last four games. The defense was horrible and the offense wasn't much better.
"Somehow we're still in first place, which is great, but by no means a reflection of how well we're playing at times," tight end Greg Olsen said. "It really is a week-by-week league."
And this week, the Panthers face a 3-3 Seattle team that has lost two straight and three of its last five games to fall two games out of first place in the West.
"You've got to put all your efforts into each game and try to get one win at a time," Olsen said. "You don't worry about stretches. You don't worry about who you have in a couple of weeks. You worry about the immediate.
"We've got a long time before we have to worry about the division, but it's nice that during some of these bad weeks we caught some breaks with the other teams struggling, too."
The Panthers may be playing bad defense, giving up 37 or more points in four of their last five games, but the rest of the division also is porous defensively.
It's so bad that former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith called the NFC South a "finesse division" after the Ravens made the cumulative score 115-34 against Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta this season.
Smith wasn't saying that a year ago, when Carolina had the league's second-ranked defense en route to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title. But that's another story.
The story of this season's division race looks much like the one Seattle had in 2010. The way things stand, seven wins might be enough to win it.
And as quarterback Cam Newton reminded, it's too early to call the situation critical as bad as the loss looked and with injuries continuing to mount -- now on the offensive line with left tackle Byron Bell (elbow) and right guard Trai Turner (ankle sprain) in question.
"What we going to do? Quit?" Newton said. "Absolutely not. We've got to keep going, keep fighting. We'll find a way to get out of this."
Because the rest of the NFC South keeps losing, the Panthers have time to do that.
"Hey, we'll take it how we can get it," free safety Thomas DeCoud said. "But we want to start winning some football games.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole breathed a deep sigh.
"I can't wait to see the film to see what happened," he said after Sunday night's 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a prime-time telecast.
The easy answer to what happened? Nothing good.
A defense that had given up only 172 yards rushing in the first two games combined gave up 264, and for the first time since 2001 against the St. Louis Rams allowed two backs to rush for more than 100 yards in the same game.
According to ESPN Stats & Information data, the Panthers also gave up two runs of more than 50 yards in the same game for the first time since 2001.
An offense that prides itself on being able to run managed a mere 42 yards against a defense that had allowed an average of 174 yards rushing in two games.
A quarterback that prides himself on being able to avoid pressure and give the running game a boost was held to a career-low two rush attempts for 7 yards. Cam Newton also was sacked three times and hit at least six more.
It was a complete meltdown for the Panthers (2-1), who played nearly flawlessly in all phases in the first two games.
From head coach Ron Rivera to Newton, they insisted it wasn't from a lack of focus during a week that was interrupted on Wednesday with defensive end Greg Hardy going on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.
"We don't want anyone to feel pity for us being that we went through something that any other team didn't," Newton said.
That's good, since Hardy plays one position and the Panthers had breakdowns at almost every one.
Newton said the Panthers looked "out of sync."
No kidding. The defense that had allowed more than 20 points only once in the past 14 regular-season games -- at New Orleans last season, a 31-13 loss also on a Sunday night -- was practically unrecognizable.
Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount conjured up memories of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Bell rushed 21 times for 147 yards, including an 81-yarder when the Panthers had Pittsburgh in a second-and-22 situation from their own 8 and trailed only 16-6.
Blount had 118 yards on 10 carries, including a 50-yarder.
Nobody had the answers for how that happened any more than they had answers for why the offensive line couldn't move what, until Sunday, was one of the worst defensive fronts in the league.
Players used phrases such as inconsistent. Lack of communication. Poor timing.
Whatever it was, this film is being passed around the league as the best way to beat a team that CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said earlier in the day was the best team in the NFL at that moment.
Not at this moment.
The Steelers exposed the offensive line, the biggest weakness for Carolina heading into the season, like no other team thus far. But the defensive front seven has been solid, even without Hardy.
Perhaps the best thing the Panthers can do is not watch this film. They didn't do enough good things to look at a second time, and watching the bad things again might cause nightmares.
Even Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, looked average at times against Pittsburgh's quick screens and runs up the middle.
To make matters worse, the Panthers next face a Baltimore (2-1) team that beat the Steelers 26-6 last week and have a certain wide receiver that remains angry the Panthers released him in March.
Yes, somewhere Steve Smith is drooling for this opportunity.
The only positive is Carolina is 2-1 instead of 1-2 as it was a year ago en route to starting 1-3.
"It's a long year," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We know better than anybody. We have to get back and fix our mistakes first before we worry about who we're going to play, and go from there."
Defensive tackle Colin Cole says the focus after Carolina collected a team-record 60 sacks last season is to set an NFL single-season record in 2014.
Asked if he knew what that was, the 34-year-old player Cole wiped the sweat off his face and admitted he didn't. Neither did I for sure until I looked it up. It was the 1984 Chicago Bears.
Now collecting 13 more sacks than last season may not sound insurmountable. It's certainly not as unrealistic as Hardy setting his personal goal for 50, which is more than twice the NFL single-season record of 22.5 that Michael Strahan had in 2001.
But when you consider over the last 10 years that only the 2006 San Diego Chargers with 61 had more than Carolina last season, and that NFL rules changes give offensive linemen more leeway in their using hands to protect the passer, 13 more might as well be 130 more.
What the Bears did in 1984 is considered by some to be one of those records that never will be broken. But the Panthers are talking about it, and as Cole said, "If you don't talk about it, you don't bring it into fruition.''
Carolina coach Ron Rivera is very familiar with the record. He was a rookie linebacker with the Bears in '84, so he saw firsthand how it was accomplished even though he didn't contribute directly to it.
He reminded how the Bears were implementing Buddy Ryan's innovative "46 defense'' that blitzed ... well, a lot. Then there were the great players on that defense like Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael, Mike Singletary and Wilber Marshall.
Dent led the way with 17.5 sacks, followed by Hampton with 11.5 and McMichael with 10. Thirteen players had at least one sack, with eight getting three or more -- including Singletary with 3.5.
The Bears also had a talented secondary that included former Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. Rivera noted how Ryan set a goal for that unit to give the front seven at least 2.4 seconds to get to the passer.
"It was really the perfect storm in terms of personnel,'' Rivera said.
Rivera also noted how the rules have changed to favor the blockers.
But if Cole and his teammates want to set their sights on breaking the record, he's not going to tell them they can't do it.
"The nice thing is our guys have that kind of confidence,'' Rivera said. "We have some good pass-rushers. That's what it is. You have to have a combination.''
Sixteen different Panthers had at least one sack last season. Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy led the way with 15, followed by Charles Johnson with 11.
Cole had only one.
But if Cole can improve his total by one and everybody else does as well, then the record would fall. That Carolina has its entire front seven back with the addition of second-round draft pick Kony Ealy as another threat makes Cole even more optimistic.
"The goal is to surpass that and get up there with the big dogs of the past years,'' he said. "We want to set records as well.''
A few teams have come close. The 1989 Minnesota Vikings had 71 sacks and the 1987 Bears had 70.
Rivera actually contributed in '87 with one sack, but that wasn't his responsibility in Ryan's scheme.
"I was what they called the sacrificial lamb,'' he said. "I was the one that ran right into the double team. I was the magnet. I would just run into this big pileup and get blowed up.''
The Panthers don't blitz nearly as much as the Bears. Many of their sacks came out of the base defense.
That makes 72 seem even more unattainable.
"For us as a defensive line, that's where our goal is,'' Cole said. "Maybe that's just me talking on my behalf. But if you don't shoot for the stars, you'll never reach the moon.''
Both are expected to play when the Panthers (12-4) play host to Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco in a Jan. 12 playoff game.
Coach Ron Rivera is confident tight end Ben Hartsock (knee), defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf) and "all of our guys'' will be ready for the playoffs.
Smith is the most significant. The passing game struggled without him at Atlanta as wide receivers had only four catches for 22 yards.
Earning a first-round bye was key. Smith said he likely could not have played this weekend.
"Steve is right on schedule,'' Rivera said. "He's doing a great job. He's feeling better every day, at least that's what he's telling me. You know Steve. He's going to do everything he can.
"I really think Steve will be where he needs to be when it's time.''
It won't be left up to Smith (knee).
Rivera ruled the team's all-time leading receiver out for the 1 p.m. ET game, that with a victory gives Carolina (11-4) the NFC South championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
He also ruled out running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf).
Of the three, Rivera said Smith likely would be available for a first-round playoff game if the Panthers lost to Atlanta and had to play next week as a wild-card team.
"Believe me, don't bet against him," Rivera said.
Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon will rotate in Smith's role as the X receiver. Marvin McNutt will be activated as the fourth receiver and will play a role on special teams.
Quarterback Cam Newton remained on the injury report as a full participant in practice with an ankle injury. Rivera does not expect the ankle to be a factor in the team's game plan when it comes to running Newton.
"We are going to do what we have to win this football game," he said. "We're going to be smart about it, but we've got to put ourselves in position to win."
Asked if he would rest key starters such as Newton if the game becomes a blowout, Rivera said, "We'll get to that when we cross that [bridge]."
Let's break it down:
• Starting defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (thigh) missed Friday's practice with a thigh injury. He is listed as questionable. If he can't go, the Panthers will turn to Colin Cole, an eight-year veteran who has been out of the league the past two seasons.
Cole last played for the Seahawks in 2010 before injuring an ankle toward the end of the season. He was the first player signed by new general manager Dave Gettleman.
"He had a great camp and really dedicated himself to getting back," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Friday. "We have that confidence he can be that guy again.''
• Strong safety Mike Mitchell (calf) is "definitely doubtful," according to Rivera. If he can't go, Carolina will start Quintin Mikell, who joined the team on Monday after being released by the Rams earlier this year for salary cap reasons.
Rivera is upbeat because Mikell is a veteran who has played in a similar scheme before.
"But also because of the guys that are around him," Rivera said. "One of the things I really like is how [free safety] Charles Godfrey has really stepped it up. The corners have gravitated towards him. And then all the linebackers [have stepped up].
"It's one of those classic things when somebody comes in to replace somebody the other 10 guys pick it up. That has been outstanding.''
• Starting left guard Amini Silatolu (hamstring) also remained sidelined and is listed as questionable. Journeyman Chris Scott and Travelle Wharton will share the load even if Silatolu can play some. Scott has begun each of the last two practices with the first unit.
Out for Sunday are reserve backup running back Kenjon Barner (foot) and backup cornerback James Dockery (thumb). Domenik Hixon (hamstring), in the mix for the third receiver spot, is questionable.
Starting fullback Mike Tolbert (hamstring) and weakside linebacker linebacker Jon Beason (knee), as well as backup tight end Ben Hartsock (foot), are good to go.
“Cam!" they shriek.
It’s an attempt to get quarterback Cam Newton to come sign autographs. It’s also a reminder that Newton’s popularity is greater than that of the 89 other players in camp combined.
“Imagine what it would be like if we win," a team employee said on a recent day while fans yelled Newton’s name.
Yeah, imagine the frenzy around Newton if the Panthers produced a winning season in his third year. That’s pretty much the objective, because coach Ron Rivera needs to win to keep his job, and this franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2008 season. And it’s mostly up to Newton, who is somewhat a polarizing figure, to make it happen.
The guy is an attention magnet. He’s beloved by Carolina fans but is often bashed by the national media. Presumably, the negativity stems from episodes in which he pouted when things were going badly, and critics have questioned his leadership skills.
But those who know Newton best say what you see isn’t what you get. They say Newton is ready to take the Panthers to the playoffs.
“The thing that I really admire about Cam is, even through all the adversity and even through all of the stuff the media has tried to create that’s not true about him, he’s done a really good job of weathering those storms," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. “His self-evaluation is phenomenal. He’s approached many guys and said, 'Look, I know I don’t do a great job with this or that,' and he’s the first one to tell you that he’s working on it and he’s going to do his best to make sure bad things don’t happen again. I’ve been around guys that are too prideful to ever say that or make an effort to do that.
“I’ve played around guys who will tell you, 'This is who I am, take it or leave it. I really don’t care what you think of me.' Cam’s not like that. That’s something that I really respect out of him, and that’s going to help not only with his teammates, but with himself."
Those who have spent the most time around Newton say the quarterback has grown immensely and is more than ready to be a leader.
“People have talked about him handling the ups and the downs," said offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who worked as quarterbacks coach during Newton’s first two seasons. “We all hate to lose. You don’t ever want to get used to losing and justifying and saying, 'That’s OK, we can get them next week.' You want them to burn inside, but on the outside you have to manage that. It’s not golf. You’re not by yourself. You’ve got 10 other guys that feel just as bad as you do, so channel that feeling and get the most of not just yourself, but get the most out of those other guys. That’s what leadership is in my opinion."
If Newton can get the most out of himself and his teammates, the Panthers will be in the playoffs. And the Newton critics finally will be silenced.
"He's had the best first two seasons of any quarterback," general manager Dave Gettleman said. “The elephant in the room is the win-loss record. Now, it's time to win."
THREE HOT ISSUES
Richardson ultimately decided that the team’s strong finish last season was a sign that Rivera had the Panthers pointed in the right direction. But Richardson is running out of patience.
Anything less than a playoff berth probably won’t be enough for Rivera to keep his job.
2. The offense needs to find an identity. Newton is talented in so many different ways that the Panthers haven’t figured out how to use him properly. That task is now up to Shula as he takes over the offense.
I think Shula has a chance to be one of this season’s success stories. In his previous stint as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s, Shula was bashed for being too conservative. But he didn’t have very talented personnel. He also was under instructions from coach Tony Dungy to keep things conservative.
Shula is too smart to be conservative in Carolina. He has a rare talent in Newton and good skill-position players such as DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen. I can’t see Carolina’s offense being boring.
3. The secondary can make this defense great. On paper, Carolina’s front seven is as good as any in the league. But some very large questions remain in a secondary that wasn’t very good last season.
Free safety Charles Godfrey is the only sure thing. Because of salary-cap issues, the Panthers weren’t able to bring in any big names to patch up the secondary and settled for several midlevel free agents. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw out of the secondary during my visit to camp.
Mike Mitchell looks like he can fit nicely at strong safety. Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence aren’t household names, but they’re smart veteran cornerbacks and they seem to have the edge on youngsters Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. Still, it remains to be seen how this secondary will match up in a division that includes wide receivers such as Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The way the team finished last season showed that the players have bought into Rivera. It also showed he’s grown as a coach. The Panthers made major changes to their offensive scheme after the dismal start and wound up winning five of their final six games.
If the Panthers can carry over that momentum, anything is possible. This is a team that’s been down for a while. But there are plenty of players with elite talent on this roster. This isn’t a team that is building from scratch. This is a team that simply is looking to turn a corner.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
It remains to be seen if Beason and Stewart can get back to being anywhere close to the players they once were.
- A lot of people rip on Carolina’s receiving corps and say it has no depth beyond Smith. I have to disagree with that after watching the Panthers in camp. I think Brandon LaFell is a much better No. 2 receiver than he gets credit for. I also think reclamation project Ted Ginn Jr. might pay off because he has elite speed, and Domenik Hixon gives the Panthers a steady veteran backup.
- That new-found depth at wide receiver doesn’t bode well for David Gettis. I know he’s a fan favorite because he had a nice rookie season in 2010. But injuries have limited Gettis to only two games over the past two seasons. I don’t know whether Gettis still is dealing with injuries, but I watched him in camp and he didn’t look much like he did as a rookie.
- Sixth-round draft pick Kenjon Barner is going to have an impact on this team in some way. The backfield is crowded, and the Panthers have plenty of other options in the return game. But Barner has explosive quickness, and I think the Panthers will find a way to get him on the field.
- Even though he hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since the 2010 season, I think defensive tackle Colin Cole has a shot at making the roster. Cole is massive and can be a nice backup run-stuffer to rookie Star Lotulelei.
- Maybe it’s a smokescreen, but I don’t think I saw a read-option play the entire time I was at Carolina’s camp.
- Despite their salary-cap limitations, I think the Panthers made an excellent move by signing free-agent linebacker Chase Blackburn. Beason and Thomas Davis have a history of injuries. Blackburn has starting experience and can play all three linebacker positions.
- I’m not sure the Panthers are sold on their depth on the offensive line. They’re taking a look at some young backups now, but I think they could look to add a veteran or two.