NFL Nation: Luke Kuechly

Ron RiveraMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesRon Rivera has an open mind on accepting advice -- even if it comes from a NASCAR crew chief.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera began the offseason by spending several hours picking the brain of the most successful coach in professional team sports over the past 10 years.

Not Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.

Not Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Not Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chad Knaus.

Yes, the crew chief for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Don't laugh. It's Rivera's willingness to learn from the best, even one from a world as different as NASCAR is to the NFL, that gives the Panthers a chance in 2014 despite many concerns over their offseason moves.

Knaus actually reached out to the Panthers first, cold-calling the NFC South champions to see if he could spend time with Rivera and his staff.

Rivera, the NFL's reigning coach of the year, was just as interested in learning how Knaus kept his team on top with six titles and 10 straight trips to the Chase, NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

"One of the things we're trying to figure out is, how do we sustain the success?" Rivera said. "Listening to him talk about the way they review each year and how they try to find these next-level things, that was pretty impressive."

One of the things that was most impressive about Rivera last season was his willingness to adapt. He went from being one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL on fourth-and-1 to one of the most aggressive, earning the nickname "Riverboat Ron" because he gambled so often on short-yardage plays.

The confidence that instilled in players played a big role in the team's turnaround from a 1-3 start to a 12-4 record.

Rivera also wasn't afraid to take chances with his lineup. If a player wasn't performing, he'd go to the next man regardless of seniority. There were times in key situations when the league's second-ranked defense had six rookies on the field.

It's why Rivera is not so worried about the upheaval at wide receiver that has many questioning the organization's sanity.

Rivera also found a way to get individual players with egos to become teammates.

"It's the same stuff we always try to push with the 48 car," Knaus said, referring to Johnson's Chevrolet.

Listening to the two talk about how their worlds are more alike than different helped me better understand what some might call the madness behind Carolina's free-agency plan.

It made me better understand that sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.

Knaus did it in 2010. Late in the eighth race of NASCAR's 10-race playoff, tired of seeing costly mistakes on pit road, he swapped out his entire seven-man pit crew in favor of the one used by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesHendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus has impressed Ron Rivera by sharing with the Panthers coach some of the successes and pitfalls of managing a championship team.
It was unprecedented.

Johnson went from a 33-point deficit in the standings to his fifth straight title.

Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman took a similar gamble this offseason when they released Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and let their next three most productive wide receivers go to other teams in free agency.

The Panthers took the approach that status quo was not good enough. When you consider Carolina averaged 12.7 points in its seven games against teams with winning records in 2013, and that its wide receivers contributed slightly less than 10 catches a game all season, there was room for improvement.

Whether it will work out as well for Rivera as it did for Knaus remains to be seen.

The Panthers, who debuted in 1995, have had only five winning seasons and none back-to-back, so they have that working against them. That it's difficult to maintain consistency in the NFL in general makes it even tougher.

Half of the 32 teams have failed to post consecutive winning seasons over the past five seasons. Six others have done it only once during that span.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the 20 teams that went 12-4 over the past 10 years averaged 9.95 wins the following season. So repeating last year's accomplishment would have been hard, even without any change.

"The one thing he said was don't expect to start up here [Rivera points high]. You go down here and get better here and go to the top," Rivera says of Knaus' advice. "That was probably one of the more helpful parts of our conversation."

Talking about how people fit onto a roster also was helpful in a way Rivera never imagined.

"This guy may jack the car up a 10th of a second faster, but he doesn't work as well together with others," Rivera said, "while this guy may be a 10th of a second slower, yet he works well with everybody. We're the same way. It's about, 'How does this guy fit in the locker room?'"

Smith's name didn't come up but you can connect the dots, with all the rumblings about concerns the 34-year-old could be a distraction in the locker room.

A key to Knaus' success is fear. He always operates under the fear of not winning races and not being a champion.

He also operates under the theory that nobody is above learning from others. Rivera is the same way. He sought out former NFL coaches John Madden and Mike Ditka for advice last year. He taped those conversations and then transcribed them into notes, just like he did his talk with Knaus.

Then he acted on them.

Rivera said he can learn from Knaus' ability to put blinders on and block out distractions. Knaus admitted he can learn from Rivera's ability to "manage guys on a personal level." He has even adopted Rivera's standard comment that "you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate the standard."

Both strive for the same thing -- winning consistently. And they both have the key parts in place to make that happen.

For the 48 team, it's a core of Knaus, Johnson and car chief Ron Malec. For the Carolina team, it's a core of quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a coaching staff that remains unchanged.

The rest is a matter of filling in the pieces. Knaus has done that with NFL combine-like tryouts to get the best pit crew members available. He even adopted a depth chart, unheard of in NASCAR until three years ago.

Rivera has a quarterback on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite and the core of the league's second-ranked defense that should keep Carolina in most games.

So for all the woe-is-me over the losses at wide receiver, the key parts remain in place.

And then there's the core philosophy.

"The more I talk to people in the military, in other sports, people who are successful in other fields, the formula isn't that different for any environment," Knaus said. "It's all about teamwork, communication. It's how you approach the day.

"Ron has that."

If he can build on it, the Panthers have a chance to maintain a success level that Knaus already has attained.
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is well on his way to a career that will earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But his jersey and pants already are there.

Kuechly
The Panthers recently sent those items from the uniform Kuechly wore on Dec. 22, 2013, when he tied an NFL single-game record with 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against the New Orleans Saints.

They will be an exhibit in the Hall's Pro Football Today Gallery.

If Kuechly continues on his current path, he'll have a bust of his likeness in the Hall when his career is over.

The former Boston College star was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl this past season after helping Carolina to the league's second-ranked defense with 156 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions.

In two NFL seasons, Kuechly has an amazing 320 tackles.

ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden compared Kuechly to future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher of the Bears and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis of the Ravens last season.

"I said it in our preseason game: Luke Kuechly is the best linebacker in football. Exclamation point! Period!" Gruden said. "The guy is unbelievable."

One day that guy may end up in the Hall of Fame, but for now he'll have to settle for his jersey and pants.
Former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney will appear on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" on Thursday and Friday. It will be the first time he has spoken publicly since he was fired on Oct. 22, 2012, after a 1-5 start.

Hurney, in my opinion, was the fall guy that day.

It wasn't his fault the Panthers were losing. They had many of the key players -- quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, wide receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross -- that helped them to a 12-4 record and NFC South title this past season.

He was the one who hired Ron Rivera, who was the NFL coach of the year this past season.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesMarty Hurney was fired after a 1-5 start to the 2012 season.
His philosophy to build through the draft and not overspend in free agency is sound.

Hurney's biggest fault was signing running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and defensive end Charles Johnson to ridiculously high contracts that has current general manager Dave Gettleman in what he might call salary cap hell.

Oh, and there was the five-year, $42.5 million deal he gave to 34-year-old Jake Delhomme after the quarterback had six turnovers in the 2008 playoff loss to Arizona.

Aside from those things, Hurney is the same person who helped build the Panthers into a team that made it to the Super Bowl in 2003, the NFC Championship Game in 2005 and back to the playoffs in 2008.

What he said the day he was fired was more truth than anybody probably was willing to admit at the time.

"I think we need somebody to step up in the locker room and take hold," Hurney told reporters at Bank of America Stadium. "I think there are people capable of that. I think we need some players to step up and say enough is enough."

That finally happened last season when Gross, with the team 1-3 heading into Minnesota, gave a speech that many of his teammates credit for the ensuing eight-game winning streak.

That Hurney, a former sportswriter, has decided to resurface now is a good thing. That he's resurfacing at a time Gettleman is under siege for releasing Smith and letting Carolina's No. 2, 3 and 4 receivers get away in free agency -- not to mention failing to sign a veteran from another team -- is merely coincidence.

Hurney likes Gettleman and believes he'll do a good job.

So do I, even though I still disagree with the release of Smith.

I'm not sure what Hurney will be asked on "Insiders" (ESPN, 3:30 p.m.). I'm not sure how much he will talk about the past because he's a high-road guy. It's why players such as Johnson came to his defense when he was fired.

"Marty wasn't the reason we are losing! ... Unbelievable!" Johnson wrote on Twitter at the time.

But there will be questions, maybe a few that are uncomfortable. I'm sure you have a few. Here are five of mine:

  • When you said somebody needed to step up and say "enough is enough,'' did you believe the locker-room environment lacked the leadership to win? Who were the bad eggs?
  • Did you think at the time you signed Williams, Stewart and Johnson to big deals that it would strap the team financially this far into the future?
  • If you had to do it all over again with the exact same scenario, would you have given Delhomme such a big deal?
  • What do you think of Gettleman's decision to fire Smith?
  • Were you really fired, or did you just refuse to let others in the organization go and basically quit?

Some of these things surely will come up on the broadcast. How Hurney addresses them isn't as important as he's finally comfortable enough to talk football publicly again.

Hurney did a lot of good things for Carolina. Even Gettleman acknowledged that in his postseason wrap-up.

It's time to move on.

Robert Mathis finishes 2nd in DPOY

February, 1, 2014
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What could have been an incredible day for the Indianapolis Colts didn't end the way they hoped.

Mathis
Shortly after receiver Marvin Harrison and coach Tony Dungy found out they will not be heading to the Hall of Fame this year, linebacker Robert Mathis learned he wasn’t this season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Mathis finished second behind Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly for the award.

Kuechly led the NFC in tackles with 156, including 24 against New Orleans in Week 16.

Mathis didn’t win Defensive Player of the Year, but he still had a successful season.

He also proved the naysayers wrong who doubted that he could dominate without Dwight Freeney on the other side.

The best part about Mathis playing with the chip on his shoulder?

He had no problem saying the doubters motivated him.

Mathis led the league in sacks with 19.5 and forced fumbles with eight. He had 46.4 percent of the Colts’ sacks this season, because they only had 42 as a team. The eight forced fumbles led to 35 Colts points.
The Carolina Panthers didn't reach the Super Bowl this season, but a big part of a foundation that could get them there in the future was honored on Saturday night at "NFL Honors."

Coach Ron Rivera was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly the AP Defensive Player of the Year during the awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Ron Rivera
AP Photo/Brian BlancoAfter getting off to a 1-3 start, Ron Rivera coached the Panthers to wins in 11 of their final 12 regular-season games.
For Rivera it completed a clean sweep of the major coach of the year awards. He received 21 1/2 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 voters after leading a Carolina team that hadn't made the playoffs since 2008 to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title.

He beat Kansas City's Andy Reid (13 1/2 votes), who took the Chiefs from an NFL-worst 2-14 record in 2012 to 11-5 and second in the AFC West, for the award.

What Reid did was remarkable, but what Rivera did was more impressive. After consecutive 6-10 and 7-9 seasons to start his career as a first-time head coach, the Panthers began this season 0-2 and then 1-3.

Without a winning reputation to fall back on, Rivera led the team to eight straight wins and 11 in their final 12 to finish the regular season 12-4 with a first-round bye in the playoffs.

"You look at the way the season started, Rivera preached the same message all the way through," Kuechly told me by phone from New York City. "He told us we will be all right, to trust in the coach, trust in the game plan."

Having stars such as Kuechly, last season's NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, didn't hurt. Kuechly led Carolina with 156 tackles, including 24 in a late-season victory over New Orleans that propelled the team to the division title.

His award, too, was much deserved.

"This is great," Kuechly said of the awards he and Rivera received. "Look at our team and what we accomplished, it's a really good representation of where we came from."

When Rivera was announced as the league's top coach, NFL great Michael Irvin referred to him as "Riverboat Ron."

That was fitting.

Rivera earned the nickname early in the season after putting aside his conservative approach -- one of the most conservative in the league the past two seasons -- and began taking chances on fourth down.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly #59 of the Carolina Panthers
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesA year after winning NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, Luke Kuechly took home the AP Defensive Player of the Year award Saturday.
He successfully showed his new riverboat gambler mentality twice successfully on fourth-and-1 on the first drive of a 35-10 victory at Minnesota that began the eight-game winning streak.

"I think that he is kind of breaking his mold to a degree, and giving the whole team confidence with him," quarterback Cam Newton said at the time.

Rivera made the decision to be more aggressive and show more confidence in his players on the bus ride to the airport after a 24-23 loss at Buffalo left Carolina 0-2.

Rivera was criticized for kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 21 with less than two minutes to play and a three-point lead -- not to mention a banged up secondary.

The Bills then went the distance to win on touchdown pass with two seconds left.

"Sometimes you play by the book and you miss opportunities," Rivera said during the season. "The thing I really like is the guys have said to me they appreciate me showing faith in who we are as a football team."

A change in philosophy turned into a changed team and a boatload of postseason honors for Rivera and players such as Kuechly.

The next goal is the Super Bowl.

"We did some really big things and took a couple of big steps," Rivera told me last week when discussing the possibility of winning this award. "[Coach of the year] would be a great tribute to the organization and what we accomplished this season.

"But we still have a long way to go to fulfill our vision."
I thought NaVorro Bowman deserved to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

But I didn’t think he’d win. I didn’t think Luke Kuechly would win, either, though. Saturday’s announcement that Kuechly -- Carolina’s star inside linebacker -- won the award over Bowman surprised me.

I thought Indianapolis pass-rusher Robert Mathis, who had 19.5 sacks, was going to win the award. It’s tough for a player like Bowman, an inside linebacker for the 49ers, to win the award. But to see Kuechly get the award over Bowman is strange.

Kuechly is a wonderful player. But Bowman had a better season. In my opinion, the voters gave the award to the wrong inside linebacker.

And the fact that the Associated Press reported that Bowman wasn’t one of the six players to get a vote is stunning and, in my opinion, ridiculous.

Bowman dominated every game he played in; including the NFC title game in which he suffered a major knee injury on a play he stripped the ball away at the goal line.

Kuechly had 156 tackles. But Bowman had 143 tackles and he had 118 solo tackles, which was more than Kuechly. Plus, Bowman had five sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions, one he returned 89 yards for a touchdown to seal the 49ers' playoff-clinching win.

Again, I have no problem with Kuechly. But if an inside linebacker was going to win this year, it needed to be Bowman.
Robert Mathis, Richard Sherman and NaVorro BowmanAP Photo, USA TODAY SportsIndianapolis' Robert Mathis, Seattle's Richard Sherman and San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman have all put up numbers that could result in defensive player of the year honors.
Denver's Peyton Manning broke passing records with his arm. Kanas City's Jamaal Charles was a treat to watch running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. Detroit's Megatron (Calvin Johnson) was simply incredible with his freakishly athletic skills at wide receiver.

But there were some players on the other side of the ball who deserve to be honored for their play this season.

The problem is deciding who deserves it more than the other players.

The NFL's Defensive Player of the Year will be named this weekend.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson discuss the top candidates for the award.

Wells: Bill, it appears that defensive player of the year is a wide-open race this season. There are a number of different players who deserve to win it. Robert Mathis in Indianapolis, Carolina's Luke Kuechly, St. Louis' Robert Quinn, Seattle's Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman, who you cover on a regular basis. Who do you think deserves the award?

SportsNation

Who deserves to win NFL defensive player of the year honors?

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Williamson: Yes, Mike, there are some very solid candidates. But I have to go with the player I saw dominate for 19 weeks. Bowman is simply unbelievable. He stood out in every game. He set the tone for one of the NFL's finest defenses with his dominant play from a 3-4 inside linebacker position. Bowman had 143 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions, one he returned 89 yards for a touchdown to seal the 49ers' playoff-clinching win. Bowman excelled against both the run and the pass. He's a football player's player. Sadly, his season ended in the fourth quarter of the 49ers' loss at Seattle in the NFC title game when he suffered a torn ACL. In typical Bowman fashion, he was hurt by stripping the ball at the goal line. Mike, a player you cover, Mathis, is considered the favorite to win the DPOY. Do you think he deserves it?

Wells: I'm sure some people will call you and I homers, but I've got to give the edge to Mathis because he was a one-man wrecking crew on defense. It was personal and team oriented for Mathis. He wanted to prove the he could still be a force without playing alongside of Dwight Freeney. Mathis had no problem talking about how that added fuel to his already flaming fire. He backed it up by leading the league in sacks with 19.5. He ended up accounting for 46.4 percent of the Colts' sacks this season because they only had 42 as a team. Mathis used his infamous chop down on the quarterback's passing arm to force a league-leading eight fumbles. Those eight forced fumbles led to 35 points for Indianapolis. The Colts struggled at times defensively during the season. They would have been really bad if they didn't have Mathis on the roster. You covered games involving Seattle's Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman three times, including the NFC Championship Game. Is there a legitimate argument for either one of them to be DPOY?

Williamson: Oh, certainly on both Seattle players. Again, lots of great candidates here. Sherman and Thomas are among the best defensive players in the league and they are a big reason why the Seahawks are preparing to play in the Super Bowl. Thomas is a tone-setter at the back end of a special defense. Sherman is probably the best cornerback in the NFL and one of the best players in the game regardless of position. The 49ers tested him with the game on the line in the NFC title game and they lost because of it. There are really no wrong answers here. I can't knock Mathis or any of the other candidates. But I just think Bowman deserves to win the award because of his overall impact on the game. There's really no way for offenses to avoid him. Mike, do you think Mathis is a complete player or is he a top candidate solely on his pass-rush prowess?

Wells: This is where the argument doesn't favor Mathis. He rarely dropped back into coverage because he's a pass-rushing linebacker. I'm not saying he isn't capable of being in pass coverage, but I haven't seen him do it enough because coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense is all about getting after the quarterback with Mathis. His ability to pressure the quarterback trickles down to players like linebacker Jerrell Freeman and the entire secondary. It allows them to gamble on the ball more defensively. Some may consider Mathis a one-dimensional defensive player, but he does that one thing well. Seattle's Russell Wilson and Manning, the two starting quarterbacks in this weekend's Super Bowl, can validate that because Mathis sacked both of them during the regular season.

Is Bowman's ability to defend pass coverage the main reason you give him the edge over Mathis?

Williamson: No, it's just his overall game. Again, he impacts it in every way. Look at his stat line: There's nothing he didn't do. He was making plays on first, second and third down. And, yes, he was just as apt to make a play 15 yards downfield as he was at the line of scrimmage. In fact, on his interception return for a touchdown, he was supposed to blitz but he read the play and darted back into coverage. He had 118 solo tackles, the second most in the NFL this season. Again, there are no wrong answers here, but for me Bowman is the best answer.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Several Carolina Panthers made an impression in Sunday night's Pro Bowl.

And none made a bigger one than fullback Mike Tolbert, one of the least known of his six teammates who participated in the annual all-star game in Hawaii.

In case you missed it, Tolbert barreled over the right side for a 2-point conversion with 41 seconds remaining to give the team coached by Ron Rivera and the Carolina staff a 22-21 victory.

He then playfully mocked Cam Newton, a member of the opposing team, with the "Superman'' celebration the Carolina quarterback does after scoring touchdowns.

"I told Cam I was going to mess with him if I got in the end zone, so I had to," Tolbert told Panthers.com.

Among those that couldn't stop Tolbert, known as the human bowling ball to his teammates because of his 5-foot-9, 245-pound frame, was linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Kuechly, who led the opposing team with 12 tackles, also went backwards in an earlier collision with Tolbert on a short first-down run.

"We kind of came to an agreement before the game that he would take a side and we would go peacefully in the night,'' Tolbert told the team's official website. "But he squared up on me, so I was like, 'OK, let's go,'

"He told me later his shoulder was hurt. I said, 'Please don't tell Coach.' ''

Kuechly is fine.

And nobody has to tell Rivera that Tolbert is one of the toughest players on a squad that finished the regular-season 12-4 and won the NFC South. He may be one of the least known of a backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but when it comes time for a tough yard he's the go-to guy.

So when Rivera's team scored to pull within one on Sunday, there was little hesitation. It was fitting that the coach who earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron'' this season for his willingness to gamble gave the ball to one of his own.

“I’m not surprised by any means that Ron wasn’t going to go for the tie,'' Tolbert told the Charlotte Observer after the game. "They call him Riverboat Ron in Carolina for a reason.”

And they call Tolbert a human bowling ball for a reason, too.

Other notables for the Panthers:

Newton: It was a better Pro Bowl experience than he had after the 2011 season when he threw three interceptions in a losing effort. He completed 8 of 17 pass attempts for 95 yards and had a 1-yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak.

On a down note, he was sacked four times in the second quarter and threw an interception. Rivera couldn't be happy with that.

Kuechly: The middle linebacker once against proved why he is known as a tackling machine with 12. He also had a sack. Had his team won he surely would have been the most valuable player.

Greg Hardy: Carolina's sack leader with 15 had a sack in his first Pro Bowl experience. Next up for the defensive end is whether he will get the franchise tag from the Panthers, a long-term deal or enter free agency.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn't making any promises, but he believes Sunday's Pro Bowl will be more than just a pillow fight as last year's game has been described.

Payton
Rivera
Rivera and his staff will coach a team selected by honorary captain Jerry Rice in the first-ever Pro Bowl draft against a team coached by the Indianapolis staff with Deion Sanders as the honorary captain.

Rivera said the mixing of AFC and NFC players for the first time should help add intensity to a game that has lacked it in past seasons.

"The players understand what's at stake in terms of we need to come out there and we need to show who we are as far as being football players," Rivera said by phone on Friday from Hawaii. "It's been a heck of an experience. I'm excited about it.

"I just hope it's a good show."

Rivera wasn't all that thrilled about having to make the trip after Carolina lost 23-10 to San Francisco in an NFC divisional playoff game two weeks ago. He was more eager about looking to the future.

But the trip's been fun, and he realizes it's an honor and tribute to the organization and his staff for what was accomplished during a 12-5 season that surpassed many expectations.

Rivera's only regret now is that he'll be coaching Sunday against his two signal-callers in quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Kuechly already has been assigned with calling defensive signals for Sanders' team. Newton will be the second quarterback out for Team Sanders after Indy's Andrew Luck.

"The thing that's disappointing to me is having my two signal callers on opposite sides," Rivera said. "But the one thing that does please me is Greg Hardy is on the opposite side, so I don't have to worry about him running into Cam."

Hardy, who led Carolina with 15 sacks, was also selected by Sanders. That means Newton won't have to avoid being tackled by the player who calls himself "The Kraken," a player who earlier in the week told me he doesn't plan to take it easy on anybody.

Long snapper J.J. Jansen also is on Sanders' team, but Rivera does have three of his own players in left tackle Jordan Gross, fullback Mike Tolbert and center Ryan Kalil.

"It's going to be different," Rivera said of the game. "But I look forward to it."

Carolina Panthers season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: "Riverboat Ron." Not often does a coach admit he needs to change, but Ron Rivera did after a 24-23 loss to Buffalo dropped Carolina to 0-2. He admitted he should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 with 1:42 remaining and leading by three. He admitted he needed to show more confidence in his offense to make a yard and his defense to make stops. He went from one of the league's most conservative fourth-down coaches to one of the most aggressive, and added a nickname. He successfully went for it twice on the opening drive against Minnesota to start an eight-game winning streak. He went for it late on fourth-and-10 deep in his own territory to set up the winning touchdown against Miami. Carolina finished the regular season 10-of-13 on fourth-down attempts. Ironically, it was a failed attempt in the playoff game against San Francisco that led to the Panthers' 23-10 loss.

Biggest disappointment: The inability to win a home playoff game once again, which came in large part because of the team's late-season inability to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. The Panthers ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line in Sunday's playoff loss, and came away with no touchdowns. Four times they had an opportunity to score from the 1 and failed. Had they converted even one, it would have been a one-score game at the end, leaving open the possibility for a comeback. I'm still wondering why 6-foot-5 quarterback Cam Newton didn't get the call on third down and less than 2 feet. You would think he could have jumped up and thrust the ball over the goal line.

Biggest need: If Newton is to have success as the team's franchise quarterback he needs to have more weapons. Outside of the aging-but-still-effective Steve Smith, and occasional moments from Ted Ginn Jr., he has none at this position. Brandon LaFell did little over the final three games to prove he should be re-signed as the team's No. 2 receiver. He could have been selected for the season's biggest disappointment. Don't be surprised to see the team address this position in free agency and the draft, which is heavy with receiver talent. It was obvious in the playoff loss against San Francisco that a major difference between Newton and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was talent at receiver.

Team MVP: This is a tough one. Part of me says Greg Hardy, whose team-leading 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures were key to what the team does on defense. Not to mention he played every position along the defensive front at some point. But I have to go with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He led the league's second-ranked defense in tackles with 176. He is the brains and leader of this unit. His ability to cover some of the league's top tight ends as well as set the tone for stopping the run was invaluable. His 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against New Orleans in Week 16 helped keep the Panthers close enough to pull off a win that helped them clinch the NFC South title.

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Ron Rivera and Dave GettlemanJeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT/Getty ImagesPanthers coach Ron Rivera and GM Dave Gettleman met the press on Tuesday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is funny and endearing. You can envision spending hours on a bar stool, chatting with him about anything and everything -- although his thick Boston accent takes some getting used to for those of us with thick Southern accents.

On Tuesday, he entertained Charlotte-based media for 36 minutes.

OK, coach Ron Rivera was there, too. But it was in more of a silent, supportive role, spending most of this time smiling as Gettleman addressed contracts and the future of a team that on Sunday completed a 12-5 season with a loss to San Francisco in the NFC playoffs.

You tend to become secondary when your general manager hasn't spoken publicly to the media since training camp.

Gettleman, as he is so adept at doing, didn't say a lot in regard to specifics. We still don't know if defensive end Greg Hardy will be back with a new contract or a franchise tag, or if he will move on to another team. We still don't know if the team wants left tackle Jordan Gross to return for a 12th season.

We still don't know if quarterback Cam Newton will get a long-term deal or if the team will use the fifth-year option as it's entitled.

But in not saying a lot, Gettleman said a great deal. His message was one of patience, of making sure proper time is taken to make full evaluations before making decisions that will impact the franchise for years.

"We've got to evaluate the whole thing," Gettleman said. "We're cap-challenged. You guys are probably going to walk out of here [going], 'Dave doesn't want to answer any questions.' The fact of the matter, it's the truth -- it's not going to change this year. So we've got to sit down and talk over the next month and figure out what we're going to do.

Gettleman I came in and no one went out the door and that made it easy. They accepted me and my Yankee craziness.

-- Panthers GM Dave Gettleman,
on his first year in Carolina
"I like the position we're in. I feel strongly in our evaluation process, and we'll make the best decisions for the Carolina Panthers moving forward."

Let me read between the lines for you:

• The Panthers were more than $16 million over the salary cap before Gettleman arrived from the New York Giants in February. They are more than $17 million under the cap now, but that still makes money tight with 21 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and Newton available to renegotiate.

• While the team would love to keep everyone who made this season possible, it's probably not going to happen, nor should it happen. There will be areas such as wide receiver and the secondary to improve through free agency and the draft, which might make current players expendable.

• Key players such as Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, wide receiver Steve Smith, defensive end Charles Johnson and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei are in place to make what happened this season sustainable.

This past season is proof that if you have a strong core, you can build around it with role players. Look at the offensive line and secondary, where multiple players were moved in and out of the lineup because of injuries or lack of performance.

Nate Chandler, who finished the season as the starting right guard, was on the defensive line a year ago.

"We've got a good group of guys," Rivera said in one of his brief comments. "But again, we've got to evaluate. That's probably the key word right now. We've got to evaluate."

Gettleman has proven to be a great evaluator, which he was known for with the Giants. He made Lotulelei and fellow defensive tackle Kawann Short his first two picks of the 2013 draft. They played huge roles in making the defense the second-best in the NFL.

Gettleman targeted linebacker A.J. Klein in the fifth round, and he proved to be a valuable asset when starter Chase Blackburn was sidelined against San Francisco. He also targeted Blackburn, bringing him from the Giants.

He made the call to trade Jon Beason to the Giants after three games. And although he received only a seventh-round pick for him, the defense came together after the move.

What Gettleman has done with the salary cap has been nothing short of miraculous. He convinced players with big deals to take cuts. He convinced Gross to cut the final year off his contract, which is why his future is up in the air.

"The gaffes I made this year didn't hurt us too much," Gettleman said with a laugh.

Asked what gaffes, he laughed again and let out a "Woooo" that would have made Ric Flair proud (if we're still allowed to use that name here).

Then there was a long silence. When I suggested he wasn't going to answer the question about mistakes, Gettleman smiled and said, "Let's say I didn't make any big ones."

He doesn't want to make one now, which is why he is playing his cards so close to the vest. He is also smart enough to know this wasn't all his doing.

After repeatedly saying how strapped the team was under the cap, he praised the former general manager that put him in a good situation through at least 2015.

"Let me say this right here and right now, Marty Hurney has a lot to be proud of," Gettleman said of his predecessor. "He left us with a helluva core. Hired this guy [Rivera], drafted Cam. He's got a lot to be proud of.

"When I got the job, of all the GM jobs I felt this was the best job. And you know what? I guessed right."

So did the Panthers when they took a chance on the man who had been bypassed for general manager jobs so many times he was ready to step back in his role with the Giants.

"I came in and no one went out the door and that made it easy," Gettleman said of his first year in Carolina. "They accepted me and my Yankee craziness. ... The vision has to keep going."
Jordan GrossAP Photo/Mike McCarnThe Panthers' No. 1 job this offseason should be convincing Jordan Gross to re-sign, not retire.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross went to the Super Bowl in his first NFL season and to the NFC Championship Game in his third. Since then, he has been a part of only two teams that had winning records and made the playoffs.

The team's lack of consistency has been the biggest disappointment of his 11-year career.

"So it's great to know the team's in a healthy position now," Gross said on Monday, the day after Carolina's season ended with a 23-10 loss to San Francisco in an NFC divisional playoff game. "Every offseason has challenges, re-signing guys, building the team, keeping the consistency going. But I think this team has as good of a chance as any of being successful for a long time."

Gross was one of the few Carolina players with a smile as they cleaned out their lockers. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was so emotional, he had to fight back tears. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell didn't want to leave because he knew it might be his last time in the Panthers' locker room if the team doesn't re-sign him.

But Gross was cracking jokes about how Carolina just offered him a 10-year deal and how he turned down a chance to go to the Pro Bowl as the guest of center Ryan Kalil because he couldn't justify going on a "romantic getaway and leave my family at home."

"We've had a lot of these end-of-the-year meetings where we're trying to spin a 6-10 year into how it was a positive thing," said Gross, a pending free agent who will either re-sign or retire this offseason. "So it feels good when you have the division-champs hats in our locker. I wish it had Super Bowl and NFC champion, but it doesn't and I'm not going to say what we did this year was a disappointment at all."

Gross believes this season is just the beginning for a franchise that hasn't put together consecutive winning seasons since its inception in 1995.

He reminded that the Panthers have a young franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, as well as a young franchise quarterback of the defense in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He reminded they have depth and talent at a lot of positions.

"There's obviously an issue with [free-agent defensive end Greg] Hardy about what they're going to do there," Gross said. "But there's not a million holes to fill, and that's very exciting."

Hardy, who was second in the NFL in sacks with 15, will be a priority when it comes to keeping together the nucleus of the league's No. 2 defense.

But the first hole that should be filled is left tackle.

As in re-signing Gross.

This isn't to suggest the team shouldn't strongly consider taking a tackle with its first or second pick in the draft. If you remember, Gross spent his first season at right tackle as veteran Todd Steussie anchored the line at left for the 2003 team that reached the Super Bowl.

But Gross, 33, remains arguably Carolina's biggest asset. Not only does he still play well in a crucial position, he's in many ways the heart of this team when it comes to leadership. It was his "Highlanders" speech before the Oct. 13 game at Minnesota that many credit with sparking Carolina's eight-game winning streak after a 1-3 start.

Gross won't admit that. He will tell you no player is irreplaceable.

"There's this thing I've heard for the NFL: Everybody is useful and nobody is necessary," he said. "And that's really the truth of it."

But if you're a young team building for the future, you need veterans such as Gross.

After Gross, Carolina should sign Hardy to a long-term deal or put the franchise tag on him. In many ways, he was more valuable to the defense than Kuechly, who led the team in tackles for the second straight season. Hardy, 25, played end, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback pressures.

After that, the premium should be on free safety Mike Mitchell. He brought a much-needed attitude to a secondary that was maligned before the season.

For the remainder of the 21 players who will become unrestricted free agents, do what's necessary. If the Panthers can get Munnerlyn or LaFell or receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for a good price, do it.

Continuity is important. But the Panthers also need talent upgrades at those positions if they are to upgrade the team to a level where it can beat the 49ers in the playoffs. Several San Francisco players said the difference on Sunday was better overall talent, and they were right.

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has done a nice job of taking a team that was more than $16 million over the cap to more than $17 million under it by cutting players and restructuring deals since February.

But he still has obstacles, none more than the horrendous amount of cap money tied up in running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. The dead money tied to Stewart is the most damaging despite his restructuring last year. It's almost prohibitive for the Panthers to cut the player who barely has been on the field the past year-and-a-half.

Some of the room Gettleman cleared likely will be used to sign Newton to a new long-term deal if the team doesn't opt for the fifth-year option.

If the Panthers exercise the option, which would be similar to a franchise tag, Newton would be entitled to the average salary of the top 10 quarterbacks during the 2013 season. That would be in the neighborhood of $17.3 million.

Newton just completed the third year of a four-year, $22 million deal.

The good news for Carolina is Newton isn't going anywhere. The good news is the nucleus of a team that won 11 of its last 12 regular-season games to claim the NFC South title remains.

"I think we're on the verge of something special," Tolbert said.

That's why most of Carolina's free agents are hoping to return.

"So badly, so badly," Mitchell said. "I'm going to do everything I can. I told Greg ... we were real emotional hugging. I want to do everything I can to play with him again. We want to try to keep this team together.

"I want to come back and finish what we started. I want to finish this the right way with this group of men."

That's why Gross was able to smile and crack jokes on a Monday when most were sad. He sees the potential, whether he's a part of it or not.

"It's definitely set up for long-term success," Gross said of the team. "This was just the beginning."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree could be Jerry Rice, but as far as the Carolina Panthers are concerned he is No. 15. Tight end Vernon Davis could be Dwight Clark, but to the Panthers he's just No. 85.

Much has been said about how Crabtree and Davis will be the difference when the 49ers face the Panthers in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game at Bank of America Stadium.

It's been pointed out that Crabtree didn't play when Carolina beat San Francisco 10-9 on Nov. 10, and Davis left with a concussion in the first half.

[+] Enlarge49ers
AP Photo/Ben MargotMichael Crabtree was absent and Vernon Davis missed most of the 49ers' first matchup of the season with Carolina.
But to Carolina, they're numbers -- just as New Orleans' big weapons (tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colston and running back Darren Sproles) were when the Panthers beat the Saints 17-13 in Week 16.

Carolina's second-ranked defense doesn't see stars. It sees numbers. It sees patterns. It sees schemes and tendencies. It sees tackles and opportunities to force turnovers.

"Crabtree is a great wide receiver," said middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the team's leading tackler with 176. "Vernon Davis, he's great, too -- (A) we've got to know where they are, (B) as long as we're in the position coaches put us in, we're in a good spot.

"81 [Anquan Boldin], 15 and 85 are their guys. As long as you know where those guys are and what they like doing, then we just have to go out there and compete.''

That's one reason this defense has been so successful. The players understand the importance of staying in their lanes, playing containment and making tackles, no matter who is in the game.

"We always just look at those guys as numbers, man,'' cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We don't look at a guy as him being Michael Crabtree, him being Vernon Davis.

"You can't get caught up in this is Michael Crabtree. I don't care if it was Jerry Rice in front of me, I just go out and play football.''

That's the philosophy Panthers coach Ron Rivera had as a player with the Chicago Bears and a defensive coordinator with the Bears and Chargers.

"When you play defensive football ... you play the groupings, you play the combinations in terms of route combinations and what they do. You try to understand that before what they do,'' Rivera said.

"When you start worrying about individual players ... well, you've got to understand, what are those players going to do?''

Rivera learned that from former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

"You attack what they do,'' he said. "They may have some good players, special players, but you've still got to stop what they do.''

The number the Panthers are most concerned with is 15.1, the number of points they have allowed per game this season to rank second in the NFL.

That was a big reason they won the first game. They held a San Francisco team that has at times struggled in the red zone to three field goals.

Whether Crabtree or Davis is in the lineup doesn't matter to the Panthers. In the first game, Davis was thrown a swing pass on second-and-5 from the Carolina 6. Safety Mike Mitchell hit Davis so hard that that he lost the ball for what initially appeared to be a fumble before it was ruled an incompletion.

Davis left with a concussion. Sorry, No. 85 left.

"That's the mindset we take,'' said linebacker Thomas Davis, who pounced on the ball, thinking it was a fumble. "We don't go out worrying about who's in the game and who's not. We play for each other. We play the game together.

"We've been doing that all season long. For us it's about competing. When we compete like we need to compete, we're hard to beat."

Quick Take: 49ers at Panthers

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
9:15
PM ET
Three things to know about the San Francisco 49ers' matchup at the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional round at 1:05 p.m. ET Sunday:

1. Rematch: All Colin Kaepernick said about the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night, after the 49ers secured their trip there with a 23-20 win at Green Bay was “we owe them.” The Panthers beat the 49ers in San Francisco, 10-9, on Nov. 10. It was one of the NFL’s most physical games of the season. Both offenses struggled as both teams played brilliant defense. Expect another low-scoring game, although the point total likely will exceed 19 this time around.

2. Young quarterback battle: This will be a terrific national spotlight game for two of the better young quarterbacks in the league, Kaepernick and Carolina's Cam Newton. One of these two quarterbacks is heading to the NFC Championship Game. Newton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Kaepernick, who already has been to one Super Bowl, was taken in the second round.

3. Great linebacking play: The first meeting was highlighted by stellar defensive play, particularly by the inside linebackers. San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly are among the game’s best middle linebackers. Bowman and Kuechly are legitimate NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Expect this matchup to be run through these guys once again.

Four Panthers selected All-Pro

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
2:20
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Four members of the Carolina Panthers were selected to the Associated Press All-Pro teams on Friday.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, center Ryan Kalil and fullback Mike Tolbert were named first team. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who tied the team single-season record for sacks (15), was named to the second team.

Quarterback Cam Newton, who was selected with those four to the Pro Bowl last week, was not named to the team.

It was the first time Kuechly, Tolbert and Hardy were selected to the team. Kalil was named to the second team in 2011.

The three first-team selections tied the team record set in 1996. The 2008 team also had four All-Pros, two on the first team and two on the second.

"All four have worked very hard, have done a great job for us,'' coach Ron Rivera said on Friday. "I am disappointed for a number of guys, though. We had some guys that played well that deserved recognition as well.''

Among those that got snubbed were Newton, left tackle Jordan Gross, safety Mike Mitchell and defensive end Charles Johnson.

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