I’ll never truly get over Super Bowl 50.
Watching Peyton Manning, Von Miller and the rest of the Denver Broncos hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February was a sight I won’t soon forget — and the pain from the Carolina Panthers’ 24-10 loss still lingers.
I’m not sure time will heal that wound, but the anticipation of a new season helps. In the spirit of the Panthers’ rally cry, it’s time to “Keep Pounding” in hopes of finishing the job this season — or in my case, let out a Ric Flair “Woo!”
Tonight signals the start of a new football year as the Panthers start training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Coming off a 15-1 regular season and NFC Championship en route to the Super Bowl loss, you’d be hard pressed to find a season with as much anticipation as this one.
The upcoming season is comparable to 1995 — the inaugural year — and 2004, following the Panthers’ first Super Bowl appearance.
But there’s a different feeling of electricity surrounding this team.
A prime example of that change was evident last week when the team made 60,000 tickets available for its annual FanFest and nearly broke the Internet. Some fans waited nearly four hours to claim tickets for the event. I waited for two hours and called it quits.
Yeah, I think we’re ready for some football.
It’s unfair to expect a similar 15-1 mark this season, but I still expect the Panthers to maintain their dominance in the NFC South and compete among the NFC’s elite.
It’s been 23 years since an NFL team that lost the Super Bowl returned to the big game the following year, but Carolina has the tools to make a run at the title for years to come.
Led by head coach Ron Rivera, the two-time NFL Coach of the Year, the Panthers boast the reigning NFL MVP in quarterback Cam Newton and another superstar in Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly — I’ll take that trio.
The biggest addition to this year’s squad is wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who returns from a knee injury, adding another piece to the league’s highest-scoring offense from last season.
One glaring weakness appears to be the secondary. The void left by cornerback Josh Norman is clear, but second-round pick James Bradberry — donning Norman’s familiar No. 24 — seems to have the inside track on replacing him. Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez were also drafted to help bolster the secondary.
Despite the changes in the secondary, a dominant linebacking corps — Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson — and strong defensive line should be enough to keep the Panthers among the top teams defensively.
The journey starts tonight with the first practice at Wofford College’s Gibbs Stadium.
It leads to Sep. 8, when the Panthers open the regular season against the Broncos in a Super Bowl rematch. Game on.
Rodd Baxley can be reached 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.