When the Panthers met for training camp, head coach Ron Rivera walked down the hall of Wofford's Richardson Activities Center introducing himself to players as they were waiting to take their physicals. He didn't know them and they didn't know him.
As the Panthers headed home, they both know a lot more about each other. The players have learned they have a coach who is demanding, straightforward, and intolerant of anything of anything short of maximum effort.
The term "players' coach" can mean many things. In Rivera's case, the past few weeks have revealed a coach who has not forgotten his own playing days. For those currently boasting numbers on their jerseys, that's both good and bad news because Rivera demands no less of them than he demanded of himself as a linebacker on the Chicago Bears championship team.
Rivera's commitment as a player makes it easy to see why his own coach, Mike Ditka, developed a fondness for him. It also makes it no surprise that Rivera brings the same attitude to coaching. Seeing Ron Rivera the coach makes it easy to remember Ron Rivera the player.
In turn, Rivera has found a group of players who are willing to embrace his work ethic. What they lack in experience – there are three fulltime players on the roster over 30 - is made up for in enthusiasm. That attitude was apparent in the preseason opener against the New York Giants when six defenders seemed to find the ball on every play.
How fast they can grasp and master the challenges of the NFL remains to be seen. Without the advantage of mini-camp and organized team activities (an estimated 1,500 practice snaps), the players reported to Spartanburg and received a crash course from the coaches.
The exam will not come until the regular season, but if the preseason opener was a pass/fail test, the Panthers at least did not fall short.
On offense, all three quarterbacks appeared comfortable running the offense. Without two projected starters – wide receivers Steve Smith and David Gettis – the passing game was efficient and got the chunks of yardage that coordinator Rob Chudzinski likes to see with four plays of 30-plus yards.
On the other side of the ball, the Panthers resembled the "no-name" defense without six players who could potentially start in the opener at Arizona. For one night it did not seem to matter as Thomas Williams gave his best Jon Beason imitation, making tackles all over the field, while rookies Sione Fua and Terrell McClain provide the stoutness in the middle of the line that Rivera covets.
Special teams became fun again as Armanti Edwards danced and darted around the field, and the coverage units were indeed special.
Like most teams in this short preseason, the Panthers have also been hit by the harsh realities of the NFL. Defensive tackle Ron Edwards and Gettis, two projected starters, have been lost for the year with injuries. Beason has yet to see the field because of Achilles tendonitis.
But there is a hopeful feeling as the team headed back to Charlotte to resume the preseason. As Rivera has said, training camp is just the first step of a very long journey. For the Panthers, it was a welcomed step forward.