Dayton Fliers: Greater expectations

Like the wind, expectations can change without warning.

Five weeks ago, the immediate expectations for Ron Rivera, Cam Newton, and the Carolina Panthers were as light as a training camp summer breeze in Spartanburg.

Now, the color of the leaves is not the only thing changing with the arrival of fall.

While Rivera and Newton are the focus of the shift in attitude, the winds started rustling with general manager Marty Hurney, who, along with team president Danny Morrison, identified Rivera after a fast-break coaching search following the season.

Then Hurney and Rivera sorted through the multiple layers of fact and fiction surrounding Newton, ultimately coming to their conclusion: He is exceptional both as a young man and as a football player. Only time will tell how good Newton proves to be, but a decision many saw as a risk a few months ago does not look so risky now.

Nor do the Panthers look like the desolate bunch some described them as during the summer. Given their 2-14 record in 2010 and a labor situation that eliminated mini-camps and OTAs, pessimistic views were understandable.

When Carolina went to training camp after the lockout, Rivera was introducing himself to players for the first time as they waited to take their physicals. Playing a game, even a preseason game, two weeks later was a challenging proposition.

Yet, the Panthers worked their way through the preseason, winning one, losing three that few really remember. Along the way, the team did little to dissuade those who regarded them among the worst teams in the league. High expectations were low on the list of concerns.

That has changed in less than a month. The Panthers still have much work to do, but the perception of the team's future is far different than in July.

The role of head coach is still new to Rivera – he admits that being in charge has required adjustments – but it is a role he has embraced. The transition has been eased by the emergence of Newton, but others have responded as well.

A rejuvenated Steve Smith has three 150-yard receiving games in the first quarter of the season. Newton also has been helped by a pair of new tight ends in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, who bring a dimension to the passing game that hasn't been present since the days of Wesley Walls.

So it is with early signs of progress that the Panthers find themselves preparing to line up against the battletested New Orleans Saints, who have been to the mountaintop as Super Bowl winners. At 1-3, Rivera and hisstaff know that moral victories don't count in the standings.

How many games the Panthers win in 2011 is anyone's guess. At the beginning of the year, their schedule rated as the most difficult in the NFL, and little has happened to change that.

But the expectations of how the Panthers might meet the challenge have grown as the team has shown a spark few saw six weeks ago. And for Panthers fans, a revitalized excitement brings some hope that the winds of change keep blowing in the right direction.

Director of Communications Charlie Dayton has worked 34 years in the NFL. Before joining the Panthers in 1994, he was VP of Communications for the Washington Redskins. Dayton has worked on the NFL media staff for 25 Super Bowls, is a past winner of the Horrigan Award and was recently recognized with the National Association of Black Journalists Merit Award.

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