CHARLOTTE – General manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera expected the 2014 season to be a challenging one.
"We had a feeling 2014 was going to be hard," Rivera said.
Gettleman's message throughout the offseason consistently cited the difficult nature of Carolina's salary cap situation.
"I told you guys last year at the post-season presser that we were going to struggle, and it was economic driven," Gettleman said.
Economics contributed to an offseason full of difficult roster decisions. That was expected.
But no one anticipated the myriad of challenges that struck once the season kicked off.
"We had a season that you couldn't make up," Gettleman said, shaking his head.
A firm believer in the motto "defense wins championships," Gettleman felt it was imperative to bring back Carolina's entire front seven in 2014.
"That's why we made the decision to franchise Greg (Hardy)," Gettleman explained, "and, obviously, it blew up."
After playing one game, the Pro Bowl defensive end was placed on the exempt / commissioner's permission list.
"Obviously, it had an impact," Gettleman said. "That was an incredibly difficult situation."
Franchise quarterback Cam Newton's offseason began with ankle surgery, which forced him to miss OTAs. Then suffered fractured ribs in the preseason. When Newton began hitting his stride late in the year, he suffered two fractures in his back during a traumatic car accident.
"Step back and think about his year," Gettleman said. "I'm not making excuses, I'm talking about reality – putting the whole season together."
At 3-8-1, the Panthers' list of injuries was mounting and youth was tested.
They fought through it all. And not only did they finish the season with dignity, they finished it by becoming the first franchise to claim back-to-back NFC South titles. Carolina won its first playoff game since 2005 before bowing out to the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round.
"It was one hell of an accomplishment given what we've been through," Gettleman said. "I'm just really excited about what we have to work with and where we're going."
And the well-documented cap situation is heading in the right direction.
"We are in a better place right now than we were a year ago," Gettleman said. "We have younger talent under contract, and it's young talent that everyone in Charlotte should be excited about."
NEED FOR SPEED: Upgrading team speed is a priority this offseason. Gettleman and Rivera both made that clear.
"We'd like to get faster," Gettleman said. "We need more speed, we know that. We're not silly. We're not going to miss the obvious."
Rookie wide receiver Philly Brown brought the kind of speed Carolina seeks and the same goes for rookie defensive backs Tre Boston and Bene Benwikere. But both sides of the ball need more.
DEEPER POCKETS: Gettleman isn't one to splurge in free agency, but the Panthers will have the resources to be more active in the free agent market this offseason.
"Last year, we were shopping at the dollar store," Gettleman said with a smile. "I think this year we might be able to move up a class a little bit.
"It's about evaluation and looking at what's there."
LOOKING AT LEFT TACKLE: After spending the first three years of his career primarily at right tackle, Byron Bell played left tackle for Carolina in 2014.
Bell is one of 17 potential free agents heading into the offseason, and the left tackle position – like all others – will be carefully evaluated.
"Byron showed flashes. It's about consistency. I give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, because it was his first year playing there," Gettleman said. "It's the body of work. It's what he did over the season. We are going to evaluate. Nobody is getting a free pass."
"If a player shows up that we think makes us better," Gettleman added, "we are going to go get him."
WHAT'S NEXT FOR WILLIAMS?: Gettleman commended running back DeAngelo Williams for enduring a "tough season." Carolina's all-time leading rusher missed 10 games with ankle and hand injuries, and Williams lost his mother to breast cancer in May.
"The loss of his mom was very, very difficult," Gettleman said. "He only played six games this year. It was tough for him.
"He's a pro's pro. And the way he finished the season – he finished it like a man. And I'm proud of the way he finished."
As for Williams' future with the team, that's to be determined.
"I need to talk to DeAngelo," Gettleman said.