Why does it seem like everyone is underrating us this year? – Benjamin in Raeford, N.C.
First off, I would say that not everyone is down on the Panthers' chances as the kickoff to the regular season fast approaches. Three of eight analysts at cbssports.com picked the Panthers to beat the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1. But on the whole, I agree with your sentiment. None of seven analysts at the site picked the Panthers to finish in the top half of the NFC South.
I also understand some of the reasons for the doubt. The Panthers drew the toughest schedule in the NFL based on last year's win-loss records, and they must face that schedule as members of the NFC South, arguably the only division in football devoid of a weak link. In 2012, no team in the South finished worse than 7-9. Other observers have trouble showing faith in the Panthers given that they've yet to win consistently with Cam Newton under center and Ron Rivera at the helm.
While I understand these arguments, I don't automatically agree with them, mainly because they're all rooted in the past. This time last year, few people put a lot of stock in the Seahawks, Redskins, Colts or Vikings because of what they had (or rather hadn't) done in 2011. That's human nature, but that's not the true nature of the NFL, where every year is decidedly different than the previous one.
Trying to predict how things will turn out is fruitless, but if you're going to try, the best way is to take a close look at the team itself. When I do that with the Panthers, I like what I see. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what I think or what the national analysts think. What matters is what happens.
With the way Josh Norman has been playing, why isn't he getting playing time with the first team? – Bob in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Norman had a great preseason, intercepting four passes while no one else in the NFL picked off more than two. He returned one of them for a touchdown.
The second-year pro has shown obvious growth, but statistics don't always tell the whole story. His first interception of the preseason against the Chicago Bears highlighted that growth, when he made a nice read on a pass over the middle and made a great break on the ball and a tough catch. On the other three, Norman definitely gets credit for being in the right spot and securing the pick, but given the flight of the ball those were all plays that anyone in his shoes would be expected to make.
Norman has admitted that while he's made progress in zone coverage, there is still more work to be done. He's earned a role for himself after being benched late last season, but leading the league in preseason interceptions doesn't automatically equate to a starting spot.
The Panthers signed several players who played against them last year (Chase Blackburn, Domenik Hixon, Mike Mitchell). Does the team get scouting info from them related to how they game-planned the Panthers? – Marc in Columbia, S.C.
Coaches take advantage of every source of information at their disposal, and that certainly is one. Beyond providing insight on how their former teams game-planned for the Panthers, newly arriving players can offer insight on how the Panthers can game-plan for their former teams.
Following Monday's signing of veteran safety Quintin Mikell, head coach Ron Rivera pointed out Mikell's recent experience with the NFC West and AFC East – divisions that Carolina faces this season. Mikell played for the St. Louis Rams last season, when the Rams played the AFC East.
I still remember tight end Jeremy Shockey's zeal when the Panthers played his former team, the New Orleans Saints, in 2011. I don't suspect that Mikell will be quite as demonstrative when the Rams come to Charlotte in Week 7 or that Blackburn or Hixon will be when the Giants visit in Week 3, but they no doubt can help behind the scenes.
During the 1996 season, the Panthers had a duo called "Salt and Pepper." I know Kevin Greene was the salt but I say Lamar Lathon was the pepper while my husband says Sam Mills was the pepper. Could you please tell us the answer? - Angie in Clover, S.C.
The saying goes that the woman is always right.
Greene and Lathon adopted the nickname after announcing their presence by combining for five sacks in a season-opening victory over the Atlanta Falcons. In the first regular season game played at Ericcson Stadium, Lathon recorded three sacks and Greene – in his first game as a Panther – collected two.
They went on to finish first and second in the NFL in sacks – Greene with 14.5 and Lathon with 13.5. They accounted for nearly half of the Panthers' NFL-best 60 sacks, and both made the Pro Bowl as a result.
Mills makes sense as pepper (as in "peppermill"), and he had an outstanding season as well, leading the team with 138 tackles and producing a career-high 5.5 sacks to also earn a Pro Bowl trip. Mills brought a lot to the table, just not the salt or pepper.