CHARLOTTE – A record crowd of 55,060 fans showed their love to the Carolina Panthers on Friday night by pouring into Bank of America Stadium for Fan Fest.
And the Panthers, for their part, had the look of a loveable team.
"It really was electric," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We tried to give as good a show as we could based on what we're trying to accomplish as a football team.
"I hope our players realize and recognize what that means. It means there's a group of people who really want to support you and want to get behind you. Now we've got to do our part."
The energetic crowd headed home happy after a glorified training camp practice. Glorified indeed, with quarterback Cam Newton firing up a crowd that tried to bring "The Wave" back in style and with a fireworks/laser lights show of epic proportions to cap the evening.
"I'm loving it," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "This was a game-type atmosphere, and we had a good time tonight. They know what we've got going on, and they're supporting us to the fullest. We're excited and ready to go."
It's still early in the process – the Panthers haven't even played a preseason game yet – but Rivera admitted that his team appears more polished than it was at this point last year. That's exciting for a team coming off its second consecutive NFC South crown.
"We are on track," Rivera said. "I like what I see from our depth. I like what I see from our first bunch.
"We're a little more solidified at positions. Last year at this time we were still trying to figure out who our left tackle was going to be and who our guards were going to be. Now we know. We also have a good feel for our wide receivers, which we didn't last year. We also have a good feel for our defensive backs. Probably the biggest question is whether we're by-committee at right defensive end or not."
The practice was the Panthers' fifth consecutive one wearing full pads, though the team got a day off after the first two. Now they get another day off before returning to Wofford College to resume practices, this time in preparation for the preseason opener August 14 at the Buffalo Bills.
"The nice thing is that it was a dress rehearsal for next week in front of our fans – 50,000-plus, which was awesome," Rivera said. "The energy level has been really good for our guys, and there's a nice break coming up.
"And when we come back, we're going to be in shells to begin with, start to taper off to get our guys a little more fresh going into preseason play."