CHARLOTTE – Given the tremendous success his team enjoyed last season, and given the fact that his team is trying to become the first since the 1993 Buffalo Bills to make a return appearance to the Super Bowl one year after falling short, will head coach Ron Rivera push the Panthers harder than he ever has in training camp?
Rivera took a moment to ponder that question.
"Will I be harder on them? I don't know if I'll be harder on them," Rivera said. "I'm going to try to be myself. But I do know how good they can be, and I have to push the right buttons and make sure I'm not allowing them to become complacent.
"The challenge for me as a head coach is trying to find out what 'it' is for this team. What can I do, how can I get these guys charged up and ready to roll?"
Rivera doesn't want success to create comfort for his football team. After winning a third consecutive division title and reeling off 14 straight wins en route to Super Bowl 50, the Panthers know how good they are.
Rivera needs them to understand how much better they can be. Because if they don't improve, if they don't take steps forward, opponents will pass them by.
During his offseason break, Rivera visited with several men in the coaching fraternity. Among them: Tom Flores, two-time Super Bowl winning head coach, and Tony La Russa, three-time World Series winning manager. Rivera also thought about the way Mike Ditka used to constantly push those Bears teams on which he played.
But it was his annual visit with Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach John Madden that solidified Rivera's approach to the 2016 season.
"The biggest thing I got from all the people I visited, John Madden said it to me, 'When the season is over you start at 0-0, and that's a big ladder to climb. Ron, start with the base fundamentals and work your way up. Because a lot of teams think they can show up, and being who they are is good enough for wins. That just doesn't happen.'"
The foundation is in place for Carolina to be a contender once again. The league's top scoring offense from a year ago returns the entire starting lineup – a rarity in today's NFL – and it gets wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back after a year on injured reserve.
"I don't expect them to just pick up where they left off," Rivera said of the offense led by reigning MVP Cam Newton. "They'll learn from last year, and I expect constant improvement during camp. They've got the rapport and the camaraderie. I expect them to show consistency right off the bat."
On the defensive side of the ball, Rivera has reason to feel good about his talented front seven. The biggest questions reside in the secondary, where three rookie cornerbacks – James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez – are hoping to provide answers.
"I don't want to see them make a big play and then give up a touchdown," Rivera said of the rookie trio. "I want to see these guys show improvement every time they get on the field, and I want to see them compete. They did some things in OTAs and minicamp that let me know it wasn't too big for them, and that's always encouraging."
There is excitement in the unknown across the NFL this time of year. Rivera, entering his sixth training camp as head coach of the Panthers, is energized by the challenge and looks to forward to climbing the ladder once again.
"There's the excitement of starting anew, starting fresh again," Rivera said. "Truth of the matter is, we are all starting on the same footing again. Last year is truly over. There is no more offseason, just the preseason."