CHARLOTTE – Panthers head coach Ron Rivera plans to use the final month of the season to further evaluate young talent on the roster, all while still trying to win games.
While Rivera certainly could use some victories to strengthen his job status, he believes the approach is the best thing for a 3-9 team regardless of his situation.
"As we go forward, you can say that, yes, we've played some young guys and have seen some good things and know that some of them can play as we look forward to next year. That's a big plus," Rivera said.
"People might say, 'You're just getting them ready for the next coach.' Well, I look at it like I'm getting them ready for me. I could be wrong but I'm not going to worry about that. I'm going to worry about these next four games, and then going forward we'll see what happens."
With running back Christian McCaffrey inactive for Sunday's 27-21 loss at the Kansas City Chiefs, the Panthers activated rookie safety D.J. Campbell. In addition to playing special teams, Campbell saw his first action of the season on defense when Sherrod Martin left the game in the second quarter with an knee injury that likely will end his season and result in more playing time for Campbell.
Rookie wide receiver Joe Adams had his first reception and first rushing attempt against the Chiefs, and young players like Nate Chandler on the defensive line and Josh Thomas in the secondary continued to see significant snaps.
"It is about winning, don't get me wrong, because we'll try to win every game we play. But at the same time, you've also got to be able to deal with these young guys," Rivera said. "If you don't play these guys, you go into next year with the same question marks.
"If the young guys play well, that's a good sign. We have to find out what these guys are capable of going forward."
Rivera already has seen the limitless capabilities of some young players. Linebacker Luke Kuechly hasn't played like a rookie, and fellow rookies James Bradberry at cornerback and Frank Alexander at defensive end have made solid contributions throughout. Kuechly leads the team in tackles; Norman has started every game; and Alexander is a key member of the defensive line rotation.
On offense, second-year quarterback Cam Newton has played beyond his years in recent weeks. In the last three games, Newton has thrown six touchdowns with no interceptions and has rushed for two touchdowns.
"Our quarterback has played very well," Rivera said. "His outlook on things and the way he's perceiving things and the way he's handled himself has been outstanding.
"He's played very well - well enough to give us chances to win – and we've got to take advantage of those. We haven't played as well on the defensive side."
Regardless of the mix of youth and experience on the field, the Panthers are struggling to play consistently well on both sides of the ball, but they're playing well enough at times.
Young or old, the time to put it all together is now.
"It is about trying to win these football games and trending up. That's pretty much it," Rivera said. "We've got an opportunity to play Atlanta (on Sunday) and later to play New Orleans – teams in our division – and those are opportunities to send messages and show what we can do.
"That's why we're playing, and we'll go out and play hard."