CHARLOTTE – The Panthers didn't have a good start last season, but they have a good starting point for next season.
That essentially was head coach Ron Rivera's assessment of a year that had plenty of ups and downs but ended with plenty of high notes.
"If you only look at the first 12 weeks, then a lot of us should be thrown out on our ear. But when you look at the whole season and break down the last six, all of a sudden things look a lot better," Rivera said. "Even though we did take a step back initially, we went ahead and took a step-and-a-half forward and another step in the playoffs.
"Now we've got to take another step, and hopefully it's a big step. That's what we're working toward and are getting ourselves in positon for."
The Panthers, facing major changes along the offensive line, in the secondary and at wide receiver entering the 2014 season, started 3-8-1. But they closed the regular season 4-0 when they found answers in each of those areas to become the first team to claim back-to-back NFC South titles. Carolina followed with the franchise's first playoff victory in nine years before succumbing to the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in an NFC Divisional Playoff.
Following Saturday night's loss, Rivera didn't even touch down in Charlotte before turning the page to the 2015 season.
"I'm excited about it. I got off the airplane excited about it," Rivera said. "When I had the opportunity to talk to the team, it really was about going forward more than anything else."
In order to move forward with the best plan possible, Rivera is looking back on the Panthers' crazy journey that was the 2014 season. Almost immediately after the loss, he began evaluating why the Panthers were able to finish so strong. Next, he will look into how to best carry it over and actually build upon it.
Given some things that happened last offseason - from the retirement of longtime left tackle Jordan Gross and the release of wide receiver Steve Smith to salary cap constraints that led to losing some key cogs and made it harder to afford new ones - Rivera wasn't surprised the team initially took a step back.
The step was made steeper by quarterback Cam Newton's injury issues, defensive end Greg Hardy's legal issues and then a series of injuries that rocked an already fragile offensive line and defensive backfield. But once the Panthers found stability along the offensive front and some answers in the form of young players in the secondary, they recaptured the form that led to a 12-4 record the previous season.
"We took a little bit of a step back after 2013 because we had to. We had a feeling 2014 was going to be very hard, but we didn't expect it to be as crazy as it was," Rivera said. "We had 16 different players that came in and became a part of what we do. Well, it takes awhile to develop that cohesion that you want, the ability to work together as a football team.
"But it came at the right time. Let's be honest – 3-8-1 did not look very attractive, but the month of December into January was a lot better. From the first 12 weeks to the last six - on offense, defense and special teams - we got better."
Now Rivera, in concert with general manager Dave Gettleman, is working to unearth all the triggers to the turnaround and how to put them in effect at the start of next season rather than in the middle.
"That's the thing I want to focus on: What did we do? What happened here and why?" Rivera said. "Those are the things I've looked at since Sunday and that Dave and I have talked about and will continue to talk about.
"We're going to find answers and solutions and we're going to coach it better and learn it better and execute it better. We're going to become better."