PHOENIX – Having spent his entire playing and coaching career on the defensive side of the football before being named Carolina's head coach four years ago, Ron Rivera naturally gravitates toward discussing his dynamic defenders.
That certainly was part of the story Wednesday morning at the conclusion of the NFL Annual Meeting, when Rivera addressed the media for nearly an hour during the NFC Coaches Breakfast. Coming off the defense's third consecutive top-10 ranking and not coincidentally the Panthers' second consecutive NFC South championship, Rivera was excited about the unit.
He was excited about the re-signing of defensive tackles Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards and the potential flashed late last season by then-rookie defensive end Kony Ealy. He was excited about his recent run-in with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei at Sam's Club, during which he learned Lotulelei had just received a positive report on his recovery from a foot injury that caused him to miss the NFC Divisional Playoff. And, of course, Rivera was excited to talk about defensive leaders Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson.
But, as it turned out, Rivera was at least as excited to talk about Carolina's offense, a unit that hasn't ranked as high statistically the last couple of seasons but one he sees trending in a positive direction as the Panthers aim to ascend from division champions to conference champions to Super Bowl champions.
Not surprisingly, much of the offensive discussion revolved around quarterback Cam Newton, but Rivera also hit on those charged with taking handoffs and catching passes from Newton, as well as those protecting Newton from opposing defenses.
Rivera said that in an ideal world, he'd like for the Panthers to reach a long-term contract agreement with Newton sooner rather than later. But Rivera's focus is far removed from whether Newton plays the entire 2015 season under his fifth-year option or a new deal.
Rivera suspects that Newton feels the same.
"He's the kind of guy that's able to focus on the game and put other things aside," Rivera said. "That's a work in progress right now. I have all the confidence in (general manager) Dave Gettleman and his guys and in Cam and his people that something positive will get done."
Speaking of positive, Rivera reveled in a recent conversation he had with Newton.
"Talking to him the other day, I asked him how he was feeling. He said, 'Coach, this is best I've felt in a long time,' " Rivera said. "That was good to hear, I'll tell you that right now. That's good news. He's had an opportunity to take a rest and go back to school to finish up, which I think is an awesome thing."
On the heels of an injury-riddled year in which Newton somehow missed just two games and helped rally the Panthers to an improbable playoff berth, Rivera can't wait to see Newton work to carry over the momentum from last season's late push.
"We want to see him pick up right where he left off," Rivera said. "One of the things we did to help him once he was healthy was to institute a no-huddle, up-tempo look, and he seemed to handle that really well. Now we can continue to hone that skill for him and for us as a football team.
"I do expect to see him take another step as he continues to work on his position-specific skills and techniques. He relies so much on his great athleticism that sometimes he's not as sound as he needs to be with his fundamentals. That's the next step."
Jonathan Stewart finished 2014 with a flourish as well, one of a number of factors that contributed to the difficult decision to release DeAngelo Williams, the franchise's all-time leading rusher.
"We had to talk about the direction we needed to head and what we wanted to do," Rivera said. "Age, salary – we had to take into consideration a lot of things before we made that decision."
Change-of-pace back Fozzy Whittaker and bulldozing fullback Mike Tolbert are poised to help Stewart carry the load, but don't be surprised if the Panthers add another option.
"I think it's been proven that you've got to have a good two-back tandem. That's what we're looking for – for that complement to Jonathan," Rivera said. "Jonathan will carry the bulk of what we do going into the 2015 season, but at the same time we want to make sure we have a guy waiting in the wings. If Jonathan gets 15 carries, you'd love for the other guy to get eight to 10, and then remember that we've got to spread the ball to Fozzy and give the ball to Michael Tolbert as well, because they're very capable players."
With the Panthers producing a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in the same season for the first time since 1999, Rivera is ecstatic about the contract extension signed by tight end Greg Olsen and anxious to find out what wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin will do as an encore to his remarkable rookie season.
"At tight end, I'm glad that we got Greg taken care of, got Ed (Dickson) taken care of. We got those guys back in the fold right away," Rivera said. "Kelvin is just scratching the surface. He's got so much growth and potential left. He understands that, and there are a group of guys around him that are going to push him in that direction to help him become even better."
Rivera likes the receiving corps as a whole, with the steadying influence of veteran Jerricho Cotchery as well as the move to bring back speedster Ted Ginn, Jr. Ginn will contribute along with emerging threat Corey Brown, whom Rivera called "a waterbug-type that can make the quick catch underneath and make people miss."
He is also intrigued by Stephen Hill, a former 2012 second-round draft choice by the New York Jets who spent last season on Carolina's practice squad.
"With his size and speed and ability to get vertical, if he can assimilate to what we do – and I think he can, because he's a very smart young man - he might be a guy who could have an opportunity to contribute for us," Rivera said.
The learning of the Panthers' offensive system certainly benefitted the line during their end-of-season charge, and Rivera believes new left tackle Michael Oher's familiarity with offensive line coach John Matsko's methods will pay dividends.
Over the final month of an injury-filled season up front that featured eight different starting combinations and impacted everyone except four-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the experience gained by rookie guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner early on and the prior experience of right guard Mike Remmers came to bear.
With the injured contributors on the mend, the experience and level of competition should increase still more.
"Certain things happened, because guys had to play earlier than expected," Rivera said. "Having Andrew Norwell out there was unexpected, but he did a great job and developed as the year went on. Trai getting healthy and coming back on the field, having played early on helped him. And Mike Remmers, we knew about him because he had been with Coach (Norv) Turner in San Diego, so I knew that he knew the system.
"Now getting Nate (Chandler) back healthy and Amini (Silatolu) back healthy, we'll have a very competitive situation. I would love to see that group of guys that ended the season come back together and gel quickly, but nothing is a given. We've got some guys who were starters at the beginning of the year who played well enough that they'll be able to contribute and be a part of it."