Despite the possibility of inclement weather and oppressive heat 15,000 fans came to get a glimpse of the 2011-12 Carolina Panthers at their annual Fan Fest event Saturday afternoon.
Because of the shortened offseason, Head Coach Ron Rivera deviated a bit from the traditional Fan Fest lineup, which included a controlled scrimmage between the offensive and defensive units. Instead, Rivera used the day to install more plays.
Still, the energy was high — both in the stands and on the field.
“I was thrilled. I really was,” said Rivera on his first Panthers Fan Fest experience. “Our players responded to the energy that was out there that our fans brought. Just before we went on the field, I talked to the guys about establishing this as our house, this is our territory. When you come here, you’re going to know you played here. And we’re going to do some stuff to get our fans into. I was really excited about the way they (the fans) responded to our guys and the way our guys responded to them. That really got me fired up, and I know it helped our guys. This was a practice with a lot of energy, a good tempo. We did some good things. We had to slow it down a couple of times because of the heat and we had a couple of guys get a little tired because we had some number issues with some injuries. But for the most part I thought they handled it very well.”
Fans gave rookie QB a loud ovation when he took the field and then once again when he began the 11 on 11 team exercises. Newton didn’t disappoint, threading tight spirals right into place and hitting streaking receivers in stride with regularity.
The fans weren’t the only ones excited.
“I get excited when I see him (Cam) out there,” Rivera said. “You do a lot of work and you try to find positives and things to build on. When you see that from your guys, you get excited about them when they have success, and he’s no different from any of our other guys. I got excited when I saw Steve Smith make the play that he did today. I got excited when I saw Greg Olsen as well and some of the decisions Jimmy made throwing the ball downfield. Right now, we’re in the throes of developing a team in terms of guys making plays. I was yelling on the field that playmakers make plays, and that’s what’s exciting about it. We have some guys right now that are stepping up. But we’ve got a ways to go though. Right now, we’re doing some things individually that are terrific but we want to make sure we’re doing those things within the scheme. Defensively, we did some really good things today. Our blitz package really showed. I was real pleased with (defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott with what he decided. One thing we did today was to call it up. Chud called his offense accordingly; Sean called his defense accordingly to how he would in a game. I was really pleased with the way they both handled it and I was real pleased with what we did defensively with some the blitz schemes as well. Our guys are getting it, they’re beginning to understand, and that’s probably the most important thing. But, again, we do have a ways to go. Once we learn and understand exactly where we need to be, I think you’ll see an exciting, dynamic team.”
Fans got a good glimpse of third round pick Terrell McClain blowing up Panther offensive linemen as well as one of the newest Panthers, receiver Legedu Naanee, for the first time.
“I thought Naanee came in and picked up right where he left off when he was in San Diego,” Rivera said. “Chud (Rob Chudzinski) and I have experience with the young man, and he’s got a great feel for what we do offensively. I think he’s going to help us. The young guys that we have that are working to be receivers for us can learn from a guy like that with that kind of experience, having played on playoff teams, teams with winning records, and I think that’s important.”
Several Panthers players sat out the afternoon. WRs Charly Martin, Brandon LaFell, David Gettis and Trent Guy all watched from the sidelines. C Ryan Kalil, LBs Jon Beason and Dan Connor and CBs Chris Gamble, Robert McClain and Captain Munnerlyn all had the day off for various reasons also.
Coach Rivera said there was still a lot left to learn before the season starts.
“Under the old system, we would have had a mini-camp, which would have been five practices, 14 OTAs and then five more (practices) with our second mini-camp,” Coach Rivera said about the ongoing installation of the playbook. “That’s 24 practices that we’ve missed. Then being limited as we are now with the new practice regiment, we’re obviously behind. To put a number on it would be very unfair, especially if I miss that number. As we prepare, and I’ve talked with Chud and I’ve talked with Sean and I’ve talked with Brian (special teams coordinator Brian Murphy), it’s all about our base fundamentals. We’ve got to do what we do and be fundamentally sound and understand that we have to take steps. And the first step right now is to get through all of our basic installations, and today was just another one of those basic installations. We’re at a point where we haven’t even had a chance to do goal line, backed up, four-minute offense, short yardage. We’ve had to focus on the meat of we think you’re going to be into, and that’s the third downs, red zone. Get that part of the game down first, and then we can start focusing on the rest of it – four-minute, short yardage, goal line. Those are the things that suffer because you don’t get that opportunity to get those extra practices.
“We’re a little bit behind, but everybody else is. We just keep going forward.”