LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The competitive landscape of the National Football League is often as volatile as the action itself.
A team can reverse course and go from bottom of its division to one of the league’s best in the space of one season.
The Carolina Panthers are hoping to be that turnaround team this season just as the Dallas Cowboys experienced that high in 2016, when they went from last in the NFC East standings to a 13-3 campaign guided by rookie stars Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
The Panthers, following a near perfect 15-1 record in 2015 that earned the franchise a trip to the Super Bowl and quarterback Cam Newton the regular season most valuable player trophy, tumbled to 6-10 to finish 2016 in last place in the NFC South.
Expectations are much higher this season.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is drawing plenty of off-season praise, and the team is committed to a philosophy of running the football and taking pressure off Newton.
“That’s Carolina football,” said Newton of running the ball. “We can give a lot of fluff every now and then, but to see (our backs) running downhill at you and having our offensive line on the second level, that’s how we can set the tone.” Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey will help cement the plan and give the team a new dynamic.
The Panthers are also hoping to avoid injuries to key players. Newton seemingly spent the entire 2016 season banged up, while Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly(concussion) missed six games and center Ryan Kalil (shoulder) had to be placed on injured reserve. But Carolina is not the only team that fits the profile of a sudden upswing. The Philadelphia Eagles were last in the NFC East at 7-9 in 2016 but they check many of the boxes of a new contender: improving young quarterback in Carson Wentz paired with talented acquisitions like receivers Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and running back LeGarrette Blount.
“We’re going to be in a lot of close games. That’s the nature of the NFL,” Wentz said. “We have to find a way to win those close games.”
Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles, editing by Gene Cherry and Andrew Both