The Carolina Panthers took a giant step forward in 2013 and changed perceptions in the process. Coach Ron Rivera ditched his play-not-to-lose reputation, embracing a "Riverboat Ron" persona reflecting greater comfort with calculated risks. Quarterback Cam Newton grew even if his raw stats did not. The Panthers defense, which allowed 46 touchdowns in 2011 and 33 last season, cut the total to 21.
The No. 1 concern heading into the season -- whether the Panthers had done enough to arm Newton with the weapons to succeed -- faded into the background as a vastly improved defense carried Carolina. The Panthers' 12-4 record and NFC South title validated their approach to team building under first-year general manager Dave Gettleman, but the weaponry issue is on the table again after Carolina's season ended with a 23-10 playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Every look at the Panthers is going to include a sentence along the lines of, "Leading receiver Steve Smith turns 35 in May." Three other wide receivers caught passes for Carolina this season, and all three can become unrestricted free agents. Contract decisions regarding Newton and defensive end Greg Hardy will require resources in the short term and planning for the long term. The Panthers head into the offseason picking 28th in the 2014 NFL draft. Their next challenge is clear.