SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- If there is one team in the league that can use the lockout as an excuse, it's the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers are learning a new offense and a new defense under first-year coach Ron Rivera. They also have a rookie quarterback and a second-year quarterback vying for their starting job.
Yet with no minicamps and no OTAs, the Panthers are well behind some of the other teams it the league.
"I think that's an excuse," Panthers receiver Steve Smith said. "I don’t think we're at a disadvantage. We have a lot more to input in a short period of time. In this business, they expect you to perform on the field."
Rivera said this accelerated implementation of his systems might actually help his team down the road.
"I really think going through this can make us better," Rivera said. "Maybe I'm optimistic. This is the type of thing that if we can conquer this, it will make us better. We will have had to learn under duress. If we can grow and learn, and complete the process, I think it will make it better. If people handle adversity, it will make them better."
The Panthers seem to have far more teaching during their practices than did some of the other teams with veteran coaches I've watched this summer.
"Here we are, eight or nine days into training camp, and I think we've done a great job," Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said. 'We almost have it all in. Coach is throwing a lot at us, but guys are handling it."
---The Panthers were predictable under former coach John Fox. They were run-centric, which meant they pounded the football and tried to play good defense. That was frustrating at times for fans -- and for Smith. The new offense, under coordinator Rob Chudzinski, has the veteran receiver invigorated. "It's more complex," Smith said. "I feel like it's when you play out on the street. You have a guy going deep, you have a guy in the middle and you have a guy short. A lot of times (in the past), we had a lot of guys going deep and a check-down to the flat. There are a lot of layers to it, and I feel that puts the defense in a bind. You can't hone in on one guy." That has mostly been Smith. He has seen a ton of doubles in the past 10 years. This offense could help him see more single coverage, which could lead to more production. Smith's catches have dropped from 78 to 65 to 46 the past three seasons. "I have to study," Smith said. "It's a big challenge." Smith considered the idea of leaving Carolina, but that, he said, is behind him now. "The decision was made, the door is shut and I'm walking forward," he said. "I'm not happy. I'm not upset. I'm not mad. I opened the door, walked through it, and shut it behind me. And that's all I'm going to do. Some people will think that's a bowl of BS. I look forward. I don't look behind."
---The one position the Panthers have issues at right now is cornerback. Chris Gamble, expected to be their top corner, hasn't practiced because of troubles with his stomach. The other corner right now is Captain Munnerlyn. Look for the Panthers to try and get a veteran corner to come in and help out.
---The Panthers gave defensive end Charles Johnson a six-year, $72-million deal that opened a lot of eyes around the league. Johnson, who had 11 1/2 sacks and 27 pressures last season, was considered the top defensive end on the free-agent market, but some general managers were shocked by what he was paid. "He's been unbelievable," Rivera said. "He's been a dynamic leader in that room."
---With defensive tackle Ron Edwards likely out for the year with a triceps injury, look for the Panthers to also take a look at some veterans at that spot. Rookie Sione Fua is currently working with the first team at that spot. A player who has impressed in camp is second-year player Corvey Irvin, who is running with the first team next to Fua.
---The return to health of right tackle Jeff Otah, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will really upgrade the offensive line. With Ryan Kalil at center and Jordan Gross at left tackle, the Panthers are good at those three spots. The guards are solid, which will give Carolina a top-notch offensive line.
---By trading to get Greg Olsen and signing Jeremy Shockey, the Panthers have two good receiving tight ends. Olsen has been the more impressive in camp, but look for a lot of double-tight packages with those two.